‘Waal, I ain’t one for admitting defeat,’ said old Will Wordsworth, spitting with amazing accuracy at a daffodil near by, ‘but this little ol’ limerick’s got me beat.’
‘Blamed if I see how it works,’ said Alf Tennyson. The young man stared moodily at the tiny object. ‘It ain’t like an epic at all. It’s so tiny there ain’t nothing to it – more of a lady’s weapon if you ask me.’
‘Talking about my invention?’ said a long, cool voice.
They gasped and swung round. There, in the middle of the Last Chance Saloon, Henley-on-Thames, deep in the heart of shootin’, rowin’ and puntin’ country, stood a stranger. They knew him from his long moustache and the rhyming dictionary poking from one corner of his otherwise well-cut coat. Edward Lear!
‘We was just saying, Mr Lear, that your limerick is mighty hard to handle. No offence, but ten dollars says you can’t get it to work.’
‘A singer from out of El Paso,’ said Lear instantly, ‘Got caught up one day in a lasso. When he finally got loose, From that darn pesky noose, He was no longer profundo basso. You owe me ten bucks, gentlemen.’
After the stranger had departed, they sat and stared at each other.
‘El Paso don’t rhyme with lasso,’ said Alf.
‘Right ‘ said Will. ‘But he still licked us.’
‘They say “King” Lear’s in town,’ said Kid Swinburne. ‘What’s more, they say he’s found a rhyme for Albuquerque.’
The poets gazed moodily at the bottle of hock and wished to heaven “King” Lear had never been born. What use were their long, drawn-out stanzas and etiolated similes against the quick-fire repeated limerick? It was plumb unfair. When the saloon door of the Paradise Inn, Stratford-on Avon (bang in the middle of the Shakespeare ranch) opened, they didn’t look round. They knew who it was. “King”Lear.
‘Anyone got anything to say to me?’ drawled the King.
‘Yes, I have!’ declared young Cov Patmore, jumping to his feet. ‘Take this, Mr Lear! There was a young man of Dunstable, Whose moral were wholly unstable…’
‘It ain’t Dunstable, kid. It’s Dunstable. Get wise…’
Patmore slumped over the table, deeply wounded. Lear grinned wickedly.
‘Well, gents, if that’s the best you all can do… Oh, and by the way, murky, turkey and Circe, if you’re looking for a rhyme to Albuquerque. Another thing. I’m working on a new model. The Chinese limerick. Be seein’ ya.’
‘Tell me one thing,’ said grizzled Matt Arnold. ‘How come we’re all talking in this pesky accent?’
‘To sell the whole story to the Yankees, they say,’ muttered Bob Browning. ‘By the way, I figure that Circe is no kind of rhyme for Albuquerque.’
‘I believe you,’ said Matt. ‘Now all we need is someone who dares say it to his face.’
They were all there for the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Bob Browning, with Liz Barratt begging him not to get involved, young Alf Tennyson, now old Alf Tennyson, Bill Thackeray, Ed Fitzgerald, ‘Doc’ Poe, Gerry Hopkins and Art Clough. All against the one man, “King” Lear.
Trouble was, Lear hadn’t showed up.
“Trouble is, he ain’t showed up,’ sneered ‘Doc’ Poe, whose accent did at least sound authentic.
‘Oh yes, he did,’ said old Alf Tennyson, pointing to the wall behind. There, written in big white paint, was the following message: ‘They all came to the OK Corral, Fit to fight and plumb full of morale, But they hadn’t the brain, To write a quatrain, or a bar of an old Bach chorale.’
‘You can’t rhyme ‘corral’ with ‘chorale’,’ said “Doc” Poe, coughing.
‘I can,’ said “King” Lear.
‘All right,’ said “Doc” Poe, ‘But I bet your talk about the Chinese limerick was so much hogwash.’
‘I like your nerve, Poe,’ said “King” Lear. ‘So I‘ll tell you. You know the Chinese do things back to front? Writin’ and readin’ and that?’
‘Ah’ve heard so, ‘ said Poe.
‘Then listen to this’ said Lear. ‘In China the limerick’s wrong. A kind of back-to-front song. And this is the worst. The last line comes first, So there was a young man from Hong Kong.’
Edward Lear jumped into his bed, along with a dashing redhead. He had drunk so much whisky, he felt kinda frisky, so he… (That will do, thank you – Ed)
The Times, 1984