This little book of limericks, some as hard and glittering as shards of mica but a few surprisingly pallid and limp, at once presents a puzzle: the real name of an author is no more likely to be Jeff Chaucer than the real name of the author of a play would be Billie Shakespeare. The first task that I therefore set myself was to attempt to discover the real identity behind the pseudonym.
Accompanying the title there is also the name of Robert Conquest, writer of an introduction that, while I was reading it, seemed to be familiar, and that eventually turned out to be a revised version of a review for the TLS of a book on the limerick by William Baring-Gould. Briefly I had decided that the limericks themselves must also be wholly the work of Conquest, until I came on one by one of the best and most prolific of all exponents of the genre, Victor Gray (b. 1917). Clearly, then, Conquest, though himself a talented writer of limericks, was not the sole begetter of the collection, even though it contains some contributions by him that also appear in the Penguin Book of Limericks. But he may well be the editor, in addition to being himself a contributor, and so in a position to draw on the talents of such of his colleagues in the Movement as Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin — all listed among his acknowledgments for their ‘collaborations’.
During the Thirties the perennially popular The Weekend Book introduced to readers such limericks, adroitly encapsulating some philosophical or scientific conundrum, as Ronald Knox’s musing on whether a tree still exists if there is no one in the Quad to acknowledge its existence or M. E. Hare’s description of predestination (‘I’m a being that moves, In predestinate grooves, Not a bus, not a bus, but a tram.’) The collection under review contains a number of such highbrow limericks. From this one would deduce that the authors are more likely to frequent SCRs, High Tables and Pall Mall Clubs than their local pubs.
Conquest comments, rightly, on the way in which bad versions of limericks all too often cast out good ones. M. E. Hare’s limerick is a case in point: the correct scansion of the original is brutally disregarded in the version given in the Penguin Book. This progress of deflation must be ascribed to the fact that the authors of most limericks are anonymous: the endless transformations that their verses undergo is a confirmation that usually das Volk dichtet. An amusing change for the better, not the worse, can however, be found in the book under review, where a limerick that used to begin, no doubt to evade the possibility of a libel action, ‘Said a famous old writer called Lender’ has now become ‘Said a famous old writer called Spender.’
Certain subjects crop up yet again in this collection as in every collection of limericks: smacking of a bare bottom (Charlotte Bronte’s); the unacceptable nature of an intimate item of woman’s attire (‘her panties were pink polyester’); defecation (‘We’re very refined down in Georgia, We never say “shit”. We say “ordure” ’); bestiality (‘I was thrilled when I went to the Zoo, They allowed me to roger the gnu’); and satyriasis (‘Oliver Twist Tried to fuck every woman he kissed’). Similarly, over and over again the same players pop up on the stage, as in a theatre company laid low by swine-flu — spinsters with boisterously unsatisfied yearnings, randy bishops, concupiscent actresses, inveterate farters (here the philosophers Kant and Hume and ‘Sir Mart ffart-ffart Bart’), prim young men outraged by a sexual advance and old men delighted by one.
Conquest points out that the limerick has been described as the only original verse form in the English language. Like the Japanese haiku, it tends to be composed to a high technical standard by amateurs otherwise lacking any interest or skill in poetry. I only wish that bawdiness were not regarded as a sine qua non, so that, as in the case of the haiku, more of its authors regarded it as permissible to deal not merely with what my mother would call ‘all that sex nonsense’, but also with observations of seasonal change, of human and natural beauty, and the transitory joys and griefs of existence.
Gavin Ewart, a fine poet, made a number of such attempts to move the form on to a higher plane, as has Ruth Silcock. One of Ewart’s most beautiful poems is a limerick:
Life is sad and so slow and so cold
As the leaves that were green turn to gold
As the lonely lake fills
And there’s ice in the hills
And the long, loathly winter takes hold.