Conquest’s Limericks

26 July, 2010

I am currently devouring Christopher Hitchens recently-published memoir “Hitch-22”, of which it can truly be said (unlike so many other alleged examples of the characteristic) that there is something to interest or amuse one on every page. 

I hope I am permitted by copyright law to quote from the footnote on Page 174, which expands on the tendency of those attending the now-legendary Friday lunches of the late 1970s London literary set (Hitchens, Kingsley Amis , Martin Amis , Robert Conquest, Clive James, Craig Raine, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes to mention a few) to indulge in word games and compose witty poems.

Insistence upon the capacious subtleties of the limerick was something of a hallmark.  Once again [Robert] Conquest takes the palm: his condensation of the “Seven Ages of Man” shows how much force can be packed into the deceptively slight five-line frame.  Thus: 

Seven ages: first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling,
Then fucks and then fights,
Then judging chaps’ rights,
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.

 This is not the only example of Conquest’s genius for compression.  The history of the Bolshevik “experiment” in five lines? Barely a problem:

There once was a Bolshie called Lenin
Who did one or two million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That old Bolshie Stalin did ten in!

The first Limerick cleverly condenses the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” which can be found in full  here.


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