I want to dedicate this column to a form of poetry that is often overlooked: the limerick. A limerick has five lines and has a strict rhyming scheme (AABBA) with a predominantly anapaestic (two short syllables followed by a long) metre. They are often obscene with humorous intent, which makes them perfect for short-form erotic poetry.
The limerick first appeared in England in early 18th century, and was popularised by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense, in 1846. The limerick as an art form is almost always obscene, and Gershon Legman cites in his anthology similar opinions held by the likes of Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw. Clean limericks, he said, were but “periodic fads rarely rising above mediocrity.” From the point of view of folklore, the limerick is meant to shock and titillate.
Of course, there are some clean limericks that have survived through the ages, such as the following which appeared in 1880 in a Saint John, New Brunswick newspaper: There was a young rustic named Mallory, who drew but a very small salary. When he went to the show, his purse made him go to a seat in the uppermost gallery.
Although history is unclear on who authored that particular limerick is, other racier limericks have survived the test of time, and their authors will be familiar names to many. This is because many reputable poets have been unable to resist the lure of the bawdy limerick; TS Eliot, for example, wrote a series of ribald limericks in the earlier stages of his career, none of which can be printed here. John Donne — the metaphysical poet who later became an Anglican priest — is also responsible for a large number of cheeky verses that were written in his youth. Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland in his day, and one of the leading romantic poets of the world, is the proud author of some rather explicit poetry. WH Auden, who is one of my favourite poets, wrote an acclaimed poem about masturbation in his own inimitable style, and EE Cummings, who was widely influenced by Dada and surrealism, wrote several verses that didn’t leave much to the imagination.
Limericks are, therefore, an established form of poetry, which even the most celebrated poets of their day could not refrain from writing. It is my opinion that they served to normalise erotica by laughing at it, and laughing at the fallible human beings who engaged in it. They are not meant to be taken seriously, but through their gentle rib-tickling word-play and clever absurdity subjects that were previously taboo such as gay love, masturbation (self-love), and eroticism were explored thoroughly, albeit satirically.
As a recommendation, I suggest The Wordsworth Book of Limericks; it is by no means complete, but it is delightfully dirty, and certainly not for the prurient.