lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Verse and worse

This post is dedicated with great affection to Araucaria, my favourite compiler of cryptic crosswords. His latest yesterday was themed, and the theme was a limerick.

I always enjoyed limericks. Staid or bawdy, clean or raunchy, prim or rib tickling, they are fun. Almost everyone has heard of one or can recite one. Don't believe me? Hickory, dickory, dock. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner. So there.

The couplet plus triplet form of verse has deep roots. A limerick is a simple narration of events in five lines of verse. The first line sets the scene and gives us the main character. The rest are narration, and the fifth line is the climax.

To categorise it in simple terms, the first, second and the fifth lines of a limerick have nine beats and the third and fourth have six. The nine beats are accentuated in what is called an anapaestic rhythm- two short and a long. This is what gives the limerick the swing.

Classical Telugu poetry is all about cadences and rhythms, the long and short; so I feel comfortable with verse forms that demand strict adherence to meter, and brevity is always is the soul of wit, lets all thank the Bard and say Hallelujah. (Sorry about that, been reading Stephen King.)

The word limerick is supposed to have entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1898, defined as a 'form of indecent nonsense verse'. But there are earlier examples, dating back to the 1300s. The following is from 'Sumer Is Icumen In'. Circa 1250 AD:

Ewe bleateth after lamb
Low'th after calve coo;
Bullock starteth,
Bucke farteth-
Merry sing cuckoo!

You see how easy it is to get into a limerick mood. There is something about the meter that begs for irreverence and wordplay. The irreverence is almost a prerequisite. Terry Pratchett mentions it, talking about 'lewdly sing cuckoo'.

Though Edward Lear is wrongly credited with inventing the verse form, he did popularise it hugely, and wrote that he discovered in it a 'form of verse lending itself to limitless varieties for rhymes and pictures…'

The early limericks read rather tame and Lear's usage of repeating the first line as the fifth again with minor differences doesn't sit well with modern readers, who expect the fifth line to deliver the punch line of the joke.

Langford Reed (best known for his biography of Lewis Carroll), polled for the most popular limerick and found this was it, back in 1925:

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Just like puns, limericks for the most part are anonymously perpetrated, but some have famous authors. Lewis Carroll wrote this:

There was a young lady of station,
'I love man' was her exclamation;
But when men cried: 'You flatter!'
She replied: 'Oh, no matter!"
'Isle of Man' is the explanation.

P G Wodehouse wrote in prose one of the best limericks ever, about the 'young man called Grover, who bowled twenty-two wides in an over; which had never been done by a clergyman's son, on a Thursday in August in Dover.'

Limericks aren't just funny or bawdy. They reflect times and mores. They reflect the social climate and point to changes that are crying out for attention; they comment on issues. But there are always prudes, and limericks take potshots at them:

There was an old lady of Harrow
Whose views were exceedingly narrow;
At the end of her paths,
She built two bird baths -
For the different sexes of sparrow.

For the musically inclined, there are gems like this:

Of a sudden, the great prima donna
Cried: 'Gawd, my voice is a gonner.'
But a cat in the wings
Said: 'I know how she sings,'
And finished the concert with honour.

And those of the scientific mind can rejoice about this:

Said Einstein, 'I have an equation
Which science might call Rabelaisian.
Let P be virginity
Approaching infinity
And U be a constant, persuasion

Now, if P over U be inverted
And the square root of U be inserted
X times over P
The result, QED,
Is a relative," Einstein asserted.

Speaking of Einstein,

There's a wonderful family called Stein:
There's Gert and there's Ep and there's Ein
Gert's poems are bunk,
Ep's statues are junk,
And no one can understand Ein.

If history is your cuppa, there are limericks for you, too. There are historical gems like this:

I, Caesar, when I learned of the fame
Of Cleopatra, I straightaway laid claim.
Ahead of my legions,
I invaded her regions -
I saw, I conquered, I came.

If you want philosophy, limericks provide:

There was the young man who said, 'Damn!
At last I've found out that I am
A creature that moves
In determined grooves:
In fact, not a bus but a tram.

Or for bookworms:

A very smart lady named Cookie
Said, 'I like to mix gambling with nookie.
Before every race
I go home to my place
And curl up with a very good bookie.'

I have been quoting from memory mostly, but there are gems you can read online too.

Murphy's Limerick Law I define:
You've decided your limerick's divine...
Since it can't be improved
To your Web site it's moved —
Then you think of a much better line!

Go here if you want more.

Limericks are insidious. When you always have an apposite limerick to quote, you can't really sign up and say "Hi, my name is xyz and I am a limerick addict'. The consolation is, there are kindred spirits and they like hearing from you.

Here is my contribution:

There is this fair lady called Lali,
Whose blog posts are ignored regularly;
She receives nil or few
Responses, in her view.
Now she larks on her blog willy nilly.



Anonymous Ash said...

There is a fair lady called Lali,
Who is, in turns, scholarly and silly;
She sulks and she larks,
and pines for remarks.
So here's to Lali, what a dilly!

3:19 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- Hey, that's far better than mine! :D

4:09 pm  
Anonymous prakash said...

been reading this blog in shhhh... mode for a long time. getting vocal only to prove ur limmarik is wrong :-)

11:29 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

There is this fair lady called Lali,
Whose blog posts are ignored regularly;


I loved the on with Ceasar in it. You can guess whih bit, right? Thought so :D A friend and I have decided to reshine our scrabble skills. Then, maybe we'll inch crosswords-wise. Help, won't you?

2:52 am  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Not a single raunchy example. You are a prude, Lali.

9:56 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Prakash- Hi, and thanks for breaking your silence. :D

Rimi- Scrabble is nothing like crosswords, but I love both. Sure thing, Princess.

Rajesh- A bather whose clothing was strewed
By breezes that left her quite nude,
Saw a man come along
And unless I am wrong,
You expected this line to be rude.

This blog is going to stay wholesome, okay? :D

12:31 pm  
Blogger db said...

Pretty amusing .. made a boring afternoon at the office come to life ..

On the flipside ... I feel illiterate, incapable and devoid of any creative talents !

12:40 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- Thanks, but this is hardly high literature. Just diversions, is all. :D

9:35 am  

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