Background to the Clerihew
[ Issue 44 ]

Clerihews fascinate Emily Bronto

Permit Bikwil to acquaint you with the fascination of Clerihews

Background to the Clerihew

Harlish Goop has been reading detective stories for over fifty years. 

He therefore knows all about Eric Bentley and his creations.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Do you read detective stories? Even if you do, you may not have heard of Trent’s Last Case, by Eric Clerihew Bentley (1875 - 1956). Published in 1913 (seven years before Agatha Christie’s first novel), this classic has always been highly regarded among aficionados, but is sadly not mentioned much today.

Bentley is equally famous for an even earlier invention — the clerihew, a unique type of wordplay in verse. It was 1905, in Biography for Beginners, by “E. Clerihew”, when he introduced the form to the world, although tradition has it that he devised his first effort long before that, during a boring chemistry lesson at St. Paul’s School in London. The name “clerihew” was applied to his verse form by an unknown reader about 1906.

(By the way, his son Nicholas became a well-known humorous illustrator. Remember “Nicholas Bentley Drew the Pictures”?)

So what are the clerihew rules?

It’s biographical in content;
It’s funny;
It has four lines, rhyming aabb;
The first line almost always ends with the subject’s name;

The number of accents in [each] line is irregular, and one line is usually extended to tease the ear. Another requisite of the successful clerihew is [at least one] awkward rhyme . . . The humour of the form lies in its purposefully flat-footed inadequacy: in addition to clumsy rhythm and rhyme, the verse’s treatment of the subject is either off the mark or totally beside the point, as though it were the work of a reluctant schoolchild.
(Encyclopædia Britannica)

Here are some great examples, the first seven being by Bentley:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

"Steady the Greeks!" shouted Aeschylus.
"We won’t let such dogs as these kill us!"
Nothing, he thought, could be bizarrer than
The Persians winning at Marathon.

Said Sir Christopher Wren,
"I'm having lunch with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."

Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome.

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

When Alexander Pope
Accidentally trod on the soap,
And came down on the back if his head
Never mind what he said.

My first name, Wystan,
Rhymes with Tristan,
But — O dear! — I do hope
I'm not quite such a dope.
(W.H. Auden)

No one could ever inveigle
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Into offering the slightest apology
For his Phenomenology.
(W.H. Auden)

Had too much to say:
He could never quite
Leave the paper white.
(W.H. Auden)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Lived upon venison;
Not cheap, I fear,
Because venison's deer.
(Louis Untermeyer)

Each wife of Fibonacci,
Eating nothing that wasn't starchy,
Weighed as much as the two before her.
His fifth was some signora!
(J.A. Lindon)

Readers who’d like to attempt an original clerihew or two are urged to send same to the editor post-haste. But beware: it’s not as easy as it seems.

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