- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ernest W. Lefever cringes when people confuse “can” and “may” or use the word “reverend” as a noun. He so hates to see the English language misused that he corrects misspellings and punctuation in advertisements and on road signs.

Why, then, did this devotee of words write a book on one of the English language’s most put-upon literary forms, the limerick?

The five-line rhyming verse is best known for its vulgar humor and impolite wordplay.

Yet Mr. Lefever’s book “Liberating the Limerick” — a collection of 230 verses by 50 authors, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Ogden Nash — refutes the notion that limericks are by nature raunchy and rude. Mr. Lefever, the founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author or editor of 20 books on ethics and policy, presents evidence that limericks can be vehicles for wit, wisdom and virtue, not just filth.

“Many people have dragged the limerick into the gutter, and that’s not the fault of the limerick, which is neutral,” Mr. Lefever said. “It’s the fault of the people who dragged it into the gutter.

“The essence of this book is there are limericks that are funny, insightful that do not depend upon the seamy side of life.”

Mr. Lefever’s desire to vindicate the limerick stems from a lifelong love of the verse. Mr. Lefever grew up in York, Pa., in a home in which “poetry was part of daily life.”

His mother, a teacher, possessed volumes of workd by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln. She raised her children on the McGuffey Reader and the Bible.

In addition to serious literature and poetry, Mr. Lefever and his brothers grew up reading and reciting the “nonsense” poems, now called limericks, of 19th-century English artist and author Edward Lear. They also made up their own verses for fun.

“As a child, I was bewitched by limericks,” Mr. Lefever said.

Mr. Lefever continued to read and write limericks into adulthood. While conversing with his son one day, Mr. Lefever got the idea to compile a book of favorite verses. He began scouring volumes of limericks, reading more than 9,000 verses in two dozen books. What he found surprised him.

“I went through all these books and started recognizing that there were limericks here that were very, very good, indeed classic, that were not bogged down by dirty references that characterize the great majority of limericks,” Mr. Lefever said.

Although he didn’t originally set out to “liberate” the limerick, that soon became the focus of his book, which contains limericks written over a period of about 150 years by both well-known writers and anonymous authors. The verses are arranged in 16 categories, including “Battle of the Sexes,” “Padres and Preachers,” “History,” “Politics,” “Manners and Morals” and “Sheer Nonsense.” The limericks, which span a breadth of topics, reference figures including Adam and Eve, Charles Darwin, Rene Descartes, George Washington and Gerald Ford.

Some verses are lighthearted, like this one by Sheila Anne Barry:

There was an old puzzler, Ben Ross,

Who died — doing crosswords, of course

He was buried, poor Ben,

With eraser and pen

In a box six feet down, three across.

Others use humor and rhyme to make a serious point, like this anonymous limerick:

The Devil, who plays a large part,

Has tricked his way into your heart

By simple insistence

On his nonexistence —

Which really is devilish smart.

Other limericks contain social and political commentary, like this one by F.R. Duplantier:

There is no reason, nor rhyme

To what we hear all the time,

And the “facts” they rehearse

Are often the reverse,

Like: “Poverty causes crime!”

Mr. Lefever calls the limerick an “English language phenomenon” because its rhythm and rhyme scheme make it difficult to compose in other languages.

Although not classified as poetry, strictly speaking, limericks can remind us of the power of language, Mr. Lefever said, particularly at a time when knowledge of literature and appreciation of words are declining.

“The great volume of popular culture is inimical to a deep appreciation of the richness of the English language,” Mr. Lefever said.

“What I’m worried about,” he said, “is that TV, and particularly TV games, will capture the attention of children so that they don’t learn to appreciate the splendor of English literature that TV is in competition with, a deeper appreciation of our Western heritage, particularly English literature.”

Mr. Lefever maintains that limericks can be both instructive and insightful. He explains by comparing a limerick to the flower in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Flower in the Crannied Wall”:

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies;—

Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower — but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

“A great truth or a foible or a virtue or hypocrisy can be discovered in a verse of five disciplined lines,” Mr. Lefever said. “That verse can reveal.”

For that reason, Mr. Lefever hopes limericks finally will receive their due respect.

“I harbor the vain hope the book will be taken seriously by serious people,” Mr. Lefever said.

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