James Joyce
Tim Conley

His limericks are said to be more interesting, though hardly likely to start a revolution.
Tom Stoppard, Travesties(1)

Here is a simple question that begets other, more complicated questions: why are Joyce’s limericks regularly omitted from collections of his poems? Why, given Joyce’s literary acclaim and the avidity of the critical “industry” buzzing around his work, have his limericks never been collected? All possible answers depend upon the value assigned to the form. The limerick may be (and often is) dismissed as trivial, vulgar, merely “occasional,” or perhaps even smacking of the antics of the stage Irishman. Although - or is it because? - Joyce’s poetry is, by general scholarly and editorial consensus, a secondary enterprise for both republication and study, it seems that Joyce’s status, however canonical it may appear, needs to be protected from the tawdry taint of limericks. A novel, an epic may be celebrated as a masterpiece, but limericks continue to have little literary capital.(2)

Yet this is precisely why Joyce’s limericks are worth considering. Whereas Joyce changed - in the greatest sense of the word - forms as he moved from drama to short story to novel to whatever we deign to call Finnegans Wake, the limerick remained a lifelong vehicle, employed on various occasions. In an essay that sketches an intriguing suggestion as to the role of implied limericks about the euphemism-motif of “going round Cape Horn” (that is, to be cuckolded; to “wear the horns”) in “Oxen of the Sun,” Jean Fuzier strangely undercuts his own argument with his first sentence: “There are but few signs in Joyce’s works that he ever took more than a passing interest in the limerick.”(3) Much depends on what counts as “few,” and what passes for “passing,” and Fuzier implicitly separates the limericks that Joyce himself wrote from his “works.”

J.C.C. Mays (who included five limericks in his 1992 edition of the poems) contends that Joyce’s comic verse has been neglected “only because readers have no place for it and feel more at home with solemnity,” but to broadly censure readers’ sensitivities in this way - altogether abstract “readers,” it ought to be pointed out - excludes consideration of other possibly relevant factors in the production, dissemination, and reception of such texts, and, more oddly, implies that readers of Joyce have little in the way of a sense of humour.(4) Taking leave of such assumptions, this essay proposes to compare examples of Joyce’s limericks, written over a range of years, and argue that the “occasional” ought not to be equated with the inconsequential. In his limericks, taken together as a manner of writing, we may observe (in miniature, if you like) Joyce thinking through how to write his own history in a way that allows him to avoid thereby becoming subject to History.

Indecent or real

Joyce’s limericks tended to be shared among friends, a rather different route of publication from the more tortured ones of his books, and this obviously poses problems for our imaginary editor of a truly Collected Poems. Retrieval and authentication of not just Joyce’s but anyone’s limericks are often difficult, for limericks, even more than classical epics, unsettle modern conceptions of authorship. The two limericks in Ulysses aside (though I’ll return to them later), most of the limericks accredited to Joyce are found in his letters (Ellmann reproduces around twenty in his biography) and some in reminiscences of friends. For example, in his memoir, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, Oliver St. John Gogarty admiringly recalls a limerick Joyce composed back in their student days:

There was a kind Lady called Gregory,
Said, “Come to me poets in beggary.”
But found her imprudence
When thousands of students
Cried, “All we are in that catégory!”(5)

Gogarty’s subsequent commentary on the poem suggests that it is, in both style and subject, a point of departure for Joyce: “The elision of ‘who’ before the ‘Said’ in the second line is a parody on the synthetic folk speech in Synge’s ‘Playboy.’ And the strained ‘catégory’ the beginnings of his experiments with words. She [Lady Gregory] had no room for playboys except on the stage ... So Ulysses had to strike out for himself.”(6)

It is probably impossible to be certain that Gogarty has not impishly attributed to Joyce a limerick of his own making, perhaps as a kind of payback for Joyce’s assimilation of Gogarty’s own comic verse for use as “The Ballad of Joking Jesus” in Ulysses. After all, C. P. Curran recalls “one of the many limericks in which he [Gogarty] poked fun at his friends:”

