I just discovered that this Edward Lear limerick:

There was an Old Person of Fife,
Who was greatly disgusted with life;
They sang him a ballad,
And fed him on salad,
Which cured that Old Person of Fife.

has been translated into Russian and, in my opinion, considerably improved; of course, this is bound to be the case with the removal of the tedious repetition in Lear’s last lines, but the outcome of the treatment is also more appealing to me:

Жил-был старичок у причала,
Которого жизнь удручала.
Ему дали салату
И сыграли сонату,
И немного ему полегчало.

Which, translated literally, is:

There was an old man [moored] at the pier,
who was dispirited by life.
They gave him salad
and played a sonata,
and he felt a little better.


  1. Yes, but! That repetition is part of Lear’s aesthetic, wrapping up the limerick into a circle. Modern limericks have surprise endings, which makes them an entirely different poetic form.
    Would you rewrite “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” with a last line of “Covered by ‘dozers every one”?
    (OT but seasonally relevant toot, also from Alice’s Usenet Flame by yours truly. How often does a filk show up on the original author’s site?)

  2. Yes but! The circularity in Lear’s form didn’t complete the circle in any kind of satisfying circle-of-life way (e.g. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? as you say, or There’s a Hole in my Bucket, or The Gas Man Cometh). It was just a lame, naff, weak ending that the limerick form rapidly and rightly moved on from.

  3. The translated Russian doesn’t scan as well as Lear’s, in my opinion. “Person of” is lame, better would be “There was an old fucker from Fife”.

  4. If you want to translate modern limericks (complete with obscenities, though IMHO a good limerick is either funny without being vulgar, or both funny and vulgar, as the old lady said to the bright young man), then translate them. If you want to translate Lear, translate Lear (most of whose limericks are not funny). It’s a different aesthetic.
    (Hoo boy, here comes the centithread….)
    But thanks for the Flanders & Swann lyric. “A man who would woo a fair maid”, from The Yeomen of the Guard, is composed entirely of limerick-form stanzas.
    (Extra points for spotting the allusions to a certain monocled detective in this comment.)

  5. Wot the limerick needs is hard-hitting social commentary.
    A bonny wee laddy from Fife
    In jail, well deserved, for his life
    Would warble a ballad
    And serve tuna salad
    Cos he lived as a bullyboy’s “wife”.

  6. I wonder if the prosody of Lear’s limericks was a bit different from limericks today? Because nowadays the last line is pronounced with such a “punchline” vibe that it’s hard to imagine one not being intended to be funny.

  7. here’s another contribution:
    There was an Old Person of Harst,
    Who drank when he was not athirst;
    When they said, “You’ll grow fatter”
    He answered, “What matter?”
    That globular Person of Harst.
    Пьет напитки толстяк из Оттавы
    Не от жажды, а ради забавы.
    Все кричат: “Осторожно!
    Так и лопнуть ведь можно!”
    Но не слышит толстяк из Оттавы.
    Word for word:
    Drinking drinks a fatman of Ottawa
    Not of thirst, but for enjoyment.
    Everybody cries: ‘Careful,
    you may burst!’
    But doesn’t hear the fat man of Ottawa.

  8. I find tuna salad anachronistic, dearie. It should be oats or kippers.

  9. nowadays the last line is pronounced with such a “punchline” vibe that it’s hard to imagine one not being intended to be funny.
    But there’s a double meaning to “Which cured that Old Person of Fife”: cured him and cured him of Fife.

  10. Wasn’t it Doctor Johnson who quipped “If an old man is tired of Fife, he is tired of life”? Or was it a horse? There was something in it about oats and horses.

  11. I thought it was haggis that in Scotland supports the people.

  12. No, the people in Scotland are each supported by two legs, the right one much shorter than the left, on account of their running around the hills clockwise.
    Or was that the haggis?

