Limerick[s] (reply to Robin)

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Nov 13 13:31:52 UTC 2009

Quoting Robin Hamilton <robin.hamilton2 at BTINTERNET.COM>:

> The following information may be relevant.
> "             The original limerick fad was accidentally created by the
> reprinting in London, in 1863, of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense, a volume
> of very tepidly humorous limericks, illustrated by the author, that had
> first appeared nearly twenty years before, in 1846, without any
> extraordinary success.  Inspired by the reprint however, Punch, the humorous
> English magazine, seized upon the form. The same was done in America by a
> minor writer and sedulous-ape, Charles Godfrey Leland, who later also
> embarrassingly imitated Carroll's Alice in Wonderland --  illustrations,
> typography and all --  in Johnnykin and the Goblins (1877).  Leland's
> anonymous imitation of Lear was called Ye Book of Copperheads, and was
> published by Leypoldt in Philadelphia in 1863. It is entirely satirical, all
> its limericks being directed against the Northern 'copperhead' defeatists,
> and the anti-Lincoln agitations during the Civil War.  In the same year
> there had also appeared a set of  "Nursery Rhymes for the Army," in Wilkes'
> Spirit of the Times, in New York; twenty-three limericks signed L.L.D.,
> initials that may possibly represent Leland's name with the vowels omitted.
>             Almost immediately after, a much more widely circulated
> imitation appeared, this time acknowledging Lear's inspiration in the title,
> The New Book of Nonsense, and issued in Philadelphia in 1864 to be sold for
> the profit of the Sanitary Commission, the Red Cross of the Civil War.  With
> that, the limerick fad was launched in America, though always under the name
> of 'nonsense rhymes' or 'nursery rhymes' until the 1890's, when, for the
> first time, the name limerick seems to have been applied to the form. The
> name is of unknown origin, having been appropriated from that of the town in
> Ireland for reasons never really explained, possibly from a now-forgotten
> chorus, 'Won't you come up to Limerick?'                         "
> Legman, G. The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography. New
> Hyde Park, N. Y.: University Books, 1964, p. 428
> A full(er) version of Legman's "now-forgotten chorus" runs:
>        Oh, won't you come up, come up, come up,
>           Oh, won't you come up to Limerick?
>        Oh, won't you come up, come all the way up,
>           Come all the way up to Limerick?
> --Stevenson, Burton Egbert. The Charm of Ireland. New York: Dodd, Mead and
> Co, 1914, p. 240
> Robin Hamilton

Thanks Robin. Previously on the list we've had reports of variations in the
chorus, e.g., in the post quoted below. So far, though, no clear confirmation
linking the chorus and Limerick-writing before 1898. One question is whether an
American phrase "come to Limerick" that arose during the US Civil War (in
reference to the Irish Civil War ending in Limerick in 1691) is involved with
the poem name origin. Many examples in the list archive.

14 March 2006 I posted:
On the proposed trajectory from the US-attested "come to Limerick" meaning
surrender (and the like; also, "get with the program" [and note the verses with
a similar sentiment, Ye Book of Copperheads ff]) to UK-attested uses in
the now-familiar sense, I have reconsidered the weight of the 1918
article "The Cult of the "Limerick'" in The Cornhill Magazine v. 117 (n.s. 44)
Feb. 1918 pp. 158-166, signed by C.L.G. (later reprinted in the US in The
Living Age).
We know of (later so called) Limerick writing in Cambridge (e.g., The Light
Green: a superior and high-class periodical..., A.C. Hilton, 1872) and Oxford
(e.g., The Shotover Papers, 1874-5). Other universities (e.g. Edinburgh,
Columbia) are attested later. J. H. Murray (not identical with J. A. H. Murray)
mentioned in 1898 a refrain; he may have operated an optical shop after a degree
from Glasgow. John MacGregor who published in 1896 a "Limerick rhyme" had a
degree from Edinburgh. Add in the claim in the (US-edited) Police Gazette
(noted by Fred) of "Limerick rhymes" in Oxford in 1880, and we return to the
Cornhill Magazine. There the claim: "we believe to be the correct form of the
refrain" as
Won't you come up, come up, come up,
Won't you come up to Limerick town?"
He sets this memory "in the Sheldonian" on the day when "the D.C.L. degree was
conferred on the then [Church of England] Bishop of Limerick by the University
of Oxford nearly forty years ago." This refrain may have pre-existed this day
and been repeated for the occasion, on 13 June, 1881 (according to The Times of
the next day).

Should we believe the memory of this writer? Perhaps so. He was Charles Larcom
Graves (1856-1944), and the Bishop, Charles Graves (1812-1899), was his
Father. [Among other family poets: Robert Graves and Alfred Percival Graves.]

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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