Tonight we present one of our occasional contributions to literary scholarship, in which we step into a lake of clear water and muddy it until everything is impenetrably obscure. But the muddying has to be done, because the alternative would be allowing a false clarity to persist, and then someone would be wrong on the Internet.

Back in February, when we brought up the subject of limericks, we mentioned W. S. Gilbert’s famous limerick in blank verse. At that time, we said, “There is, incidentally, a small mystery about this limerick, and we’ll come back to it in a future article.” Then we forgot about it, but we remembered it last night, so here is the future article.

The very idea of a blank-verse limerick is appealingly silly, so of course Gilbert’s is often quoted, so often that it has become one of the most famous nonsense poems in English. But the mystery is this: Dr. Boli has not been able to find a reliable text of the poem anywhere. He has not been able to trace it to its source, which—for someone who was as popular and as much read as W. S. Gilbert—is odd. It appears that Gilbert never published it, so all the quotations are secondhand from some unknown source. And those quotations do not agree.

We have been rummaging quite a bit in Google Books for the answer, but we have not found an answer. All we have is conflicting data.

Here is the earliest version we have been able to find in print:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
When they asked, “Does it hurt?” he replied, “No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the while ’twas a Hornet!”

This is from an article titled “Lear’s Nonsense-Books” in The Spectator, September 17, 1887, which quotes it as inspired by one of Lear’s poems. The anonymous author introduces it by saying, “We quote from memory.” In other words, it has absolutely no authority for establishing the text of Gilbert’s original. Nevertheless, it is the most frequently quoted version, usually set in five lines rather than the Lear-style four lines:

     There was an old man of St. Bees,
     Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
         When they asked, “Does it hurt?”
         He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
     But I thought all the while ’twas a Hornet!”

Carolyn Wells in Scribner’s, February, 1901.

However, we find this in the British Bee Journal for May 14, 1925. It might establish the correct text, which is quite different, but only if we accept third-hand hearsay from a very strange source for literary research.

Aristophanes called one of his comedies, “The Wasps,” and the late W. S. Gilbert, who has been styled our “English Aristophanes,” has immortalized the species in his famous Limerick in blank verse. A friend of mine once wrote to Gilbert for the correct version, which the author obligingly sent him. It ran as follows:—

“There was an old man of Tralee,
Who was stung in the leg by a wasp,
When they asked, ‘Does it hurt?’
He replied, ‘No, it doesn’t;
It may do it again if it likes.’ ”

The familiar but inaccurate version which follows has always seemed to me a convincing illustration of the way in which verses are often improved by misquotation:

“There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the leg by a wasp;
When they asked, ‘Does it hurt?’
He replied, ‘No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the while ’twas a Hornet!’ ”

Note that this is identical to the version quoted “from memory” by our anonymous writer in 1887, except for the substitution of “leg” for “arm.”

The next year we find the limerick quoted as it was in 1887—except that the old man has now become young:

There was a young man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp.
When they said, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the time ’twas a hornet!”

This was in an excerpt from The Poetry of Nonsense by Emile Cammaerts in The Spectator, February 13, 1926. It provoked a letter from one Thomas Carr:

…According to earlier recorders, however, the young man who was stung hailed not from St. Bees but from Tralee. Thus:—

“There was a young man of Tralee
Who was stung in the arm by a Wasp.
When they said “Does it hurt?”
He replied “Not at all:
Let him sting me again, if he likes.”

Letter from Thomas Carr in The Spectator, March 27, 1926.

This one is similar to the one in the British Bee Journal, but the old man is young, and the leg is back to being an arm. Mr. Carr’s letter, in turn, provoked a letter from Langford Reed:

With reference to Mr. Thomas Carr’s letter, may I point out that both Mr. Carr and M. Emile Cammaerts have incorrectly quoted W. S. Gilbert’s blank verse Limerick? A feature of it is the reference to three stinging insects. Thus:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,”
I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.”

According to the late [Richard] D’Oyly Carte (as stated by him in a letter to Mr. Vaughan Pott), Gilbert told him that he compiled this limerick at the request of Mrs. Bernard Beere who, affected by the limerick craze, had been bothering him for an original specimen.

Letter from Langford Reed in The Spectator, April 3, 1926.

Reed’s version of the limerick has become very common in more recent publications:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,”
I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.”
Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995

But then we find it quoted slightly differently by Stephen Fry, who has a bit of a reputation himself as a practitioner of elegant nonsense:

There was an old man of St. Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp
When they said: “Does it hurt?”
He replied: “No it doesn’t—
It’s a good job it wasn’t a hornet.
Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled, 2006.

Dr. Boli suspects that this is another case of quoting from memory: we may note in passing that it has been partly infected by the 21st-century dogma that poetry must be unpunctuated.

Well, then, where does this all leave us? Dr. Boli is inclined to say that we may never know the truth. Even if Gilbert himself did provide the “old man of Tralee” version published in the British Bee Journal, we cannot be sure that his own memory did not fail him. It was many years after the poem was first mentioned, and Gilbert would probably have been quoting from memory, and not every poet’s memory is infallible.

But Dr. Boli’s readers are, as a group, better-read than most. They are also more adept with search engines than most. So he still holds out some hope. Can someone find Gilbert’s blank-verse limerick in a form that can be attributed to him with some certainty? The prize will be a degree of Doctor of Letters from the Boli Institute for Advanced Studies.


  1. Occasional Correspondent says:

    I did not find anything on the original Gilbert but now numerous pest-control companies are knocking at my door.  (How can they call themselves pest control?  They can’t even control their own pesky marketing departments!  Let them be sprayed with fie, fie upon them!)

  2. Belfry Bat says:

    Of all the variations offered, Thomas Carr’s has the best meter in the second short line, the quick response being also lighter or bravadior in tone; and I also think omitting “hornet” wisest: though one does like to be thorough in entomological enumerations, it is an unpoetical temptation, while “if he likes” feels blanker, somehow.

    And so in all, I think that’s the blank Limerick Sir William would have wanted to write, even if he never did, himself.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      In the days when all contractions were a little substandard, “don’t” was commonly used where today’s writers would use “doesn’t.” “Doesn’t,” in fact, may have begun as a pedantic neologism. W. S. Gilbert used “don’t” in the third person singular frequently in dialogue: “Bob Poulter don’t want none of you” (“Bob Poulter” in the Bab Ballads); “A better captain don’t walk the deck” (H.M.S. Pinafore). “Don’t” would fit the meter where “doesn’t” fails, and it’s easy to imagine lesser minds pedantically correcting it to “doesn’t.”

      Dr. Boli does think that the line “It may do it again if it likes” is a more poetic conclusion than the common line about the hornet. The off-handedly indifferent generosity to the stinging creature is very Lear-like, and it would be very Gilbert-like to seize on that aspect of Lear’s style and parody it with a perfect ear.

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