A Legacy of Limericks

Let's celebrate Edward Lear. Who’s that, you ask? Born in England in 1812, Lear single-handedly reinvented children’s books. His collection of silly poems, A Book of Nonsense, became a runaway favorite of children almost immediately. Why? Because he wrote, as he put it, “to see little folks merry”. Not to lecture. Not to moralize. Just to make them laugh.

They laughed at his poem, The Owl and the Pussycat. They laughed at his whimsical, childlike cartoons. And they laughed most of all at his limericks. Though he’s known as the “father of the limerick”, the comic poems existed before Lear tried his hand at them. But Lear poured them out by the hundreds and gave them a life all their own.

I was eager to sample them. I checked his Complete Nonsense Book out of the library and read through two long compilations of his limericks. I’m reluctant to say it, but he seemed a bit lazy. Each limerick invariably ended the same as it began. Here’s what I mean:

There was an Old Person of Ewell,
Who chiefly subsisted on gruel;
But to make it more nice, he inserted some Mice,
Which refreshed that Old Person of Ewell.

So I decided to put my criticism into limerick form:

There once was a king, Lear the First,
Who went to invent some new verse,
His limerick game to my ear seems lame
For he rhymed the last line with the first.

But that minor point aside, Edward Lear’s legacy is that he understood what captivated children. His limericks, longer poems, drawings, and invented plants and animals had a playfulness that was unlike anything that had come before. He definitely lived outside the box. (See more of Lear’s work.)

And that spirit of play has caught my son Nate and me. After I recited my limerick above, we decided to challenge each other to a contest of limericks. To make it more interesting, we chose random words from the dictionary to include in each poem. Then we let visitors to the site decide who won. Want to see them?

Lear once described himself as “3 parts crazy – and wholly affectionate.” I like to think in some small way, we’re keeping the Lear legacy alive.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter