Saint John's strange connection to the lowly limerick

Lowbrow humour and drinking games? Of course there's a Saint John connection.

Origin of limerick verse is a cool literary footnote for Canada's 'most Irish city'

The 1880 newspaper clipping that offered researchers a clue about how the limerick got its name. (Saint John Daily News)

Limericks: the most lowbrow of all poems.

Recited on school playgrounds, by old-timey comedians, and by your liquored-up uncle on St. Patrick's Day, they tend to inspire eye rolls. Maybe a slight chuckle, at best. 

But — regardless of one's feelings toward limericks — the form has a historical connection to New Brunswick.

According to a Duke University researcher, the first written record of the poems being referred to as "limericks" was in an  1880 newspaper from Saint John — a city steeped in Celtic tradition since the days of the Potato Famine.

It's an interesting footnote in the literary history of  the "most Irish city in Canada."  

A little background

Part of the appeal of the limerick is that it's not very complicated. 

The first line introduces a person and a place. (For example, "There was a young lady of Lynn.")

After that come four more lines, two sets of which rhyme with each other. The final line rhymes with the first, and usually has a silly and/or crude punch line.

Ideally, both silly and crude. If the first line contains "Nantucket," cover your ears. 

"Anyone with half a wit can write one," said Prof. Robert Moore, a poet who teaches English at the University of New Brunswick. "The first poem I ever learned on the schoolyard would have been a limerick." 

Robert Moore, a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick, has written five books of poems — none of which are limericks. (Submitted by Robert Moore)

Collections of silly five-line poems were published in English as early as the 1820s.

But the form didn't become popular until midway through the century, when the English writer Edward Lear started publishing reams of weird little ditties such as the following:

Lear's 1846 anthology A Book of Nonsense is among the most famous collections of such poems ever published. But he never actually called his poems "limericks" — rather, he referred to them as "nonsense poems" or merely "light verse." 

Lear's G-rated limericks seem dull in comparison with what later rhymesters did with the form.

Over the years, limericks developed "a reputation for a certain lewdness," said Moore, who claimed he has never written a limerick. "I actually don't think I know any clean ones."

Since then, there have been countless smutty limericks, like this anonymous, undated verse:

Other variations include clever wordplay, like this 1923 example by Arthur Henry Reginald Buller:

There are rap versions, including "The Negotiation Limerick File" by the Beastie Boys, in which every verse is made up of five-line limericks.

And, most recently, this one I made up right now:

Clearly, as Moore pointed out, "they're not a vehicle for subtlety or deep thought."

But why do we call them limericks?

For a long time, the first recorded use of the term was by illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who wrote in an 1896 letter, "I have tried to amuse myself by writing limericks on my troubles."

But in 2010, Duke University researcher Stephen Goranson discovered an earlier reference — in, of all places, a 19th-century newspaper called the St. John Daily News, published before the city became Saint John.

In the Nov. 30, 1880, edition of the paper, in a miscellany of one-liners and gags called "Wise and Otherwise," the following appears.

A mediocre poem, at best — but an astonishing linguistic find.

Freestyle limerick battles

The poem was the earliest known connection, by many years, of the word "limerick" with the five-line verse form. 

In 19th-century slang, Goranson said, the phrase "come to Limerick" meant "more or less, face the music, or get real," Goranson said. The slang died out a few decades before the U.S. Civil War — but endured in the chorus of the song referenced in the newspaper.

Duke University researcher Stephen Goranson discovered an unusual link between the origin of the term 'limerick' and a Saint John newspaper. (Duke University)

The reference to the "tune" validated a previously unproven theory about the word "limerick," which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as coming from  "a custom at convivial parties, according to which each member sang an extemporized 'nonsense-verse,' which was followed by a chorus containing the words 'Will you come up to Limerick?'"

Freestyle limerick battles were, as Burton Egbert Stevenson wrote in The Charm of Ireland, "a sort of game designed to while away an evening … the chorus which was sung after every stanza in order to give the next person time to get his limerick into shape."

Saint Johners, it seems, would have been familiar with the tune and the game. 

"It appears that it was first called 'limerick verse' in North America," Goranson said. 

'We're not known for our poets in Saint John — but we are known for our Irish,' says Moore.

'Known for our Irish'

The Saint John newspaper article proves, as Goranson put it, that the limerick is "a British verse form that got its Irish name from America."

"Etymology, study of word origins, rarely provides 100 percent mathematical proof, but I think the evidence is pretty good in this case, and some others agree," he said.

It's appropriate, given that whiling away the evenings with drinking games and jokes is a New Brunswick pastime that endures to this day.

"We're not known for our poets in Saint John — but we are known for our Irish, and the Irish have a preternatural affinity for the English language," said Moore.

"Its combination of working-class culture, sensitivity to language, and a capacity to use language the way the Irish do makes the limerick a natural fit in Saint John."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.