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There Was an Old Man with a Beard -- Edward Lear

(Poem #378) There Was an Old Man with a Beard
  There was an Old Man with a beard,
  Who said, "It is just as I feared! --
  Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
  Have all built their nests in my beard.
-- Edward Lear
Like most people, I have an ambivalent response to Lear's limericks. Sure,
they practically defined the genre - as the following piece puts it,

  Although at the Limericks of Lear,
  We may feel a temptation to sneer,
  We should never forget
  That we owe him a debt
  For his work as the first pioneer.
        -- Langford Reed

but nonetheless the temptation to sneer is undeniably there. And the reason
is not all that hard to see - despite all their redeeming qualities, Lear's
limericks are *boring*.

Also annoying is the fact that the first and last lines end with the same
word - two of the pleasures of modern limericks are the cleverness of the
rhymes and the (usually humourous) unexpectedness of the ending, both of
which are lost here.


No, the formatting is not messed up. Lear really did write his limericks in
four line form, with an internal rhyme in the third; the split into two
short lines came later.

On Limericks:

  limerick: a popular form of short, humorous verse that is often
  nonsensical and frequently ribald. It consists of five lines, rhyming
  aabba, and the dominant metre is anapestic, with two metrical feet in the
  third and fourth lines and three feet in the others. The origin of the
  limerick is unknown, but it has been suggested that the name derives from
  the chorus of an 18th-century Irish soldiers' song, "Will You Come Up to
  Limerick?" To this were added impromptu verses crowded with improbable
  incident and subtle innuendo.

  The first collections of limericks in English date from about 1820. Edward
  Lear, who composed and illustrated those in his Book of Nonsense (1846),
  claimed to have gotten the idea from a nursery rhyme beginning "There was
  an old man of Tobago." A typical example from Lear's collection is this
  verse:There was an Old Man who supposed/That the street door was partially
  closed;/But some very large rats Ate his coats and his hats,/While that
  futile Old Gentleman dozed.

  And later

  certain metric forms associated with heroic poetry, such as the hexameter
  or alexandrine, arouse expectations of pathos, of the exalted; to pour
  into these epic molds some homely, trivial content--"beautiful soup, so
  rich and green/ waiting in a hot tureen"--is an almost infallible comic
  device. the rolling rhythms of the first lines of a limerick that carry,
  instead of a mythical hero such as hector or achilles, a young lady from
  ohio for a ride make her ridiculous even before the expected calamities
  befall her.
        -- EB


Parody? Of a limerick? Not the world's easiest task, one might have thought,
but Lear's somewhat laboured style leaves him wide open to attack, as taken
full advantage of in the following brilliant piece of verse

  There was an old man with a beard
  A funny old man with a beard
  He had a big beard
  A great big old beard
  That amusing old man with a beard

        -- John Clarke


Lear's nonsense verse was far better than his limericks. we've run a few
examples: poem #165 (with biography), poem #297, and poem #356.

And for a comprehensive webpage on limericks:
[broken link]


64 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Arlene & Peter said...

For a slightly different form of limerick parody,
I offer this (author unknown):

There was an old man of St. Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked "Does it hurt?"
He said "No, it doesn't.
I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet."

Peter H. Ten Eyck

Halmos Mate said...

"There was an old man of St. Bees..." - The author is W. S. Gilbert.

- mH

Rod Bell said...

Compare with:

There was an old man from Dunoon,
Who always ate soup with a fork.
He said 'As I eat
Neither fish fowl nor flesh,
I would otherwise finish too quick'.

Holly Nolting said...

I love this parody of a limerick- as if the limerick wasn't good enough on its own! Wonderful!I don't write em but I surely do enjoy them.

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