Bawdy Limericks

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Even the most liberal of persons betray a puritan streak when they attempt to denigrate "pornography" by claiming that it is but a pale reflection of reality. This is to confuse Literature with Life. In actual fact, there is simply no substitute for a good dirty book.

In the first place, sexually stimulating literature appeals to a separate and distinct kind of sexual experience: masturbation. And lest anyone think that the monologue of "self-abuse" is inferior to the dialogue of copulation, let him or her read Masters & Johnson, who have discovered that the orgasm produced by oneself is more intense and physiologically satisfying than the orgasm produced with the aid of a colleague. This is not to debunk the pleasures of mutual comfort, but to emphasize the undeniable value of solitary vice and its worthwhileness as well as, rather than in lieu of, those games that require two (or more) players.

In the second place — and this is far more important if we wish to appreciate the differences between Art and Reality — pornography is preeminently a verbal or linguistic mode of experience. Situations in themselves are barely provocative without the rhetoric of indecency, be it coy or crude, and even the hardest-core photographs fail to sustain their arousal-capacity for as long as can a blunt obscene utterance. As Gore Vidal points out, "Words are words, and gropes are gropes. And it's nice to be able to render a grope into words. A grope can never render unto itself what words can do." The licentious literature that survives the test of time may be as elaborately decorous as John Cleland's Fanny Hill or as explicitly detailed as Henry Miller's Sexus, but in either case the lubricity is achieved primarily through the skilful manipulation of words.

To illustrate the verbal essence of much that is erotic, let me examine a selection of lewd limericks and bawdy ballads, a genre whose raison d'être is clever word-play, with a stimulation that is often more cerebral than sensual. "The Sexual Life of the Camel," for example, demonstrates a fondness for language and a hieroglyphical imagination:

The sexual life of the camel
Is stranger than anyone thinks.
At the height of the mating season
He tries to bugger the sphinx.
But the sphinx's posterior sphincter
Is all clogged by the sands of the Nile,
Which accounts for the hump on the camel
And the sphinx's inscrutable smile.

No less appealing in its clever word-play and visual absurdity is this more modern limerick, somewhat more rude but still tasteful in appealing to the intellect:

There was a young fellow named Tucker
Who, instructing a novice cocksucker,
Said, "Don't blow out your lips
Like an elephant's hips;
The boys like it best when you pucker."

There are a fairly large number of limericks with specifically homosexual themes, but unfortunately many of them are essentially homophobic. The classic is of course the one set in Khartoum (again a sort of conundrum):

A pansy who lived in Khartoum
Took a lesbian up to his room,
And they argued a lot
About who would do what
And how and with which and to whom.

The father of the limerick form, Edward Lear (who was probably homosexual, largely repressed), wrote only one peripherally gay limerick, about a transvestite:

There was an Old Man on a hill,
Who seldom, if ever, stood still;
He ran up and down,
In his Grandmother's gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.

But since Lear's time the gentle tone has been replaced by something more vicious, as in this limerick:

A neurotic young playboy named Gleason
Liked boys for no tangible reason.
A frontal lobotomy
Cured him of sodomy
But ruined his plans for the season.

Still in the field of essentially anti-gay sick humour, but at least more humorous (and with an explicitness unknown to Lear), is this dire warning:

A cabin boy on an old clipper
Grew steadily flipper and flipper.
He plugged up his ass
With fragments of glass
And thus circumcised his old skipper.

Note the cleverly oblique way of alluding to what happened.

The lesbian limerick is so scarce as to be perhaps nonexistent. There are a few rare appearances of lesbians in limericks such as the one about Khartoum, but I have never read one involving two women as the primary subject. The masculine fantasy behind the form cannot tolerate such a proposition, and invariably portrays a dichotomy of penetrator and penetrated. The focus in gay limericks is upon anal intercourse, of which the following are three of my favourites:

There was a young parson named Bings,
Who talked about God and such things;
But his secret desire
Was a boy in the choir,
With a bottom like jelly on springs.

