Dante’s Divine Comedy, Terza Rima & Why the Limerick Is the Greatest English Poetic Form

I took a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy in college. The class was taught by a visiting professor from the University of Padua. He talked about Dante the same way English speakers talk about Shakespeare, only even more so. The Divine Comedy is widely considered by native Italians as having invented the modern Italian language. This professor spoke of it as the purest and most perfect expression of his “mother tongue” (see footnote).

He spent significant time analyzing the terza rima structure of the work. In particular, he stated that many native Italians consider it to be, once again, the greatest expression of their language. It’s perfectly suited to Italian: the cadence captures the robust, rounded, plosive earthy lilt and rolling quality of it; Italian is one of the most rhyme rich languages in the world, and the complex rhyme scheme of terza rima is calibrated to make the most of that fact. Moreover, terza rima doesn’t work well in any other language. It’s purely Italian.

This got me wondering if there’s a poetic structure equally well suited to English, a structure as deeply native to English as terza rima is to Italian.

I’ve concluded that the limerick comes closest.

Some people argue that the sonnet is the most native English poetic form. I disagree, for several reasons:

  • The sonnet was invented by Petrarch—an Italian poet. English poets (Shakespeare most prominent among them) imported the form and simplified the rhyme scheme to make it work in English (English is a comparatively rhyme poor language).
  • English sonnets are supposed to be written in iambic pentameter. While the iambic foot is very well suited to English, anapests are equally apt and perhaps even more prominent. I don’t believe iambs are intrinsically any better or “purer” expressions of English than anapests. I’m more likely to go the other way, actually.
  • The pentameter structure is arbitrary and I actually find it rather awkward, both for writing and speaking. I read a survey paper in college (which I can no longer locate) which concluded that the most common syllable groupings in English come in multiples of four or three. Ten syllable expressions aren’t native to the language.

So I cross sonnets off the list of potential native poetic forms for English.

Limericks, by contrast, express English quite easily. The cadence of them comes naturally, the rhyme scheme is simple enough to work well without too much effort. Also, I know of no other language that uses the limerick form, so it appears suitably native.

Therefore, I conclude that limericks are the purest poetic form of the English language.

Unfortunately, this is stretching things a bit because use of the limerick only dates back to the mid-1800s. There’s also some suggestion that the form’s progenitors have roots tracing back to Gaelic, not English.

And there’s the fact that the majority of poetry written in English is free verse. Free verse is the most popular poetic format for English-language poets. It’s a historically recent invention—roughly contemporaneous with the limerick—so the fact that it became so popular in English so quickly is a testament to how well suited it is to the language.

But free verse, by its very nature, can’t capture the essence of English the way terza rima captures the essence of Italian. The cadence, the mouth feel, the rhyme-ability of it…

For these aspects, I find myself coming back around to the limerick. It’s the best we can do.

When this professor spoke of his “mother tongue,” Italian, he spoke of the way babies vocalize.

All babies begin to vocalize before they learn language. In part, they attempt to mimic the meaningful sounds produced by the adults around them. In part, it appears to be an innate impulse. But it’s striking that many of these pre-language baby vocalizations sound the same across cultures, all over the world, regardless of what language the adults speak. Babies’ vocal apparatus and skills are still rudimentary, and only certain sounds are available to them to start.

The professor posited his opinion that Italian retains more of the baby-like quality of vocalization than most other languages—the big, round, wet, emphatic nature of it. (He managed to argue this opinion without diminishing or demeaning the sophistication and maturity of the Italian language in any way, which was an impressive feat in-and-of itself.)

The metrical nature of English limericks is inherently playful, childlike. Limericks consequently tend to be rather juvenile. But that childlike playfulness could still render its charms even if a limerick were written with serious content. Perhaps it works better on that front as an English equivalent to terza rima than appears at first glance.

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