by Graig L. Larson
This is a beginning of a series of short texts on limericks.
(Do not fear you will be bored to death, this first one is by far the longest.)
1. Limericks only exist in English (and possibly
in a few other Germanic languages)
A curious question often asked is: Why are there no limericks in any other
language than English? Actually, this is not quite so. To begin with, bawdy
and semi-bawdy limericks imitated from the English-language forms are today
fairly common in both Germany and especially Holland and Dutch-speaking Belgium,
where the milder kind have often been printed in the newspapers there, at least
since the 1940's.
(Gershon Legman, introduction to The New Limerick)
Professor Spencer has noted above that: 'The limerick [is] peculiar to English...,'
and he is quite correct. True, there are quite a few limericks in French kicking up
their can-can heels in the compilations [...], and there are limericks in Latin
as well, but, generally speaking, the limerick is an Anglo-American form of verse
-- perhaps, as Brander Matthews observed long ago, the only original verse
form of the English language.
(William S. Baring-Gould, The Lure of the Limerick)
Proving this myth wrong isn't easy. For one thing, I only know Polish limericks
a bit, and I know of Russian and French ones. On the other hand though,
being a mathematician, I do know that one exception proves a rule false.
Secondly, even if I do quote tons of limericks in Polish or Russian, who is there
to understand and appreciate them? After all, it's not Poles or Russians, who need
to be convinced, but the English-speaking people. And there's not too many of them
who speak any of the Slavic languages.
So, the task isn't easy, but nevertheless I'm going to give it a try.
Objection 1: Limericks were born in English and they should and will stay
Well, nobody really argues with the English origins, of the limerick. (Some did
argue there were examples of a similar form in the ancient Greek poetry, but, as
Legman had pointed out in The Limerick, those were not really limericks.)
But the English roots do not in any way imply that limericks cannot be grafted in
other cultures as well. Were we to hold on to the "origin rule", we'd have to say,
say, Shakespeare never wrote sonnets, because the sonnet is a Latin form of poetry.
This kind of thinking clearly leads to absurd conclusions.
Objection 2: Anapestic feet are characteristic to English and Germanic
languages. You can't write anapestic verse in Polish, can you?
(I've heard this argument from my Polish friend who is a translator and who insists
there are no real limericks in Polish.)
This is a relevant point, to some extent. It is true most Polish words have a
paroxytonic accent. That is, usually the penultimate syllable in a word is
stressed. This makes it hard to create anapestic lines in a poem. Or, I should
have rather said, a purely anapestic line. Let us compare two lines of
da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da
The first one is clearly anapestic. But, so is the second one. The extra syllable
at the end is not considered a fault, but merely a variation of the rhythm. There
are many English limericks that have that trailing unaccented syllable or even two.
Here's one of the best known ones:
There was a young fellow named Lancelot
They are not too frequent, because there are not too many words in English that
are accented paroxytonically. In Polish the proportions are reversed.
Whom his neighbours all looked on askance a lot.
Whenever he'd pass
A presentable lass
The front of his pants would advance a lot.
The anapesticity of feet is more of a problem in lines 3 and 4. There a "pure"
anapest is required, as it allows reading the couplet in one go, as if it were one
line (which it was, occasionally, in Edward Lear's days.) An extra syllable at
the end of line three spoils the rhythm. (Please note the above example has
unaccented trailing syllables only in lines 1, 2 and 5.)
But just as there are English words that have an unaccented syllable at the end,
so there are Polish words that have their last syllable accented. Therefore, it
is possible to write a limerick with purely anapestic lines 3 and 4 in
Polish. In fact, my Polish friends who maintain the Polish limerick website,
consider this an "ideal" limerick metre. Whether lines 1, 2 and 5 are
hyperkatalectic or not, doesn't really matter.
By the way, some English-speaking limerists maintain the limerick is not really
an anapestic, but rather a dactylic verse form (e.g. Norman W. Storer, in his
A Leer of Limericks,) but that view is clearly dismissed by Gershon Legman
in his introduction to The Limerick (towards the end of part VII, if you
care to check.)