Well buggered was a boy named Delpasse
By all of the lads in his class,

He said, with a yawn,
"Now the novelty's gone,
It's only a pain in the ass."

From the depths of the crypt at St Giles
Came a scream that resounded for miles.

Said the vicar, "Good gracious!
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the Bishop has piles?"

The Church comes in for a good deal of satire, and not surprisingly there are about half a dozen limericks that exploit the rhyme of Sodom with Wadham College, Oxford; for example:

There once was a Warden of Wadham
Who approved of the folkways of Sodom,
For a man might, he said,
Have a very poor head
But be a fine Fellow, at bottom.

It is difficult to date most limericks, but it seems possible that the earliest ones with this rhyme allude to Robert Thistlethwayte, the Warden of Wadham who was charged with sodomy in 1737 and who fled the country.

Historical personages sometimes find their way into limericks, most pointedly in this one by W.H. Auden:

The Marquis de Sade and Genet
Are most highly thought of today;
But torture and treachery
Are not my sort of lechery,
So I've given my copies away.

Barrack-Room Ballads

The bawdy barrack-room ballads produced during the two world wars are not so respectably suggestive as those composed for more intellectual pastimes, and their forthright frankness too often precludes their being written down for posterity. Nevertheless many that have been collected have a surprisingly high gay content amidst the rampant heterosexual rutting. Take for example the first three stanzas of "The Young Harlot of Crete," a famous serial-limerick:

There was a young harlot of Crete,
Whose fucking was far, far too fleet.
So they tied down her ass
With a length of old brass
To give them a much longer treat.

When the Nazis landed in Crete
This young harlot had to compete

With so many Storm Troopers
Who were using their poopers
For better things than to excrete.

Our subversive young harlot of Crete
Was led to fifth-column deceit.

When the paratroops landed
Her trade she expanded,
By at once going down on their meat.

Here is an intriguing excerpt from "In Mobile [Alabama]":

Oh, they teach the babies tricks, in Mobile.
Oh, they teach the babies tricks in Mobile.
Oh, they teach the babies tricks
And by the time that they are six
They suck their father's pricks, in Mobile.

and another, from "Life Presents a Dismal Picture":

Sister Susan's been aborted
For the forty-second time,
Brother Bill has been deported
For a homosexual crime.

In a small brown-paper parcel,
Wrapped in a mysterious way,
Is an imitation rectum
Grandpa uses twice a day.

"Barrack-room" may not be a strictly accurate description of such ballads, for a good many of them reflect the all-male company of sailors, as in this limerick:

There was a young fellow named Taylor
Who seduced a respectable sailor.
When they put him in jail,
He worked out the bail,
By licking the parts of the jailer.

And on "The Good Ship Venus" ("Her mast was a towering penis") there are not enough women to go around for the crew, so gay appearances are made by the skipper and the cabin-boy (that limerick has several variations) and in several others:

A homo was the purser,
He couldn't have been worser.
He'd screw and screw
With all the crew
Until they yelled: "No more, sir!"

In search for a new sensation,
Amid cries of jubilation,

The ship was sunk
In a wave of spunk
From mutual masturbation.

This last limerick hints at something not generally acknowledged about the nature of erotica in general: in so far as virtually all "pornography" is written or sung by males for male readers and listeners, there is something inherently homosexual in such literature. Regardless of the overtly heterosexual guise of its content, it grows out of the context of men being naughty together, for the purpose of mental mutual masturbation. The central image of most limericks is not a cunt but a cock — usually a giant one — and females are present, if at all, merely as an excuse for Priapic self-glorification and comparative preening. It seems to me that erotica itself often usurps the place of the female which society demands as the mate of the male, and the goal of the creators (and quasi-creators as readers) of erotica is to become as completely self- sufficient as the lad in this limerick:

There was a young Lad of Nantucket
Whose prick was so long he could suck it.
He said with a grin,
As he wiped off his chin,
"If my ear was a cunt I could fuck it."


Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton


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