Limerick Myths

or: How Well do We Know them, Really?

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 this way. 
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 verse: 
    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 
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.
They are not too frequent, because there are not too many words in English that are accented paroxytonically. In Polish the proportions are reversed. 
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 language has. 
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 language.) 
That's bull.
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.