Limerick Rhythm and Metre
New OEDILF writers often take a while to get a feeling for limerick rhythm and metre, even when they think they know how it works. Few OEDILFers are masters of the form when they arrive. I wasn’t, but after an intensive month of learning the ropes I got pretty good. As with so many creative skills, it all starts coming more easily after a bit of practice.
Here are the essential points of the limerick form, although I’ll qualify some of them later:
- There are five lines in a limerick (unless it’s a gimmick piece using more or less lines for effect, a technique that should be used sparingly).
- The first, second, and fifth lines have three stressed syllables while lines three and four have only two. The basic metre of a limerick is anapest: duh-duh-DUM, duh-duh-DUM (but see later qualifications of this).
- The last stressed syllables of the first, second and fifth lines must rhyme with each other, as should the last stressed syllables of lines three and four. Any following unstressed syllables should also rhyme (some say they should be identical—a discussion for another page).
- Lines can begin on two, one, or occasionally no unstressed beats. Some prefer to continue the anapest rhythm across from one line to the next, especially when a sentence carries across lines, but this is not essential.
A lot of people think of the basic limerick rhythm as duh-duh-DUH duh-duh-DUH duh-duh-DUH, whereas I’m often more comfortable with duh-DEE-dle duh-DEE-dle duh-DEE (-dle). Limericks make me think of a leprechaun dancing a jig, singing “duh-DEEdle-ee-DEEdle-ee-DEE”. It’s an inherently jaunty, jolly rhythm.
Some non-OEDILF sources go so far as to say that the basic limerick metre is amphibrach, not anapest: duh-DUH-duh, not duh-duh-DUH.
[there WAS a] [young MAN from] [nan-TUCK-et]
As someone who starts most of his limericks with an iamb (duh-DUH) rather than duh-duh-DUH, I’m inclined to this view myself, but the reality is often more complex. Take this example of mine:
Duke William decided—for kicks—
That he’d give Harold’s army some licks
(Dunno why—maybe bored)
In the year of our Lord
Anno Domini 1066.
It starts on an iamb, but the rest is anapest throughout. But if you look at the way the words group together in the reading and reciting, it uses a range of soft/loud combinations:
[duke WILL-yum] [de-CI-ded] [for KICKS]
[that he’d GIVE] [har-old’s ARM-y] [some LICKS]
[dun-no WHY] [may-be BORED]
[in the YEAR of] [our LORD]
[an-no DOM-in-i] [TEN six-ty SIX]
...which makes it more interesting to my ear. Anyone counting the beats here would see that the soft-soft-LOUD rhythm is solid throughout, after the iambic start. So they’d say it’s “anapest throughout”, even though when we look at the words and sounds that group together it’s quite different.
So, the ideal is a good strong anapest rhythm throughout, but the first line can start on two unstressed beats, one, or even none. Other lines can also start on one or none, depending whether there were unstressed beats at the end of the preceding line—or just on how the piece feels as a whole and on what effect the author is aiming for. There’s no rule that says the anapest rhythm has to line up exactly with the ends or beginnings of lines; you can carry it across, and if your sentences carry across the ends of lines, it’s often better to do that. But even then it’s not compulsory. Have a look through our approved limericks and you’ll see enormous variety.
Sometimes OEDILF editors will suggest an author use “transitional anapest metre”, or TAM. This simply means maintaining the anapest rhythm across a line-break as if the break wasn’t there. Doing this can give you a verse that reads like a limerick even when it isn’t written out as five lines:
Duke William decided—for kicks—that he’d give Harold’s army some licks (dunno why—maybe bored) in the year of our Lord Anno Domini 1066.
But you don’t have to do this. One thing to keep in mind, which Virge raised once, is that limericks fall naturally into two halves: lines 1-2 and 3-5. The end of line 2 is a natural break point where you can “reset the metre”, assuming that the end of line 2 is the end of a sentence (or some other strong stop, like a colon).
There are always exceptions. Sometimes you’ll find that ending line 4 on a full stop (period) means you can safely start line 5 on non-anapest. Conversely, if your sentence bridges lines 2-3 it’s helpful to readers to maintain the anapest over the break, because otherwise they won’t automatically know where the stresses go. But if the lines 1-2 half is complete in itself and ends on a full stop, there’s no problem starting line 3 with an unambiguous iamb.
Starting every line of a limerick with an iamb can be fine as well—it’s just a different approach. In that case you should be careful that the stresses on the second syllable of each line are unambiguous.