Having said that it is possible to find anapestic limericks in Polish (and there
are many examples of them), I must admit it is much easier to come across paeonic
feet (da da DUM da,) as they are more natural to the language. Consequently,
there are a significant number of paeonic limericks in Polish. The purest of
purists might dismiss them as not being limericks at all, but, frankly, do you
think we should condemn decent (or, for that matter, indecent) verse over
a couple of syllables? Aren't wit and humor more important than metric purity?
Of course they are. And if non-anapestic limericks are accepted in English, the
more so should they be accepted in Polish. After all, it is nobody's fault Poles
are stressing their words abnormally.
Objection 3: Other languages don't have as many dirty words as English
Again, I don't know much about other languages, but it is certainly true for
Polish. On the other hand, Poles have another characteristic that makes them
a great limerick audience. Over two centuries of foreign rule, occupation
and influence taught them to both put and find hidden meanings in all forms of
expression. They are truly masters of allusions and hinting at things that could
not be discussed publicly. Therefore, even the lack of a propor improper
vocabulary can't stop them from saying things clearly, though maybe not
straightforwardly. Frankly, this makes them even better at wit than a thousand
words for sexual intercourse would.
Besides that, Poles have a great capacity for nonsense humor, which certainly is
important in reading -- and composing -- limericks.
Objection 4: But there aren't any limericks in Polish! (Or any other
Gershon Legman said something to that effect (see part III of his introduction to
The New Limerick, quoted above,) and him being the expert on
limericks, everybody believed him. The truth is, there are thousands of limericks
in Polish! According to Legman, there are some "imitations" of English limericks
in Germany, Holland and Belgium. But, as it has already been pointed out, if those
are imitations, then so are Shakespeare's sonnets.
True, the limerick is not as popular in Poland as it is in the Anglo-Saxon world,
but this is nothing strange, taken into account the fact that it was French, and
not English, that was the fashionable foreign language of Polish gentry (and later,
the educated people in general,) after Latin went dead. Until mid-20th century
the influence of English language and literature on Poland was almost nil. The
French, of course, wouldn't let anything of English origin into their culture,
so the limerick had no means of getting to Poland, really.
Apparently, the first Polish poets who dabbed in limericks were Konstanty I.
Galczynski and Julian Tuwim. The former published a few limerick-like pieces (they
only had four lines each) in 1935, and the latter wrote some in 1936 and published
them in 1937.
After the World War II there were several well-known poets who wrote limericks,
and many more unknown ones. Among the famous limerists I have to mention two Nobel
prize winners for literature: Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. And two great
translators: Stanisław Barańczak and Maciej Słomczyński. The latter alone composed
some 3,000 - 4,000 limericks before 1960 (almost all of them bawdy,) and then he
apparently stopped counting. Out of those, no more than a hundred were ever
published in print.
One last argument: would any Enghlish-speaking limerick creator please try and
write a limerick for one of the following placenames? Here they go: Czyżew
[pronounced Tshee-zheff], G±cz [Gontch], Górażdże [Goo-razh-dzheh]],
Horodyszcze [Hoe-raw-dysh-tcheh], Hyżne [Hyzh-neh], Krzczonów
[Kshtchoh-nooff] -- there's no sense in listing any more.
Won't you agree that only Polish is capable of finding any rhymes for them?
Places like these just cry for good limericks about them!
As mentioned before, I know a little about Polish limericks only, but I'm pretty
sure Polish isn't the only non-English language that cherishes limericks.
Whether or not Poles can write limericks, there is no easy way to find out, at
least not until someone gets to translate some into English.
Before that happens, though, just to whet your apetite, here's an unworthy
translation of a brilliant (albeit a little on the bawdy side) Polish original:
As the bedroom shades went down to screen it,
The French king pressed a maid 'gainst the spinnet.
She said, "Wouldn't you, Sire,
Just withhold your desire?"
He looked up some and said, "Just a minette."
If you don't know what a "minette" is, forget it. Or, ask me.