How to Write a Limerick

You’re probably familiar with the poetic form, famous for its bouncy rhyme schemes and bawdy subjects. You may not know that the first book of limericks was published only 200 years years ago, making it a relatively new form of poetry compared to sonnets, sestinas, or odes. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The origin of the limerick is unknown, but it has been suggested that the name derives from the chorus of an 18th-century soldiers’ song from Ireland, ‘Will You Come Up to Limerick?'” Edward Lear published the Book of Nonsense in 1846, and Rudyard Kipling published a number of classic limericks around the turn of the 20th century. Whether inspired by the soldiers’ song or nursery rhymes, which became increasingly popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, poets and jokesters alike delight in composing these funny, five-line poems. 

Here’s an example of a famous limerick by Edward Lear. We’ve labeled the last word of each line with a letter to make the rhyme scheme more obvious:

There was an Old Man in a tree, (A)

Who was horribly bored by a Bee; (A)

When they said, “Does it buzz?” (B)

He replied, “Yes, it does! (B)

“It’s a regular brute of a Bee!” (A)

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Rhyme and Meter

In the example above, as in all limericks, the poet uses an AABBA rhyme scheme.  Limerick poems employ anapestic meter, consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. The first line, second line, and third line contain three metrical feet, and the third line and fourth line contain two feet. 

All limericks have the following rhythm:

da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

da DUM da da DUM

da DUM da da DUM

da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

In some limericks, such as the above example from Lear, the last line of the poem repeats a rhyming word used in the first or second line; however, this is not a necessary element of the limerick form. Other poets conclude their final line with a unique rhyming word.

Content

Limerick poems usually begin by introducing the main character and end with a punchline. The character at the center of these funny poems tends to be a person or an animal. By the fifth line of the poem, the poet introduces an unexpected twist that the reader would not have predicted at the outset. This poetic form lends itself to blue humor, and limericks are short enough to invent on the spot. For these reasons, limericks remain popular with a broad group of people, including those uninterested in other forms of poetry. In particular, “There once was a man from Nantucket,” is an introductory line famous for spawning many ribald versions of the form. 

Here are a few introductory lines from limericks, which immediately present main characters:

There was a small boy of Quebec
—Rudyard Kipling

There was an old poop from Poughkeepsie
—John Updike

There was a young lady of station
—Lewis Carroll

There’s a ponderous pundit MacHugh
—James Joyce

Writing a Limerick

Before composing a limerick, try opening a rhyming dictionary for inspiration. If you land on a word like “wren,” you can start by experimenting with two introductory lines:

There once was a man with a pen

Who adopted a spotted brown wren

There was a precocious young wren

Who befriended a Taiwanese hen

There once was a lady named Gwen

Who kept her pet dog in a pen

After writing a few different introductory lines, you can choose the character that inspires you the most. Next, try writing two lines in anapestic dimeter, continuing with the same theme. 

There once was a lady named Gwen

Who kept her pet dog in a pen

The dog didn’t mind

He thought Gwen was quite kind

The last line is the most important part of a limerick. Not only does the line need to have the appropriate rhyme and rhythm, but it also needs to defy the reader’s expectations. In the example above, we’ve set up the expectation that Gwen is kind and generous. In order to develop a funny limerick, the next step would be brainstorming some lines that will surprise the reader.

  • To rent it for 500 yen
  • Though he shared it with two dozen men
  • Though he envied the lion his den
  • Though he bit her hand now and again

There once was a lady named Gwen

Who kept her pet dog in a pen.

The dog didn’t mind.

He thought Gwen was quite kind,

Though he shared it with two dozen men.

As you can see, all the variations of the last line must rhyme with the first two lines of the poem. When you write your own limerick, begin by crafting 5-10 variations of the last line. Choose the funniest one to finish your poem. You may punctuate the limerick, or you can leave it without punctuation. As you get better at writing limericks, you might find that you’re able to conjure a line more quickly. Eventually, you might become so comfortable with the rhythm of a limerick that you can compose all five lines extemporaneously. 

For great examples of limericks, check out some of the past winners of The Washington Post limerick contests. The newspaper also provides writing tips, to help you create the perfect limerick for their competition. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/art/limerick-poetic-form
  2. https://www.britannica.com/art/nursery-rhyme
  3. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-limerick
  4. https://www.public-domain-poetry.com/edward-lear/book-of-nonsense-limerick-10-23134
  5. https://examples.yourdictionary.com/limerick-examples.html
  6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/style-invitational-week-1396-hail-limerixicon-xvii/2020/08/06/9d5fdea2-d5fb-11ea-9c3b-dfc394c03988_story.html
  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/get-your-rick-rolling-style-invitational-limerick-guide/2019/08/05/ad216cf8-b7b0-11e9-b3b4-2bb69e8c4e39_story.html