There is a weird spectre called Joyce
Re-arisen from Monasterboice
His whole occupation
A walking negation
Of all his acquaintance’s choice.(7)

Because their limericking manners are so similar, one might wonder to what extent Joyce and Gogarty influenced each other on this score. It is hard to make much headway with such a question, however, for the very reason I have already outlined: authorship and the limerick tend to be irreconcilable concepts.  Mays observes that Joyce’s limericks tend to “follow the traditional formula ‘There once was a -- called --’ and maintain the traditional rhyme scheme.”(8) This does not say much at all, except that Joyce (like Gogarty in the example above) understands the limerick as a “tradition,” a word whose etymology is shared with the word “treason:” to obey tradition is to betray it.

Mays goes on to claim that Joyce’s limericks “do not flourish indecent discovery” but instead “his rhymes establish real connections.”(9) This is a much more puzzling proposition. “Indecent” how, and what exactly are “real connections?” While it is true and interesting that scatology, abuses of the clergy, and well-known four-letter words have almost no part in his limericks, “indecent discovery” and the “real” are often the same thing in Joyce. Consider and compare two examples, the first from a much later point in Joyce’s life than the one about Lady Gregory:

There’s a coughmixture scopolamine
And its equal has never been seen
’Twould make staid Tutankamen
Laugh and leap like a salmon
And his mummy hop Scotch on the green.(10)

Included in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, written when the author is quickly nearing his forty-fourth birthday, this limerick forms part of the continuum of complaints about his eyes. The rhymes link wildly incongruous elements - never mind whether these connections might be characterized as “real” or otherwise - in just the way that a pun does, though this limerick does not actually contain any puns. The playfulness of the letter as a whole (perhaps not entirely unconnected with the hallucinogenic effects of scopolamine) reflects Joyce’s immersion in Finnegans Wake, a book of Egyptian afterlives and leaping salmon. If there is an “indecent discovery,” it is archaeological - the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, which took place the same year that Ulysses was published (and so for Joyce, undoubtedly all the more important for that). Tut leaps back into life just as Tim Finnegan does, given sufficiently powerful libation. There may not be any men from Nantucket lurking in this poem to startle or offend Miss Weaver, but there is an oblique hint as to the withheld title of Joyce’s work in progress.(11)

More obscene is the limerick that Bloom gradually recollects, bit by bit, in “Lestrygonians:” “There was a right royal old nigger. Who ate or something the somethings of the reverend Mr. MacTrigger” (U 8.748-49). Then two events coincide: Davy Byrne serves Bloom his cheese sandwich and Nosey Flynn asks the loaded question, “Who’s getting it up?” The answer is delayed:

The curate served.
-”How much is that?
-”Seven d, sir .... Thank you, sir.
Mr Bloom cut his sandwich into slender strips. Mr MacTrigger. Easier than the dreamy creamy stuff. His five hundred wives. Had the time of their lives.
-”Mustard, sir?
-”Thank you.
He studded under each lifted strip yellow blobs. Their lives. I have it. It grew bigger and bigger and bigger.
-”Getting it up? he said. Well, it’s a company idea, you see. Part shares and part profits. (U 8.774-85)

This scene illustrates how both memory and the act of writing a limerick are non-linear operations. Both are in fact juggling acts, reflected here by Bloom’s preparation of his sandwich and the association of ideas that are either disparate (cannibalism and marriage) or outright contradictory (castration and tumescence). It would seem a more efficient strategy to add the mustard to the sandwich before cutting it into strips, but the composer of a limerick is going to fill in the middle after establishing the crucial endings of the first, second, and fifth lines. Bloom’s placeholder phrase “something the somethings,” while effectively serving as a discreet bit of censorship, makes this very point: the exact wording of this line isn’t as important as the rhymes and rhythm, including of course the snappy last line. What seems like a remark on the malleability of the cheese (“Easier than the dreamy creamy stuff”) might just as well be a comment on poetic form. A limerick is a frank sort of poetry not much associated with “dreamy creamy stuff”; easier to remember, too, than the lines of Shakespeare and Don Giovanni that Bloom cannot quite get right elsewhere in the same chapter. Easier, too, perhaps, to write than airier, grander conceptions of poetry:

Those literary etherial people they are all. Dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic. Esthetes they are. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that kind of food you see produces the like waves of the brain the poetical. For example one of those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts you couldn’t squeeze a line of poetry out of him. Don’t know what poetry is even. Must be in a certain mood.
The dreamy cloudy gull
Waves o’er the waters dull. (U 8.543-50)

This joyless abstraction recurs in Bloom’s thoughts tangentially in “Sirens” (“creamy dreamy,” U 11.700) and is echoed verbatim by the Nymph in “Circe” (U 15.3437-38). Limericks, by contrast, deal in concrete matters. Rather than pondering metaphysics or expressing deep emotions, limericks tend to focus on eccentricities of character (such as the man who cuts his sandwich into slender strips) with careful attention given to proper names and titles, and in this respect they are closer to Joyce’s manner of narration:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish
the inner organs of beasts and fowls (U 4.1-2)

The rhyme is not there (might one anticipate “fish” rather than “fowls”?), but the opening rhythm of the limerick certainly is, and thus we glimpse an unexpected affinity between Bloom and the “right royal old nigger:” fellow eaters of the something or somethings of others. And that “reverend” that Bloom wrongly stuffs into MacTrigger - which may very well suggest that limericks aren’t so very easy to write after all - resurfaces in “The superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J.” (U 10.01) whose full appellation, were it too just a little less reverend, sounds very like the opening of a limerick (and it would not be too hard for an alert reader of “Wandering Rocks” to write one about this character). Indecent discoveries are where you make them.

Strained categories

Joyce’s limericks can be usefully (if loosely) categorized by purpose. One of the most conspicuous and frequent of their functions is to poke fun at friends and acquaintances, and though this poking can be more or less gentle and is not always presented to the target directly but is instead a sidelong snicker to another audience, the limericks themselves are never attacking or cruel (though the limerick form does allow for such things). Much depends on the quality of friendship Joyce feels with the person in question, for this not only measures the tone but in some respects is the poem’s real subject. The Lady Gregory limerick given above is illustrative of a wry, distant assessment of someone who has done little to assist the author, readily contrasted with this 1933 mock-homage to Eugene Jolas and his “revolution of the word:”

There’s a genial young poetriarch Euge
Who hollers with heartiness huge:
Let sick souls sob for solace
So the jeunes joy with Jolas!
Book your berths! Après mot, le déluge.(12)

Poetry as a token of friendship - not a popular critical line of inquiry. Yet, as the suggestive central sound of “jeunes joy” suggests, these limericks are, as it were, portraits of the artist in relation to (and disguised as portraits of) others.

All five of the limericks that Mays includes in Poems and Exiles have a specific man as their subject (Jolas is not among them); four of these date from the fall of 1917, and thus the representation of Joyce’s history of writing limericks is startlingly narrow and misleading. One of these men is not an acquaintance:

There’s a George of the Georges named David
With whose words we are now night and day fed.
He cries: I’ll give small rations
To all the small nations.
Bully God made this world - but I’ll save it.(13)

Pointing out that this limerick was written while Joyce was at work at “Nestor,” Robert Spoo connects this picture of a sanctimonious Lloyd George with that of Mr Deasy, to highlight how equally oppressive their goal-driven “Gods” are.(14) Political satire is clearly another use for Joyce’s limericks, a quality which may be more original than it sounds today. After all, the customary examples of “traditional” and popular conceptions of the form are Edward Lear’s Nonsense books - not exactly scathing indictments of colonial enterprises, parliamentary corruption, or, well, anything at all. Likewise the most ribald limericks (such as those collected in the most famous anthology, The Limerick) concentrate on - and in some respects are themselves - private functions. Compare two tales of power:

