How to Write Poems – Chapter 12: The Limerick

Contents | Chapter 13: The Parody

A limerick is a short poem with five lines, usually containing obscene references to reproductive body parts and functions. Since this is a book for all ages, we will be discussing what we can call a “half limerick,” or a limerick without obscenity.

The rhyme scheme of a limerick is aabba, in which the “a” lines have more syllables than the “b” lines. The “a” lines normally have seven to ten syllables, while the “b” lines normally have five to seven syllables. The poems often make use of anapestic meter. The anapestic foot looks like this: wwS (weakly stressed, weakly stressed, strongly stressed).

Limericks often start by naming a person and a place. For example, a limerick might start with, “I knew an old man from Timbuktu,” or, “There was once a woman from Crete.” The place name is often eccentric or imaginary, for it has to rhyme with the other two “a” lines.

Here are two limericks by Edward Lear (1812-1888), who wrote many limericks for his “nonsense” verse:

There is a young lady, whose nose,

Continually prospers and grows;

When it grew out of sight,

She exclaimed in a fright,

“Oh! Farewell to the end of my nose!”

There was an Old Man who said, “Hush!

I perceive a young bird in this bush!”

When they said, “Is it small?”

He replied, “Not at all!

It is four times as big as the bush!”

Now we are going to write a limerick about Ebenezer Scrooge. We could write,

I once knew a man named Ebenezer Scrooge

Or,

There was once a man named Ebenezer Scrooge

These lines have too many syllables (11), so we might just want to use “Scrooge” as his name.

There was once a man named Scrooge

“There was once” sounds kind of pedestrian and boring, so we can change it to “I once met.” “A man” is also kind of nondescript. We can change it to “a miser,” which is a good descriptive word for Scrooge, since a miser is someone who tries not to spend any money.

I once met a miser named Scrooge

Are there any words that rhyme with “Scrooge”? There are not very many. Words that rhyme with “Scrooge” include the following:

fuge, huge, luge, stooge, deluge, refuge, Baton-Rouge, centrifuge, subterfuge

Exercise: Can you make two more “a” lines that rhyme with “Scrooge” from the above word list? The lines should have about eight syllables.

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The word “stooge” jumps out because it can refer to someone who is used by someone else, as Scrooge used his clerk. Scrooge only begrudgingly let his clerk take a day off for Christmas, and Scrooge told him to be back early on the morning after Christmas.

The words “huge” and “subterfuge” might also be useful. For the second “a” line, we can write something about a stooge:

I once met a miser named Scrooge

Who treated his clerk as a stooge

Both lines have eight syllables, and they both end with a one-syllable word, so we won’t change them, for now. Next, we should tell that Scrooge met three spirits.

But he met three spirits

What words rhyme with “spirits”? There are not any words that rhyme with “irits,” but there are many that rhyme with “its,” such as “credits,” “exits,” etc. We should find a normal rhyme, so we should rewrite the previous line. We can find some synonyms for “spirit”:

apparition, ghost, phantom, shade, specter, spook, wraith

It seems that all of the alternatives to “spirit” have fearful or negative connotations, which does not suit the nature of the spirits that Scrooge met. Maybe we should stick with “spirits” and just change the order of the words.

But three spirits he met

The above line has inverted order, but it sounds okay. What words rhyme with “met”?

bet, debt, fret, get, jet, let, net, pet, set, sweat, threat, vet, wet, yet

We have many choices for a perfect rhyme. The words above are merely the one-syllable matches. The word “debt” stands out because Scrooge was always trying to keep from losing money, and he had to collect debts. “Threat” might also be useful. However, we have to think about the last line, and the word that we will use for it. We have the words “huge” and “subterfuge” to work with. We should say something about how Scrooge changes his mind and becomes more generous. We could say something like, “his heart was huge” or “he had no subterfuge.” So far, we have these lines:

I once met a miser named Scrooge

Who treated his clerk as a stooge

But three spirits he met

We should say that he is now generous without subterfuge (without deceit or ulterior motives). His heart is now generous. His heart is now “set.” (“Set” rhymes with “met.”) “His heart is now set / On giving without subterfuge.” We can write this at the end and see if it works.

I once met a miser named Scrooge (8)

Who treated his clerk as a stooge (8)

But three spirits he met (6)

And his heart is now set (6)

On giving without subterfuge (8)

We can see that we have fulfilled the rhyme scheme (aabba) and that the “b” lines are shorter than the “a” lines (six syllable and eight syllables, respectively). Let’s scan the poem to see where the stresses fall.

I once met a miser named Scrooge

Who treated his clerk as a stooge

But three spirits he met

And his heart is now set

On giving without subterfuge

If forming anapestic meter is important to us, then we should form anapestic trimeter in the first, second and fifth lines, and anapestic dimeter in the third and fourth lines. We will have to add one syllable to the first, second, and fifth lines. Conveniently, the third and fourth lines already contain two anapestic feet: wwSwwS. We would like for the limerick to have this form:

wwSwwSwwS

wwSwwSwwS

wwSwwS

wwSwwS

wwSwwSwwS

Let’s see what we can do with the first line:

I once met a miser named Scrooge

Exercise: How would you change the above line so that it conforms to anapestic trimeter (wwSwwSwwS)?

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We can change “a miser” to “an old miser”:

I once met an old miser named Scrooge

For the second line, we can change “treated” to “did treat” and add “fine”:

Who did treat his fine clerk as a stooge

For the fifth line, we will have to replace the word subterfuge with another word. Subterfuge has the stress pattern SwS, which does not fit into anapestic meter. We can use the word “huge”:

On giving gifts that are huge

We need to add two syllables.

On the giving of gifts that are huge

Now let’s put it all together again.

I once met an old miser named Scrooge

Who did treat his fine clerk as a stooge

But three spirits he met

And his heart is now set

On the giving of gifts that are huge

Which limerick do you prefer: our first limerick or the limerick above with anapestic meter? Do you think it is more important to have a good rhythm or to use the best words and word order?

Overall, the result is satisfactory. Both versions of our limerick encapsulate the old character of Scrooge, his meetings with the three spirits, his conversion, and his new character.

Contents | Chapter 13: The Parody