Poetry Wednesday: The Jumblies of Lear

I can’t say that I appreciate Edward Lear’s limericks.  They don’t scan right to my ear and I can’t force myself into finding them clever by considering the time period or that he popularized the form.  Sorry.

However, I do think his longer poems rock.

“The Owl and the Pussycat,” with its irresistible runcible spoon and exotic (to an American kid, anyway) quince* is the one most of us see in school and I do love it; but while those of us who have read both can’t deny that Mr. Lear’s delightful in pea-green—or suffered subconscious sea-sickness—you have to give credit to the Jumblies individualistic style. 

They certainly know how to shop, anyway,  and I’ve always wanted a hive of silvery bees.**

Illustration by Edward Lear

The Jumblies
(Edward Lear)


They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


And all night long they sailed away;
And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.
‘O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
In the shade of the mountains brown!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And everyone said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

*When I was growing up, any fruit that wasn’t a Jello or pudding (or Jello Pudding) flavor was considered way sophisticated.  That could explain a few things about me . . .

**That may explain some things, too.


Poetry Wednesday: There once was a Lim’rick Contest . . .

The lim’rick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical,
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

When I was in seventh grade, I attended a junior high that was built on an open floor plan—there were no walls separating the classrooms from the hallway, only  whatever furniture the teacher set up for nominal privacy.  This meant we all learned to keep our voices down (call it early librarian training) though anyone passing by could hear what everyone was doing.

One day, about halfway through our poetry module, my English teacher explained limericks— a stanza of five lines following an a-a-b-b-a rhyme scheme, with the third and four lines slightly shorter.  We clapped out the distinctive meter a few times* and started to read some example out loud.

Just as it was my turn, the teacher on hall duty stuck his head around a coat rack, stage-whispered, “There once was a man from Nantucket” and ran off to escape my English teacher’s embarrassed wrath, which none of us understood at the time, though it took us less than twenty-four hours to catch up, which I admit was mostly my fault (more early librarian training).**

I learned many things from that experience, not the least of which was that limericks don’t have to be boring or pedantic.  I mean, I adore Edward Lear, I truly do, and I appreciate that he was the one who established the popularity of the form, but many of his own limericks . . . lack something.

There was an Old Man in a Tree,
Whose Whiskers were lovely to see;
But the Birds of the Air
Pluck’d them perfectly bare
To make themselves Nests in that Tree.

Maybe Mr. Lear’s strict rules—note how he always ended the first and last line with the same word—didn’t leave his great imaginative talent enough room to move, or mabe I’m failing to understand the humor of the time. I don’t know.

But I do know I like wordplay limericks the best:

A wonderful bird is the Pelican
His beak can hold more than his bellican
He takes in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m darned if I see how the hellican.
(Dixon Lanier Merritt)

Especially the silly ones:

A tutor who tutored the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”

One of the best uses of limericks, in my opinion, was in World War II, by then-Captain A.D. Nicholls of the British Royal Navy, who needed to get a critically damaged Dutch sloop repaired about a month before D-Day,  when shipyards were understandably overwhelmed.  He sent in a request for repairs, headed by this:

A report has come in from the Soemba
that their salvoes go off like a Rhumba
two guns, they sound fine
but the third five point nine
he am bust and refuse to go boomba.

The Director of Plans, R.K. Dickson, responded with a limerick of his own:

This is very grave news from the Soemba,
Whose guns are all needed to go boomba,
On a fast nearing day –
Though we cannot say
When exactly will rise the balloonba.

This continued in kind for the twelve or so limericks (or near misses) in English and in Dutch to get the job done.*** That sort of dedication should be honored.

So . . .

I’m throwing a Lim’rick Contest!^
Please enter—though it should be stressed
That I’ll hold no truck
With men from Nantuck-
et.  Don’t care if you call me repressed.

My challenge to you is to write an original limerick on any topic you like and either share it in the comments or e-mail it to me by midnight next Wednesday, EST.

I’m not judging quality—for obvious reasons—but your limerick does have to follow the traditional (if relaxed) rhyme scheme and scan well with no more than the usual fudging.^^ And if you prefer to use a language other than English, I’d appreciate your use of a Latin-based alphabet and a translation, which does not have to rhyme.^^^

Despite my attempt up there, I actually don’t mind if your limerick is off-color or downright dirty, but I reserve the right to take it out of the comments if the words go too far past wink-wink, nudge-nudge—it will still count for the contest.  If you’re not sure, e-mail it to me and I’ll decide.

If you accept the challenge, your name will go in Janie’s Cincinnati Reds hat for a chance to win the (regular sized)  CafePress mug of your choice.  As CafePress appears to ship to most countries, this contest is open to residents of both hemispheres—if I can’t get the mug to you for some reason, we’ll work something out.

C’mon—it’s only five lines and a couple of rhymes.

You know you want to.


*Limericks generally have anapest metrical feet, which sounds, appropriately enough, like something Edward Lear would use in conjunction with runcible spoons.  And anapest metrical feet is  fun to say—try it!

** I’d asked my Dad, who told me because a) Dad believes that there are no improper questions, only ones too personal to answer, and b) he assumed I’d developed, at the age of thirteen, more discretion and common sense than, in fact, I had.  At the very least, he wasn’t expecting me to cite my source . . .

*** The entire series and the story behind it can be found here, in the words of Rear Admiral A.D. Nicholl, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O. himself.

^More of a challenge than a contest, but I couldn’t figure out more than one rhyme for challenge and that one wasn’t quite right.  Remember, I’ve never claimed to be a poet.

^^I will notice if you slip in a haiku or a couple couplets—please wait for the next contest.

^^^ But if it does, it counts for two entries, because wow.