Sorry, Mr Lear: limericks need filth

May 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm (Champagne Charlie, comedy, good honest filth, history, literature, surrealism)

NB: the following post contains strong language that some readers may find offensive:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical

In space that is quite economical.

But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean

And the clean ones so seldom are comical

(Anon)

On the 200th birthday of Edward Lear, it seems appropriate to celebrate that strange and much misunderstood literary form, the limerick. Lear (celebrated here by a true fan, Michael Rosen) is often described as the originator of the limerick … but:

1/ The form (one in five-line anapestic or amphibrachic meter with a strict rhyme scheme [AABBA]) had in fact been around since the early 18th Century;

2/ Lear never used the term “limerick” himself;

3/ Lear’s “limericks” deviate from the usual form, in that the first and last lines end with the same word rather than rhyming. Some people find this charming;

4/ Finally (and imho) most importantly, Lear’s “limericks,” whilst containing some delightful “nonsense” and wordplay, are not obscene, rude or scatological – essential qualities of a real limerick. Wikipedia puts it well:

For the most part they [Lear's 'limericks' -CC] are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point. They are completely free of the off-colour humour with which the verse form is now associated. A typical thematic element is the presence of a callous and critical “they”. An example of a typical Lear limerick:

There was an Old Man of Aôsta,
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, ‘Don’t you see,
she has rushed up a tree?
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!’

All of which brings me on to the true limerick – lewd, obscene and offensive – and the widely-acknowledged master of the genre, Robert Conquest. To the best of my knowledge, Conquest’s limericks have never been published in a proper collected edition, though several have appeared in his friend Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs and Collected Letters.

Here are some of the best:

A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite.

Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.

There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.

That snobbish surrealist, Garsall,
Once did himself up in a parcel;
He addressed it ‘Lord Garsall,
The Keep, Garsall Castle’
And mailed it first-class up his arsehole.

There was old Scot named McTavish
Who went for an anthropoid ravish
But the object of rape was the wrong sex of ape
So the anthropoid ravished McTavish

Possibly my favourite, entitled AT THE ZOO:

There was plenty of good-natured chaff
When I popped in to fuck the giraffe,
And the PRZS
Could hardly suppress
A dry professorial laugh.

Kingsley Amis wrote a follow-up:

When I came back to roger the gnu
I was scarcely delayed coming through,
and the staff – most polite -
cried, “please stay overnight”,
it’s a priviledge granted to few.

8 Comments

  1. Innocent Abroad said,

    All right – you want some good clean fun, eh?

    That wonderful family Stein,
    There;s Gert and there;s Ep and there’s Ein
    Gert’s poems are bunk,
    Ep’s statues are junk
    And nobody understands Ein.

  2. Rosie said,

    Funnily enough I’m reading Kingsley Amis’s letters at the moment and coming across Conquest’s limericks in the footnote.

    Another dirty verse by Conquest I do like isn’t a limerick:-

    When the Earl took out his bloody great tool at tea,
    To do the pageboy wrong,
    The Chaplain cried obsequiously,
    “How long, oh lord, how long.”

    (This is from memory.)

    Lear’s limericks are terrible – not funny, and not sweet either like The Owl and the Pussycat.

  3. s4r4hbrown said,

    I like this one – even though it’s not offensive:

    There was a young lady of Ryde,
    Who ate some green apples and died.
    The apples fermented
    Inside the lamented,
    And made cider inside her inside.

  4. charliethechulo said,

    Conquest also wrote a sequel to The Ballad of Eskimo Nell (http://www.low.net.au/eskimo_nell.html?linkname=warning), tracing the further exploits of Mexican Pete. Amis comments in his Memoirs, : “For the interested, who will remember that Eskimo Nell has as its climax the total sexual rout and humiliation of the hero, Dead-Eyed Dick, the sequel tells how its eponymous hero, Dick’s erstwhile comrade, returns to the scene to exact his revenge, which he acomplishes with the aid of what he has learnt at Bangelstein’s College of Sexual Knowledge in the snows of far Tibet, where

    It won’t be a neuter who’ll be your tutor, but our oldest, randiest priest,
    Who knows every appliance of sexual science and the mystic smut of the East,
    For this old fogey is a Yogi, and often he will pass whole
    Years in pusuit of the absolute just gazing up his asshole

    But

    If you wish to read of each foul misdeed Pete performed on the way to college,
    Just look up ‘Mexican’ in the ‘Oxford Lexicon of Criminal Sexual Knowledge.’
    It will also mention his long detention in a sexual maniacs’ home,
    Where he did time for the nauseous crime of fucking the Pope of Rome.

  5. Roger said,

    While I regard South Park, Team America, Anchorman and the classic middle period Carry On films as transcendental works of art I’ve never found this stuff from Conquest, Amis et al as other than puerile.

    TS Eliot and his circle’s racist frat boy scribblings were even worse:

    King Bolo’s swarthy bodyguard
    Were called the Jersey lilies
    A wild and hardy set of blacks
    Undaunted by syphilis.
    They wore the national uniform
    Of a garland of verbenas
    And a pair of great big hairy balls
    And a big black knotty penis.

    Personally I blame the over-supply of Eng Lit PhDs with nothing better to do than sift their way through every bit of rubbish ever committed to paper by their subjects.

    Thank God that e-mail and twitter will make the literary archives of the future (assuming that we are not pitched into post-apocalyptic illiteracy a la A Canticle for Leibowitz) far more sparsely endowed.

  6. Geoff Collier said,

    There was an old lefty called Jim
    Who thought the rest of us dim
    But he’d seen the light
    Following old Sean to the right
    And outdid just every little whim

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