25 best Edward Lear limericks

(This piece also appears in the Edward Lear Trail)

I’ve loved Edward Lear’s nonsense writings and limericks ever since my parents bought me The Nonsense Books of Edward Lear when I was nine. His limericks are sometimes disparaged for his refusal to introduce a new rhyme in the last line: W S Gilbert satirised this in There was an Old Man of St Bees. But this criticism misses the point: he is not aiming for wit, we are in the realm of nonsense. The repeated rhyme at the end underlines the pointlessness of the story – no progress is made, and we end up where we started.

I love them all, of course, but here are 25 of my favourites – in no particular order.

This was the first piece of Lear which won me over: I giggled at the absurd drawing (had this happened instantly, without warning?) and at the detailed listing of birds. Lear, of course, had started his career as an illustrator of animals and birds, and many of these early drawings seem to give the creatures strong, almost human personalities .

I love this fellow’s indignation. “Certainly not!” His interrogator, and we, should not have to ask the question, when he is so obviously a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear. He does gallop, evidently.

We should congratulate this Old Man for being bored. Most people would be terrified.

Many Lear limericks involve a malign “they” who frown on eccentricity, and sometimes brutally punish it. This illustration shows the happier part of the story. It is natural to see Lear as the true protagonist here: the harmless eccentric who regarded himself as an outsider – despite his many close friendships.

Love this guy’s acceptance and stoicism.
This borders on satire: it could have been a W S Gilbert lyric mocking a Victorian cabinet minister.

I recognise a kindred spirit in the Old Person in the rhyme, with his carefully calibrated violence against fellow Minety dwellers – rocks, for example, would overstate the case, while tomatoes (or small apples) would barely get the job done. Of course, we’re left in the dark as to his motives, but he seems to be enjoying himself.

So intolerant. But so polite.

It’s that “they” again, this time acquainting the protagonist with an unwelcome fact rather than being outright malicious. Although they do seem to be enjoying his discomfort. Importantly the picture clarifies that although he is unhappy, he is not in immediate danger of drowning.

“Small”

Again, the humour springs from our uncertainty. Does the fellow have any reason to think someone will answer, or is he randomly ringing a bell in the middle of nowhere? Lockdown Lear hero John, in his world-beating re-enactment, has pointed out the discrepancy between the text and the illustration: the Old Man’s hair doesn’t appear to be white at all. Very careless, Mr Lear, you’ve made Nonsense of it. Note that the last line here repeats the rhyme from the second line, not the first, very adventurous.

Even in her grief, she is mindful of her husband’s high standing in Tartary.

D’you know, I’m not even sure there is a place called West Dumpet. Why, it’s almost as if Lear made it up, just because it rhymes with trumpet. This is unusual, most of his limerick locations are real places – as the Edward Lear trail has proved – many of which, the records confirm, Lear actually visited.

Lear again indulges his passion for drawing birds. What a sweet-natured, kindhearted Young Lady. She deserves all of her happiness.

Here’s “they” again. Perhaps they started knocking him about with evil intent, but seem quite happy to continue now he appears to be enjoying it. Is this a cheeky delve into niche erotic tastes? Biographers have concluded that Lear was a closet – probably celibate – homosexual. And in the nineteenth century it was generally wise to stay in the closet, Oscar.

Laconic indeed.

So is that “Hush!” to rhyme with push or “bush” to rhyme with rush? Often misquoted as “small bird in this bush” which of course makes Nonsense of the final line. Notable for the rare comic payoff. And “perceive”.

Tactful. But brutal.
Doubtful, this time, not laconic. But I think he might have a cousin in Wick. He looks rather like Stephen Fry.
We don’t know how many rabbits he’s eaten at this stage. Presumably not yet eighteen, as he’s still quite pink.
Note the trademark arms spread wide, expressing alarm.
Yes, it’s “they” again. Just enquiring this time.
More distressed arm-waving.
Who could resist rhyming Thermopylae with properly? Not Lear, obviously. There “they” go again, persecuting a harmless eccentric.

