A light-hearted look at some verse forms – including limericks, clerihews and double dactyls. Published in MET Vol. 10 No. 4 (October 2001) [This is a continuation of an article you can find here]
In a previous article in MET Vol.10 No.1 (Jan 2001) we looked at Tom Swifties. Here’s an example to remind you: ‘Give me your gun,’ said Tom, disarmingly. Yes, they are very bad puns but that’s the point – the reaction is supposed to be a groan, not a laugh. In fact there is more than one kind of Swiftie.
The kind we’ve looked at is the adverbial kind (‘They say I overuse adverbs,’ said Tom, swiftly). But there is another kind which uses a verb instead of an adverb. An example might be ‘What a lovely brook,’ Tom babbled, where babbled refers both to what Tom says and the noise of the running water.Here are some more ‘verbal’ Swifties:
‘Don’t you get angry with me,’ Tom growled.
There is a rarer third type, using a prepositional phrase: ‘I’m leaving you, Rupert,’ said Rodney in gay abandon. These are rather harder to construct than the other two (and my apologies for the stereotyping here).
Another variant of the Tom Swiftie matches a person’s name with an appropriate adjective. We might for example speak of The hasty Mr Swift, where the adjective hasty picks up on an attribute contained in the name Swift. Some more examples: thinking of ELT authors, we might refer to the brutal Mr Harmer where the word ‘harm’ (embedded in ‘Harmer’) is associated with the idea of brutality or violence; the festive Ms Revell (‘revels’ are parties); or the towering Mr and Mrs Soars (to ‘soar’ is to shoot up high into the air).You get the idea.
But Swifties are only one example of ways in which people play with words. Let’s have a look at some other ways of bending the language to our will, playing this time with what might charitably be called verse but should more accurately be termed doggerel.
The limerick is an institution throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, there is actually a Limerick day – celebrated on the twelfth of May. I’ve no idea who decided this, or when, but one year US novelist Erica Jong celebrated the occasion with a tribute to the inventor of the Limerick, Edward Lear:
A bespectacled artist called Lear
Edward Lear first published limericks in 1846 and since then the craze has never really died, although the majority in circulation are probably not suitable to tell your grandmother. The rhyme and rhythm are supposed to be always the same (AABBA) and the last line is supposed to produce a humorous climax.
The format is not as restrictive as it might seem. Here’s another, slightly less conventional one.
It’s a favourite project of mine
Lear’s original Limericks usually started with ‘There once was a man from…’ or ‘There was a young lady from…’ and the final line echoed the first one. This form is rare now, and there is really no limit to the ingenuity of some people who turn their hand to writing limericks.
I was once challenged to write a limerick beginning ‘There was a young girl called Victoria’ (Victoria was the name of the Institution I worked at) and it took me quite a long time to work out a suitable rhyme scheme. If you’re sensitive, skip the rest of this paragraph – but I was quite proud of what I eventually came up with:
There was a young girl called Victoria
Rapidly shifting to a loftier example, a graduate of the University of Birmingham has embarked on the extraordinarily obscure task of putting Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece King Lear into limerick form (see box). Don’t ask me why, but if you compare this extract with the original text (King Lear, Act I, Sc ii) and try to continue for a verse or so, you will rapidly realise just how impossibly difficult the task is.
This comes from Act I, Sc ii, where Edmund and his father Gloster are reading and discussing a letter, supposedly written by Gloster’s bastard son Edgar, in which it is proposed that the two sons murder their father. To appreciate this tour de force it helps considerably if you know the plot.
Here are a few more limericks for you:
This self-same young girl called Victoria
The limerick is furtive and mean;
There was a young lady from Kent
12, 144 + 20
This is another verse form that has a strict rhyme scheme but the rhythm is rather more flexible. It was invented in 1890 or thereabouts, perhaps unsurprisingly by a gentleman of the name of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. His first clerihew is said to have been as follows:
Sir Humphry Davy
Although very possibly the first of its kind, this is far from the best example of the genre and other writers with time on their hands have since gone on to produce far more skilled examples. Here are a couple more:
Sir Christopher Wren
And another I found in my notes:
Billy the Kid
The structure of the clerihew consists of two phrases, each consisting of rhyming couplets and spread over two lines of indeterminate length, giving a total of four lines. The first line is the name of a person and the other three lines make a comment or observation about him (or her, technically, but strangely all the clerihews I have read seem to be about men. There must be a paper in that somewhere …)
The double dactyl
This is a variation on the clerihew, although a little more structured, and is known in the US by the name Higgledy Piggledy. The form is said to have been invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal (see references below). It consists of two quatrains each of four lines. The second line must be a person’s name and the fourth and eighth lines must rhyme. At least one line must consist of a single word only, almost always multisyllabic. Here’s an example from The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games:
And another from Helen Grayson at the University of Leeds
Double dactyls are as not easy to write as limericks or clerihews, especially when the sense of the poem is supposed to relate to the life of the person mentioned in the second line, although the form has found popularity on university campuses where people tend to be more used to long words and convoluted language.
Translation of Nigel Dunn’s limerick:
A dozen, a gross and a score