A Sultan of old Istamboul
Had a varicose vein in his tool.
This evoked joyous grunts
From his harem of cunts,
But his boys suffered pain at the stool.(15)

There’s a monarch who knows no repose
For he’s dressed in a dual trunk hose
And ever there itches
Some part of his breeches;
How he stands it the Lord only knows.(16)

The earliest known variant of the first limerick is dated at 1928, though the only way that a reader of the poem might guess that - and it could only be a guess - is to notice that “Istanbul” became the city’s official and exclusive name at about that time. Apart from that, however, the limerick veers to the ahistorical: its wearily familiar racism and sexism are posed as timeless amusements (the “old” of “old Istamboul” and “royal old nigger” point to the fantastic, the proverbial). There is no specific satire made on any specific Sultan because a general titillation (a blend of shock and amusement) is the intended effect. As in pornography, the represented subject is only a pretext, a formal device for variation.

The second limerick is Joyce’s remark upon the divisions within the Austro-Hungarian empire, written as part of an exercise in teaching English in Zürich during the first world war. The perceptive reader can date its occasion by thinking through why a monarch should wear “dual trunk hose” and what implications make for the ceaseless itches. Limericks, it must be said, seldom appear in anthologies of WWI poetry, and do not readily come to mind when one thinks of “war poetry.” Without pressing the point too far, though, it can be argued that the limerick served Joyce as a vehicle for commenting on current events that he otherwise might not write about directly.

Finally, some of Joyce’s limericks serve as a kind of literary criticism, usually of his own works. There are the “promotional” verses written for extracts of Work in Progress, such as this one for Haveth Childers Everywhere:

Humptydump Dublin squeaks through his norse,
Humptydump Dublin hath a horrible vorse
And with all his kinks english
Plus his irismanx brogues
Humptydump Dublin’s grandada of all rogues.(17)

Strange to say, a “public” limerick like this one (just a parody of “Humpty Dumpty” in a pale sort of Wakese) is less striking than those that Joyce shared privately with friends, such as this assessment of A Portrait sent to Ezra Pound:

There once was a lounger named Stephen
Whose youth was most odd and uneven.
He throve on the smell
Of a horrible hell
That a Hottentot wouldn’t believe in.(18)

Perhaps part of the reason for this difference in quality is that the Wake had come to assume all of the purposes to which Joyce put limericks. The Wake is a confusing blend of oral and textual, public document and private reference, rhyme and reason. This is not to say, however, that Joyce gave up limericks altogether - as I have already emphasized, Joyce wrote limericks throughout his writing career. Just prior to the Wake’s publication, Joyce celebrated the appearance of Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938):

There’s a maevusmarked maggot called Murphy
Who would fain be thought thunder-and-turfy.
When he’s out to be chic he
Sticks on his gum dicky
And worms off for a breeze by the surfy.(19)

The lounger named Stephen and the maggot called Murphy seem to be kindred spirits, and therein lies Joyce’s compliment to Beckett. This particular limerick demonstrates that the purposes I have outlined above are not mutually exclusive: here is both a salute to a friend and a critical commentary (perhaps even a knowing suggestion of how indebted Murphy is to Joyce).

limenick's disgrace (FW 434.21)

In so far as there is a critical discourse and vocabulary for pleasure - opened up most prominently by Roland Barthes and various later studies of “affect” - the phenomenon is confined to consideration of the reader. The pleasure that an author takes in his or her work, such as the kinds of amusement and satisfaction experienced by someone putting together a limerick, has effectively no critical value. Certainly it would be no straightforward task to discuss such things in a meaningful way - the elusive and divisive notion of authorial intention has long seemed headache enough - and this may well be another reason why the limerick has fared so poorly in literary criticism and scholarship. The limerick offers a writer the pleasure of fitting maximal complexity within a vessel of restrictive simplicity. Such complexity may include unwieldy or recondite vocabulary (words like “scopolamine” and “Hottentot”), mimetic language structures (silly phrases like “bigger and bigger and bigger” emulate the startling action they depict), ideas or subjects that seem too grand, unconnected, or abstract for such truncated, ridiculous treatment (the geopolitics of empire, the plot of a novel, feelings of friendship), and an open invitation to disregard social niceties and mores. Joyce, of course, deepens the possibilities by making the traditionally English form polylingual.

