There Once Was | Newberry

There Once Was

I was meandering among the Interwebs this week, wondering if there were any literary events which needed to be commemorated in 2020. I have already covered a number of fiftieth and hundredth anniversary, so at random, I checked to see if anything worth remembering happened in 1820.

Nothing particularly stirred my imagination until I ran across a citation which said that 1820 was the presumed date of publication of a short book of rather undistinguished poetry, The History of Sixteen Wonderful old Women, published in London by J. Harris. The poet (unknown) is now dead, and I’d nearly moved on when I read one more sentence which I knew at once (with a sigh) would make words dance around in my head.

Yes, that little book is one of the unsung classics of literature, because dozens of experts claim it is the book which introduced the verse form we now call a limerick. The limerick is five line humorous poem with a vaguely uniform AABBA rhyme scheme, and a design which calls vaguely for seven syllables in the first, second, and fifth lines, and five in the third and fourth. (I tried to point out to one of these experts that some of the best known limericks do not come anywhere near the 77557 metric straitjacket, and finished up about as I always do when I try to argue with an expert.)

Other experts insist that a limerick which is not obscene is no true limerick, but I’d like this column to stay up on the website for a while. In any case, this book, which was part of a cabinet of small books for children, is fairly tame that way.

There liv’d an Old Woman at Lynn

Whose nose very near touched her chin,

You may easy suppose

She had plenty of Beaux;

This charming Old Woman of Lynn.

Limericks are also supposed to be funny. This is a LITTLE funnier if you can see the picture, but not a lot. Anyway, it was a wild jest compared to most of the books being handed to children in 1820. You will note that there is no moral lesson here, nothing to be learned about grammar, and in fact almost nothing a child could pick up except how to write indifferent verse. (Using “liv’d” instead of “lived” is a bit of poetic practice much valued at the time…at least by so-so poets.)

In any case, the book was a hit, and the publisher followed it up with a similar book about Fifteen Young Ladies and another about Fifteen Young Gentlemen (which is said to have been an inspiration to Edward Lear, who took the limerick to new levels of eccentricity.)

So I think you should go and scribble down a few limericks yourself in honor of the Bicentennial, even though this, like everything else about the limerick, is subject to wild dissent. Other books and other authors have been given the credit, going back to the seventeenth century, and when you finish arguing about that, you can argue about why it’s called a Limerick. (The Irish town of Limerick is happy to associate with the poems—when not too scurrilous—but the jury of experts feel the name of the poem is a reference to a once popular song called Will Ye Not Come to Limerick, perhaps a slang expression meaning “Will you get to the point?”)

Chicago has some claim to a place in the history of the limerick, as the longtime home of the Society of the Fifth Line, a group dedicated to (in this order) writing limericks and studying them (I believe drinking fits in there somewhere as well) and the home of Ray Billington, historian of the American West and avid collector of limericks. (In fact, one of the late twentieth century masters of the limerick, Edward Gorey, spent some time in Chicago, too, though I don’t know if you can trace this in his grimericks.)

So let’s celebrate, at least to the extent of five lines. Your verse could deal with current events (A Man in a Quarantine Visor) or something local (A Researcher at the Newberry) or something timeless and ageless (I see that you’re wearing no pants). But let’s all salute those Sixteen Wonderful Old Women and their author, who set an example to future limerick writers by remaining anonymous.