A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and meter are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books. One of his best known is this (1905):
- Sir Christopher Wren
- Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
- If anyone calls
- Say I am designing St. Paul's."
A clerihew has the following properties:
- It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it mostly pokes fun at famous people
- It has four lines of irregular length and metre (for comic effect)
- The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme, including the use of phrases in Latin, French and other non-English languages
- The first line contains, and may consist solely of, the subject's name. According to a letter in the Spectator in the 1960s, Bentley said that a true clerihew has to have the name "at the end of the first line", as the whole point was the skill in rhyming awkward names.
Clerihews are not satirical or abusive, but they target famous individuals and reposition them in an absurd, anachronistic or commonplace setting, often giving them an over-simplified and slightly garbled description (not unlike the schoolboy style of 1066 and All That).
The form was invented by and is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley. When he was a 16-year-old pupil at St Paul's School in London, the lines about Humphry Davy came into his head during a science class. Together with his schoolfriends, he filled a notebook with examples. The first use of the word in print was in 1928. Clerihew published three volumes of his own clerihews: Biography for Beginners (1905), published as "edited by E. Clerihew"; More Biography (1929); and Baseless Biography (1939), a compilation of clerihews originally published in Punch illustrated by the author's son Nicolas Bentley.
Bentley's friend, G. K. Chesterton, was also a practitioner of the clerihew and one of the sources of its popularity. Chesterton provided verses and illustrations for the original schoolboy notebook and illustrated Biography for Beginners. Other serious authors also produced clerihews, including W. H. Auden, and it remains a popular humorous form among other writers and the general public. Among contemporary writers, the satirist Craig Brown has made considerable use of the clerihew in his columns for The Daily Telegraph.
Bentley's first clerihew, published in 1905, was written about Sir Humphry Davy:
The original poem had the second line “Was not fond of gravy"; but the better-known published version has the more terse and succinct “Abominated gravy”.
Other classic clerihews by Bentley include:
- John Stuart Mill,
- By a mighty effort of will,
- Overcame his natural bonhomie
- And wrote Principles of Political Economy.
Auden's "Literary Graffiti" includes:
The subject of a clerihew written by the students of his alma mater, Sherborne School in England, was one of the founders of computing:
- Sir James Dewar
- Is a better man than you are
- None of you asses
- Can liquify gases.
In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:
Other uses of the form
The clerihew form has also occasionally been used for non-biographical verses. Bentley opened his Biography for Beginners with an example, entitled "Introductory Remarks", on the theme of biography itself:
- The Art of Biography
- Is different from Geography.
- Geography is about Maps,
- But Biography is about Chaps.
The third edition of the same work, published in 1925, included a "Preface to the New Edition" in 11 stanzas, each in clerihew form. One stanza ran:
- On biographic style
- (Formerly so vile)
- The book has had an effect
- Greater than I could reasonably expect.
- Bentley, E. Clerihew (1905). Biography for Beginners. ISBN 978-1-4437-5315-9.
- What is a Clerihew?
- Cole, William (1965). "Introduction". The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry. Hamish Hamilton. p. xiv. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
- Gale, Steven H. (1996). Encyclopedia of British Humorists: Geoffrey Chaucer to John Cleese. Taylor & Francis. p. 139. ISBN 0-8240-5990-5.
- Bentley, E. Clerihew (1982). The First Clerihews. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-212980-5.
- Oxford English Dictionary.
- O'Neill, Michael (2007). The All-sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry Since 1900. Oxford University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-19-929928-5.
- Freeman, Morton S. (ed.) (1997). A New Dictionary of Eponyms. Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 0-19-509354-2.
- Biography for Beginners. Swainson, Bill (ed.) (2000). Encarta Book of Quotations. Macmillan. pp. 642–43. ISBN 0-312-23000-1.
- Hodges, Andrew (1983). Alan Turing: the enigma. Touchstone. p. 94. ISBN 0-671-52809-2.
- Teague, Frances (1993). "Clerihew". Preminger, Alex; Brogan, T.V.F. (ed.), The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press. pp. 219–220.