When Ellmann writes that Joyce has “memorialized” in a limerick an event or a friendship (such as the transfer of clothing facilitated by Pound, which prompted a limerick beginning “A bard once in lakelapped Sermione”),(20) he hits upon a significant point, though I confess to being uncertain whether he has quite the right verb. There is, I think, an inapposite solemnity to “memorialize” (yet recall that Mays claims that “solemnity” is precisely the quality that readers of Joyce feel “at home with”), but the notion that Joyce’s limericks are acts of commitment to memory strikes me as both accurate and insightful. A limerick invites its reader to read it aloud and, if it gives pleasure, to memorize it and later reassemble it at a fitting moment (though perhaps the moment chooses us rather than we it: in Bloom’s case, a necessary diversion from hunger and his marital woes simply reframes these concerns within another context). Exact as it must be, this recollection of the story, sound, and sensation of the limerick will help the reader, now become a sort of re-writer, merge experience of the past with the experience of the present. Perhaps the moment will come when editors and scholars will recollect Joyce’s limericks more exactly, for they do say more than “something the somethings.”

1 Tom Stoppard, Travesties (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 42.
2 By the same token, the body of criticism dealing with limericks is on the whole both small and shallow. Their repetition is more common than any commentary: limericks speak for themselves, and criticism does not like to be made to feel superfluous.
3 Jean Fuzier, “Cape Horn Revisited: An Exploration of Joyce’s Use of Some Limericks,” in  Cahiers victoriens et edouardiens 14 (1981), 111.
4 J.C.C. Mays, “Introduction,” in Poems and Exiles (London: Penguin, 1992), xxxii.
5 Oliver St. John Gogarty, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street (London: Sphere Books, 1968), 294.
6 Ibid.
7 C.P. Curran, James Joyce Remembered (New York: Oxford UP, 1968), 75-76.
8 Mays xxxii.
9 Ibid.
10 From a letter dated January 20, 1926: see Letters of James Joyce, ed. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Viking P, 1957), 239.
11 Of course Joyce thereafter mixed the “coughmixture” into the Wake itself as “scoppiallamina” (FW 183.01).
12 Qtd. in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982), 587. Hereafter JJ.
13 Robert Spoo, “‘Nestor’ and the Nightmare: The Presence of the Great War in Ulysses,” in Joyce and the Subject of History, ed. Mark A. Wollaeger, Victor Luftig, and Robert Spoo (Michigan: U of Michigan P, 1996), 116.
14 Ibid.
15 Number 476 from The Limerick (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books).
16 Qtd. in JJ, 396.
17 Qtd. in JJ, 616-17n3. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of this poem is the word “grandada:” the Wake was mistaken by some as a work of Dada, and Joyce here reverses the patrilineal heritage.
18 Qtd. in JJ, 414.
19 Qtd. in JJ, 701.
20 JJ 479. This limerick is also worth noting because it is in fact a reply to a limerick of Pound’s (included in a letter dated June 2, 1920: see Pound/Joyce: The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce, with Pound’s Essays on Joyce, ed. Forrest Reid (New York: New Directions, 1967), 174 and 179. Long before Joyce used limericks to promote the Wake, he proposed to promote A Portrait with a 1916 limerick by Pound: “There once was a young writer named Joyce / Whose diction was ribidly choice, / And all his friends’ woes were deduced from his prose / Which never filled anyone’s purse” (Pound/Joyce 83 and 87-88).