Outside the laboratory, there are three types of limerick: the boneheaded ones, the witty ones, and the ones that are neither boneheaded nor witty — the sex stuff. For some reason, no one can like all three. There is an irresistible law of human personality that causes people to enjoy exactly one of the types and to scorn the others.
I am no different. My heart and mind belong to the boneheaded ones. This is not owing to any idea or strategy. I never chose to worship Edward Lear. I do it helplessly. It is one of the things I do helplessly.
“Witty” is a flexible term. Where I come from, we reserved it for delight-provoking speech that included some admirable show of intelligence or knowledge. By this reckoning, a great deal of delight-provoking speech is not witty. The following specimen is delightful to me, but it is not witty:
There was an old man of Toulouse,Who purchased a new pair of shoes.When they asked, “Are they pleasant?” he said, “Not at present!”That turbid old man of Toulouse.— Edward Lear
Someone could say it’s clever. To which I shrug. It is clever; there’s a technical ingenuity involved, OK. But the beauty of the thing has everything to do with the slight incongruities of asking a person if his new shoes are “pleasant,” and of that person’s responding that they currently are not. This is a very choice example of the “right wrong thing.” The wrongness is right.
Samuel Johnson famously describes Falstaff’s humor like this:
Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief, and a glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenseless.... Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter, which is more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport but raise no envy.
That last sentence is deep. I got some satori when I first read it. It hints at the generosity involved in playing the fool. To forego admiration, to raise no envy — these are essential to buffoonery.
Consider the Marx Brothers. Consider Harpo. When he paints the ambassador’s butt with glue, he does it without malice, without intellect. His every move seems an exercise in perversity.
A letter is delivered to His Excellency, Rufus T. Firefly. Harpo snatches it, opens it, scans it, and then with a great (but silent) show of disgust and outrage, crumples the letter and throws it on the floor. Chico steps in helpfully: “He gets mad ’cuz he can’t read.”
Easy escapes, sallies of levity, acting “like an idiot.” Using words incorrectly for no reason. Starting in, over and over, like you’re about to tell a story, and then saying nothing:
There was an old person of Sark,Who made an unpleasant remark.But they said, “Don’t you see what a brute you must be,You obnoxious old person of Sark!”
The “error” of addressing someone as “you obnoxious old person of Sark.”
But I perceive a difficulty. Many if not most of Lear’s limericks are more delightful than actually ha-ha funny. It’s the same with Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking-Glass has one funny chapter in it: the Humpty Dumpty bit. Everything else is gold, nobody’s disputing that, but it’s gold for other reasons.
Or, to return to Lear, the following limerick seems unbetterable to me, but it’s not ha-ha funny:
There was a young lady whose eyesWere unique as to color and size;When she opened them wide, people all turned aside,And started away in surprise.
But if it’s not ha-ha funny, why am I laughing? Problem.
Many craft details contribute to Lear’s limericks being effective mouth toys. I define an effective mouth toy as a small polyhedron of language that is revolved more in the mouth than in the mind, and which causes unintelligible pleasure — pleasure without ratiocination.
Lear’s gallop-y handling of the anapests (note: NOT the “inherent” gallopyness of anapests) contributes to this. The arrangement of short vowel quantities and multisyllabic words in the second lines, contrasting with the long vowels and monosyllables that dominate the first lines, e.g. —
There was an old person of Tring,Who embellished his nose with a ring............................................There was an old person of Rheims,Who was troubled with horrible dreams..............................................There was an old man of Dumblane,Who greatly resembled a crane ...
These graces are seldom imitated. Indeed, anyone searching modern limerick books for Lear’s fun-to-say-ness will encounter sorrow upon sorrow. (All my personal copies of modern limerick books are heavily battered from having been treated just exactly as Harpo treats the letter to His Excellency.)
Lear, for the most part, uses plain rhymes. Stunt rhymes of the sort I find everywhere in my own limericks do not come up very often in Lear. He mainly says beard | feared; tree | bee; nose | suppose; Berlin | thin. Out of the 212 limericks that are rightly considered the standard set (The Book of Nonsense in its 1861 version and More Nonsense, 1872), only 3 percent of the rhyme pairs are on the model of scratch it | hatchet and bonnet | upon it — where a single word is rhymed with two or more words. And there are at most a half dozen cases of “outrageous” rhyme pairs:
There was an old man of th’ Abruzzi,So blind that he couldn’t his foot see...........................................There was an old man of Kamschatka,Who possessed a remarkably fat cur.
Whereas, of the six limericks that follow the present notes, I observe that roughly half the rhyme pairs are offbeat. There are imperfect rhymes, there are outrages, and there is even one case — funeral | tune or I’ll — that I believe Lear would not have touched, awake or asleep, drunk or on acid.
These facts are a cause of regret to me. They show that my rhyme praxis is tainted with modern assumptions about rhyme — viz., that rhymes ought to make some show of originality. That they ought to be admirable in themselves.
Finally, a word about the illustrations. They are the work of Mark Fletcher. Mark and I have never been in the same room together. I have never once heard his voice. I didn’t even know what he looked like until I saw the photo of him that was published online along with our first round of collaborations, in B O D Y.
He is a mighty artificer. His pictures do that Lear-like thing: they translate textual elements that are inert in themselves into comic exquisiteness. I would urge the reader to study what happened to the concept “a Bible collage” in limerick no. 74.
There was an old man with a backpack:
No body could beat him at blackjack.
When they said, “Let us win!” he would finger his chin,
And then beat ’em to pieces at blackjack.
Illustrations by Mark Fletcher
There was an old man from El Paso,
Whose rodeo stunt was to lasso
A gazelle and a buck, load ’em into the truck,
And then pass through the tolls of El Paso.
There was an old person from Burnside:
His garden was good ’til his fern died.
He threw it a funeral, and said, “Play a tune, or I’ll
Sink in despair, since my fern died.”
There was an old man from LeSage,
Who was making a Bible collage!
But he needed a scissor, ’cuz Nebuchadnezzar
Looked more like the Wizard of Oz.
There was an old person from Evanston, —
And he certainly wasn’t a pleasant one.
When we said, “What’s your deal?” he replied, “I just feel
That you people are boring and meddlesome.”
There was an old person from Bucktown,
Who was filling his pillow with duck down.
So he snatched up a wad, and then, using a rod,
Started priming that pillow with duck down.
Poet Anthony Madrid is the author of the chapbook The 580 Strophes (2009) and the full-length collection I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (2012). He has written in forms such as the ghazal and rhyming quatrain, bringing a contemporary, associative, and surreal sensibility to received forms. A PhD...