Limericks have been around since the 18th century but were popularised the following century by Edward Lear. Although much loved for his nonsense verses it has been observed that he wasn’t actually very good at limericks, in part because the punch line is invariably nearly the same as the first line. A copy of Lear’s Nonsense Verses was recently auctioned which had been annotated by Ronnie Barker to make it funnier. He began with the introduction:
There was an old fossil named Lear,
Whose verses were boring and drear.
His last lines were worst -
just the same as the first!
So I've tried to improve on them here.
Though known for his nonsense verses Edward Lear was predominantly a painter. David Attenborough has described him as the greatest ornithological artist. Lear had a cat called Foss who only had half a tail. There’s a story that when Lear had to move house he had the new one built identically to the previous one so that Foss wouldn’t get distressed by a new environment.
Edward Lear coined the term ‘runcible spoon’. Described as a fork rounded like a spoon, it was essentially a spork.
A group of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans have rewritten that entire series in limerick form.
In 1907 the London Opinion printed the first lines of a limerick and offered a one guinea prize for the best last line. The competition was so popular it became a weekly event and soon it cost sixpence to enter, which boosted the prize-fund. A craze began for ‘limerick-last-lining’ and soon every publication had their own competition and the prizes got increasingly extravagant. One offered the winner a country house, a horse and trap and £2 a week for life - equivalent to £115 a week for life today. Stamp sales rocketed, people set up businesses advising how to write better lines and others began suing if a limerick won which was similar to their attempt. The limerick-last-lining craze lasted for a year and a half before burning out.
In 1910 Brainerd McKee published the complete works of Shakespeare in limerick form.
There once was a young lady named bright
Whose speed was much faster than light
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.
Limerick expert Don Marquis identified three types of limericks: 'limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present; and LIMERICKS'.
Five of Lear's limericks from the Book of Nonsense were set to music for choir a cappella by Goffredo Petrassi in 1952.