  13. An irresistible challenge, Hat. I see Sashura has already fired the first shot. Here’s mine:
    There was a Young Lady of Russia,
    Who screamed so that no one could hush her;
    Her screams were extreme,
    No one heard such a scream
    As was screamed by that Lady of Russia.
    Жена одного генерала
    Каждый день очень громко орала.
    Эдвард Лир лимерик
    Написал про тот крик,
    Что звучал от Москвы до Урала.
    (This does require that “лимерик” be pronounced with stress on the third syllable. I reckon this a minor infidelity.)
    The wife of one general
    Every day very loudly shouted.
    Edward Lear a limerick
    Wrote about that shout,
    Which was heard from Moscow to the Urals.

  14. Oh, and one shouldn’t forget that many of Lear’s limericks were accompanied by a picture. Behold: the Old Person of Fife, the Old Person of Harst, and the Young Lady of Russia.

  15. Trond Engen says

    Oh, limericks! This is the thread where I will provide translations into various meters in all known living and dead languages followed by erudite discussion of the clever yet subtle application of inter-textual anaphora and reciprocal synecdoche.

  16. Hat, once again you are opening a pandora.

  17. A mischievous hatter we know
    Opens threads that refuse not to grow.
      Hang on to your soxes
      As Pandora’s boxes
    With limericks now overflow.

  18. Три девицы под окном пряли сонно
    И что-то так скучно врали.
    Вот, царь их послушал –
    Взял, одну и в жены забрал.
    Три девицы больше не пряли – но врали.

  19. There was a man with a hat
    with a pen did sat
    but in red did edit
    then to a blog he fed it
    the man with hat done that

  20. I have always hated Lear’s last-line-the-same-as-first limericks. I remember as a child writing this:
    There was an old man called Lear
    Whose name was Edward Lear
    He said he was Lear
    Because he was Lear
    That boring old man called Lear.

  21. Is there an adjective for Fife? Fifish? Fiffish? Fifean? This is not completely idle curiosity: Fife is an ancestral homeland of mine, and besides the word (if it exists) might come in handy in making a limerick.

  22. Well done, Joshua.

  23. @Joshua: I wish I had thought of that when I was a child. Well done.

  24. (Sorry. Double post. Not paying attention. Multitasking.)

  25. There was an Old Person of Fife,
    Who was greatly disgusted with life;
    He decided to choke,
    So inhaled lots of smoke,
    Which cured that Old Person of Fife.

  26. I second Ø’s (doubled) kudos, Joshua. I’m glad you shared that with us.

  27. Is there an adjective for Fife? Fifish? Fiffish? Fifean?
    Wikipedia tells us that “It was originally one of the Pictish kingdoms, known as Fib,” so I propose “Fibular.” It also says “A person from Fife is known as a Fifer,” which is both banal and silly-sounding. Couldn’t it be Fiobhar or something?

  28. a certain monocled detective
    A duke’s son who dabbled in crime,
    Went deep undercover one time.
    On the trail of a bad guy,
    He worked as an ad guy —
    That duke’s son who dabbled in crime.
    I would not have noticed it without the hint, and I could not have readily identified it without a search engine, but the “either funny without being vulgar […]” line seems to be a paraphrase of something Miss Meteyard says in Murder Must Advertise.

  29. Yes, well done, young Joshua. I wonder if it wasn’t that same irritation that set Edward Clerihew Bentley off, and makes cleihews so satisfying.

  30. And now I look at the wikipedia entry for clerihews, apparently everyone else has thought the same thing. So never mind about that.

  31. Well done, my dear Empty. But there is a second allusion hiding there. Can anyone spot it?
    Here’s a modern limerick on a Fifer:
    There was an old Scotsman of Fife
    Who had felt, in the course of his life,
       Scores of well-rounded ends
       Of the wives of his friends
    And likewise of the friends of his wife.
        —Isaac Asimov
    The Good Doctor mentioned that this was one of the few limericks he had written without knowing the fifth line in advance.
    Finally, my own contribution, a Hattic being a member of our community:
    There was a prolific young Hattic
    Whose comments were grossly erratic.
       Cinematic, dramatic,
       And unsystematic,
    That idiosyncratic young Hattic.

  32. Somewhere Wimsey likened himself to Jack Point, I think (unrequited love etc)

  33. And well done the Picky. I also dropped an allusion to you over at Another Place.

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