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What IS a Limerick?

Technically, “A limerick is a humorous five-line poem that follows a specific form, a pattern of rhyme and rhythm.”

In a limerick, the first, second, and fifth lines share a rhyming last word and one rhythm “scheme” (or order), while the third and fourth lines share a different rhyming last word and rhythm scheme. Edward Lear, whose rhyming nonsense has delighted readers for decades, wrote the following limerick. Notice the way each line’s last words rhyme.

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!'

The natural flow of the words—the way you automatically emphasize some words more than others if you read out loud—is the distinctive rhythm “scheme” (or pattern) that sets the limerick apart from its rhyming poetic relations. If you were able to see that in rhythm in print, it would look something like this:

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!'

So to be a true limerick, the verse must follow both the rhyme and the rhythm schemes. (Read more of Edward Lear’s nonsense limericks.)

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