And, as I’ve said, line 1 can start with anapest, iamb, or even on a strong beat if you like; but you have to be careful that the stresses are unambiguous, or you’ll set the reader off on the wrong foot.
Limericks have anapest feet—or amphibrachs, if you prefer, but they add up to the same soft-soft-loud when strung together. Whatever the natural stresses of a word, when you put them into a limerick the rhythms of a limerick will dominate. (Sometimes this means we need pronunciation guides to clarify how a word is stressed in a particular limerick.)
It’s actually a little misleading to describe a word as an amphibrach, anapest, or any other metrical foot, even though we do it as shorthand in our workshops. A metrical foot relates to verse, and words, whatever their own natural stresses, are fitted to them, and the two won’t always line up perfectly. That fit (or misfit) of word to foot is the key to writing a good or bad limerick.
Most writers when they start know the basics of limerick rhythm and metre—five lines, duh duh DUH duh duh DUH—but many of them haven’t quite twigged that you can’t just map any old words onto that metre and expect it to sound good. Some lines want to be limerick lines. Others don’t. Take this example from an old nursery rhyme:
The grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men; he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again.
If you know the rhyme and the tune, it’s impossible to read it any way but this:
the GRAND old DUKE of YORK he HAD ten THOU-sand MEN he MARCHED them UP to the TOP of the HILL and he MARCHED them DOWN a-GAIN.
The rhythm is basically iambic (duh-DUM), not anapest (duh-duh-DUM), except in a couple of places. Now imagine trying to map those words onto a limerick:
The grand old Duke of York he had ten
That’s an extremely hard sell to any reader familiar with the original rhyme.
When it comes to any limerick, readers bring preconceptions to it about how words, phrases and even whole sentences should sound. They expect to hear CEL-e-brate, not cel-e-BRATE, so if you ask them (by relying on the metre to tell them) to use the latter pronunciation, it’s going to sound forced—because it is forced. You’re forcing them to say the word a way they ordinarily wouldn’t.
One good trick when you’re drafting a limerick is to write the lines out as a single prose paragraph and read it aloud to see where the stresses fall, as I did with that example above. If you fall naturally into a limerick rhythm, you’re on the right track. If you don’t, it may need some attention.
There will always be words and phrases that are hard to map onto limerick metre. Learning how to deal with them is part of the fun of writing for the OEDILF. One awkward category is the natural amphimacer, words like Microsoft or paramount which can easily be stressed DUH-duh-DUH in speech. Look closely at them, however, and you will usually be able to identify the primary stress and fit your line around those: MIC-ro-soft, PA-ra-mount.
Occasionally, though, you’ll want to stress the other stressed syllable: mic-ro-SOFT. This rarely works perfectly, but you can sometimes get away with it, provided that there’s a rock-solid stress immediately before it:
I adore Microsoft and Bill Gates.
(Hmm, I wonder what Gates rhymes with?)
For this to work, the word must actually have a secondary stress in the position stressed, and there should be an unstressed syllable in between the (destressed) primary and secondary stresses. Starting a line on mic-ro-SOFT would be harder to pull off; and trying to stress, say, quicksand as quick-SAND just wouldn’t work.
Don’t try this too often, though. Even the example I’ve given feels pretty clunky to me.
Other awkward words are those that start with a strong stress and trail off in three unstressed syllables, such as horribleness. Various OEDILF authors have tried promoting the last syllable to a strong stress in such cases:
The horribleness was immense.
But this tends to feel as if the anapest metre is forcing the words to fit, rather than the other way around. A better solution, often, is to accept that the word has an extra unstressed syllable (eUS) and put a rock-solid stress immediately after it:
The horribleness grew and it grew.
As always, it depends what works best for you and your readers. Again, try the trick of writing the verse out as prose and seeing where the stresses fall when you read it in a natural voice. If the words need a limerick framework to force them into shape, they probably aren’t working as well as they might. In the same vein, stressing words like was and in, while it can sometimes work, is best avoided, unless you’re going for a traditional first line: “There was a young man...”
See this forum thread, particularly mephistopheles’ post on small, medium and large stresses, which ties in with the idea of treating limerick metre as amphibrach rather than anapest: in “duh-DEE-dle duh-DEE-dle”, the “dle” beats are stronger than the “duh” beats.
Reworked from workshopping comments from November 2004–February 2007. Thanks to sigg for reminding me about meph’s post.