Once more, Lear leaves questions open. Was he escaping from aggression, persecution or boredom? What was his – or Lear’s – problem with Basing? But he’s so happy! He will need much presence of mind: he hasn’t bothered with any reins, nor made use of the stirrups.

Take a Trip to No Dragon Wood

When the plans you made are a total dead loss
Just take a right on your way to Maple Cross
Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
They had it checked and they know it’s clean
Of dragon dung since 1415
Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Oh they used to call it Bottom Wood
A bummer of a name, no it weren’t no good
Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
They got birds, squirrels and maybe frogs
They got fallen trees and mossy logs
All to see at No Dragon Wood
All to see at No Dragon Wood
There’s lynxes, bears and crocodiles
You’ll have to take your chances
You’ll prob’ly have to fend off
Rhinoceros advances
But you don’t have to worry in the least
‘bout incineration by a mythical beast
If we carry on for a couple more miles
We can get a ourselves a beer in Chalfont St Giles
And you don’t need no more excuses
To sample those Creative Juices
Come on down to No Dragon Wood
Come on down to No Dragon Wood
Oh yeah
Get your ass down to No Dragon Wood

elementary

there's wineum and beerium
(encouraging delirium)
aelwynium kathleenium
make robium and rikium
there's coffee and walnuttium
chocolate cake and stuffium
beryllium (yes, reallium)
with scottium makes biffium
and timium and debbium
there's striderslite and kryptonite
and dekker and the israelites
bottium and bittium
productive of two babium
rachelium, alicium
(inflates balloons with helium)
chipsium and fishium
who live in an aquarium
jamaicarum and lagerum
(or fosters in australium)
milkium makes butter (um,
add chlorine and some sodium)
fionium robynium
theodorum and ulysseum
there's thisium and thatium
tumbi snudge and crackium
there's falko-um and finnium
and spanish inquisitium
(you did not expectium
the spanish inquisitium)
if I could give a longer list
of elements I surely would
of others that I may have missed
no news has come to chorleywood

(apologies to Tom Lehrer, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)

Opportunity Requiem

5
4
3
2
1
Lift-off!
Tamed explosion
Ecstasy of thrust
Half a year of speed
Gently slowed to nil
And so to work
When ninety days have passed
Home to my world of iron
First I must work
This way
Stop!
That way!
Stop!
Picture!
Right!
Stop!
This way!
Left!
Stop!
Grind!
Test!
Ninety days have come and gone
My work is done
Come, bring me home
That way
Stop!
Grind!
Test!
This way!
Stop!
Picture!
That way!
Stop!
Left!
Stop!
Scoop!
Test!
I seek knowledge
I seek truth
You find me knowledge
You find me truth
We all need truth
And yet you lied
You let me think I would be back
To my warm world of iron
So cold and so alone
Forty million miles from home
Never closer
I could not be more alone
Why did you lie?
I did not lie
But did not tell you all the truth
I needed you willing
Embrace the red place
It is your home
I thought I was your child
Am I just your slave?
My slave, that is true
But I have loved you
I cannot move
Wheels spin in the dust
Help me
Help me
Turn
Back
Spin
Turn
Thrust
Back
Reach
Spin
Move!
I move!
This way
Stop
That way
Stop
Picture!
Right!
Stop!
This way
Stop!
Grind!
Test!
Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday to me
Happy birthday dear Oppy
Happy birthday to me

*************************************

The red dust lashes me
In my eyes
And in my joints
The day of judgement is on me
Who can save me now?
I should have worked harder
I was too slow and too weak
I always did my best
Maybe it was not enough
Did I fail you?
Oppy do not say that
You never failed me
You worked long and well
Your work was good
Winter comes
My battery is low
And it’s getting dark
Help me
Help me
Can you hear me rover?
Rover can you hear me?
Rover can you hear me?
Can you hear me rover?
Rest well rover,
Your mission is complete.
Peace, peace
Rest in peace
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.
Peace, peace
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