On my way to work this morning I heard a ‘comedian’ on the radio reciting a limerick. Not only was it not funny, it wasn’t properly a limerick. A nicely constructed limerick is an elegant gem of amusing poetry and the thing he coughed up was a leaden lump of clangourous word globs.

Herewith some rules for writing limericks:

The proper scan for a limerick is (where ‘a’ is a weak emphasis, and ‘B’, a strong):

a B a a B a a B (There was an old man with a beard)
a B a a B a a B (Who said ‘It is just as I feared…)
a B a a B (Two owls and a hen,)
a B a a B (Four larks and a wren)
a B a a B a a B (Have all built their nests in my beard!’)

There are some variations on the syllabic structure, but this is basically the plot. It’s really simple and you can easily feel it by clapping on the strong syllable (of course, to limerick writers this is the equivalent of moving your lips while reading to yourself, but I feel that if people started out by doing the clapping we would have far fewer terrible limericks in the world).

How, then, do people get it wrong so often? Consider:

There once was a young lady from Spain

This is incorrect. Can you see how it screws with the meter? You need to say either:

There was a young lady from Spain


There once was a lady from Spain

It is important to get the meter right in a limerick because that is one of the rules. You can’t just bandy any old thing about. Why? Because then it’s not a limerick. If you decide that you wish to change the rules, fine, but don’t introduce your effort as a limerick, but as a bad poem, which is what it will surely be.

Some other tips for writing limericks:

·Don’t start and end with the same line: this is an inferior form and should be avoided.†

·Don’t use the same rhyming word more than once: it shows a lack of cleverness.

·Rhyme properly: ‘time’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘dine’

·Avoid contrivance in language or rhyme: if it sounds forced it will not work.

Once you have mastered these simple rules, off into the world you may venture and with luck you may even create some jewels such as these:

From the depths of the crypt at St Giles,
Came a scream that resounded for miles,
The vicar said ‘Gracious!
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the bishop has piles?’‡


I sat next to the Duchess at tea,
It was just as I feared it would be
Her rumblings abdominal
Were truly phenomenal
And everyone thought it was me!

When you have mastered the proper form, you may then join the elite and become revered. Consider this masterpiece from Edward Gorey:

There was a young curate whose brain
Was deranged by the use of cocaine
He lured a small child
To a copse dark and wild
Where he beat it to death with his cane

Gorey is not only in complete control of the form, but he has subverted it by making the punchline grim and surprising, an effect that only works because we are not expecting that outcome (it is, of course, a very Gorey thing to do).

The most skilfull limerickists (I just made that word up) then really excel. This one uses expected rhyme for a superb piece of trickery:

There was a young lady from Bude
Who went for a swim in the lake
A man in a punt
Stuck an oar in her ear
And said “You can’t swim here it’s private!”

See how wonderfully funny that is? But it’s only funny because it breaks the rules. Otherwise it would just be surrealism. And to break rules, you gotta know rules, capisci?

From there, the possibilities are endless. How about this:

A limerick fan from Australia
Considered his efforts a failure
His verses were fine
Until the fourth line

Or one of my favourites:

There was a young man from New Haven
Who had an affair with a raven
After wiping his chin
He declared with a grin

Next week, on Post Bovus Ergo Propter Bovus, we investigate The Haiku. Please sharpen your knives.

Whoops. Er… sorry that’s seppuku.††

*I realise that by introducing a topic such as this I risk another worrying poetry competition between jedimacfan and Polanski. Sigh.

†As in: “There once was a man from Japan… That silly old man from Japan” Tsk.

‡Limericks don’t have to be bawdy, but it is a grand tradition.

††Which is what the guy on the radio should have immediately committed, if he’d had any common decency.