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  • Ross Moughtin

There was a young man from Hong Kong




I write: “There was a young man from Hong Kong.” And you immediately start to compose a line with eight syllables concluding with a word ending in ong. Yes, it is the time of year for the annual Times Limerick competition. So in today’s Times2: A limerick writer named Lear Was born at this time of the year, So this competition Assigns you the mission Of sending your limericks here! It’s strange how the limerick has entered our national consciousness. In complete contrast to the other poetic forms like the sonnet, we all know how one works, even instinctively. So what makes a limerick? First of all there has to be a particular rhyming sequence: AABBA, and with a specific rhythm. I could paste it in here but I’ve just done it and it takes too much space. So here’s the first line as a taster: da-DUDder-da-DUDder-da DUM. And above all, the final line, the fifth, has to be a punchline, hopefully humorous. A lim’rick’s not hard to define But it needs to do more than just rhyme It’s the meter that matters The pitters and patters If not you’re just wasting my time There are no exceptions. You cannot break the rules: they are unnegotiably rigid. There was a young man from Japan Whose limericks never would scan. And when they asked why, He said "I do try! But when I get to the last line I try to fit in as many words as I can."

No one is quite sure where the limerick came from. It predates Edward Lear who is popularly thought to be the originator, as in the Times limerick above. However, he certainly popularised it with A Book of Nonsense in 1846. There was a Young Person of Smyrna Whose grandmother threatened to burn her. But she seized on the cat, and said 'Granny, burn that! You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!' Why the name Limerick? Again, no one is quite sure. It could well originate with a refrain from a much older nonsense verse parlour game. In fact, the last time I recall writing a limerick was for my daughter’s friend who had been just been appointed Dean of Limerick. I’ve just searched my Gmail account for my masterpiece but in vain. (Niall, if you are reading this, just delete it). So, where is all this taking us? Well at this stage of the blog, I simply have no idea. It doesn’t help that there are no limericks in the Bible. I’ve just phoned my Hebraist daughter for some direction but sadly she’s not picking up. However, as far as I am aware poetry in Hebrew doesn’t rely on rhyme or rhythm but on parallelism, saying the same thing again (or the opposite) but using different words. And as C S Lewis pointed it is “a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” And again, as far as I am aware, the limerick is a peculiarly English language form. However, I’ve just come across this limerick in Latin, accredited to St Thomas Aquinas of all people. I assume it must be a spoof but does seem genuine enough.

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio Concupiscentiae et libidinis exterminatio, Caritatis et patientiae, Humilitatis et obedientiae, Omniumque virtutum augmentatio. For those of you whose Latin is a bit rusty, this is a translation but not as a proper limerick. May God’s feast leave my vices depressed; May it quench the desires in my breast; May my virtues gain clarity: Humbleness, charity, Patience, and all of the rest. However, because there are no limericks in the Bible doesn’t mean to say that Christians can’t limerick. There’s a wonderful blueprint for prayer Given out by an expert most rare It asks a day’s worth of bread But no jelly to spread Should all our requests be that bare? At this point may I, with some relief, introduce you to retired Anglican vicar (like me) Revd Christopher Goodwins, who has not just a passion for limericks but far more importantly a passion to communicate the Gospel. As the apostle Paul wrote: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) And that includes limericks. So following a successful foray into the New Testament in limerick, he published Bible in Limerick in 2006 with no less than 1001 limericks. Lord Jesus once walked on a lake Which proved more than Peter could take All he did was look down And then started to drown. Let’s keep our eyes up, for God’s sake!

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