Wednesday, May 03, 2006

An Thorough Explanation of Clerihews from John Peterson

What Is a Clerihew?

by Gramps

Here, for all you accomplished as well as aspiring clerihewists, is a brief discussion of that elusive literary form. We will note the clerihew’s peculiarities and give some recent examples—as well as examples from the clerihew’s early heyday.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Chesterton’s boyhood and lifelong friend, invented the form of light verse called "the clerihew" in about 1893 when was sixteen years old.
The first clerihew from Bentley’s pen, if not brilliantly funny, does show all of the distinguishing features of the form:

Sir Humpry Davy
Detested Gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Thus the clerihew was, and ever has been, a verse of four short lines, rhyming AA-BB, with a studied irregular rhythm. Bentley’s clerihews have one, two, or three beats (or accented syllables) to the line, and four-beat lines are rare.
The subject is invariably biographical, and it is almost always the case that the first two lines are built upon rhyming the surname of some personage of celebrity or notoriety (as in the above example, Davy / gravy). This rule is analogous to the limerick’s convention of ending the first line with a geographical location (as in Edward Lear’s "There was an old man of Quebec," or "There was a young lady of Portugal"). The opening two lines of Bentley’s clerihews show this feature clearly:

‘No sir,’ said General Sherman,
‘I did not enjoy the sermon.’

Rupert of the Rhine
Thought Cromwell was a swine.

The views of Pizarro
Were perhaps a little narrow.

In the above examples, we note that the second line comes to a full stop, making the two lines a so-called "closed couplet," and that also is a characteristic of the early clerihews.
Much of the wit or foolishness of clerihews derives from the rhymes, which range from the humorously flat-footed, to the brazenly outrageous. Thus Bentley insisted on
rhyming chorus / ichthyosaurus — Binks / Sphinx — get any /litany — Compt / romped — annoyed / spheroid— in toto / photo —Belloc / ad hoc and Lord Rosebury / nose bury.
The final couplet of the four-line clerihew concludes with a foolish or clever comment on the life and times of the famous or infamous subject of the poem. Here are examples of Bentley’s clerihews:

Professor Dewar
Is a better man than you are.
None of you asses
Can condense gasses.

Martin Tupper
Sang for his supper;
Though the supper wasn’t nice,
It was cheap at the price.

It was a weakness of Voltaire’s
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.

Of course Ranjitsinhji
Was quite right not to be stingy,
But I never could quite see the relevance
Of his keeping nine thousand elephants.

Whether an insipid foolishness or a lurking cleverness is the essence of the clerihew’s comedy, has been disputed. The humor on display in many of Chesterton’s clerihews stemmed from a studied distortion of history, which might remind one of a clever young school boy who has not quite mastered his lessons:

Whenever William Cobbett
Saw a hen-roost, he would rob it.
He posed as a British Farmer,
But knew nothing about Karma.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Is now a buried one.
He was not a Goth, much less a Vandal,
As he proved by writing The School
for Scandal.

But humor in the early clerihews ran just as often to satire, pure nonsense, verbal tricks, and other clever displays of wit. The following, by Bentley, is one of my personal favorites (because it makes me laugh right out loud):

Adam Smith
Was disowned by all his kith,
But he was backed through thick and thin
By all his kin.

Ah, taste, there is no accounting for it! What is in and out of clerihew fashion these days may be judged from the variety of approaches and styles taken by winners of the Annual Midwest Clerihew contest in the most recent four years:

One March day, Julius Caesar,
With cannibalistic fever,
Refused his bread and garlic roots
And ate two brutes.
~ Joe Theriault (1992)

G.K. Ches-
terton, unless
you sort of stretch the rules, doesn’t fit well into
a clerihew.
~ Dale Ahlquist (1993)

Kept his hares
In Pairs.
~ Sue Lampi (1994)

Was terrified of Bees.
He hid from them in bogs
And made the acquaintance of Frogs.
~ Jennifer Accardo (1995)

It remains my firm conviction that the clerihew is the easiest of the light verse forms to write. However, writing a really good clerihew is another matter entirely.
Good or bad, we can say with some confidence what the attributes of the clerihew are to be summarized thusly: a clerihew is a humorous, unmetrical, biographical verse of four short lines—two closed couplets—with the first rhyme a play on the surname of the subject.
Rather than conclude with such stuffiness, let us end with another favorite, this one penned by Judith Harden of Westland, Michigan, to win first prize in the Writer’s Digest clerihew contest of 1991:

George Orwell
Answered the doorbell.
Big Brother’s Pizza at the door,
Two with pepperoni, $19.84.

Tally ho! # #

(Thanks, John!)


  1. Of God's love Gilbert's
    Writing alerts.
    Though he caught buns in his mouth,
    It wasn't uncouth.

    (but Judge, it rhymes on paper!)

    Judge Nancy Brown,
    One day did frown.
    She offed a blog glutton,
    With a push of the "Delete" button.

    (An unfortunately true autobiographical incident- "someone" vanished from "Flying Stars" last week after being semantically incorrect)...

    Was I banished from your court, Judge?


  2. No, Rhap, you are NOT banished!
    However, I did hear from someone about rhyming, which I shall post shortly....

    Have you a rhyming dictionary? I purchased one a few short years ago and it helped tremendously with my poetry, since I am just as apt to try to rhyme "mouth" and "uncouth" as you!

  3. Understood, Mrs. Brown...

    Btw, do you know if
    Chesterton liked vermouth?


  4. I don't. But I'm sure there are other experts around here who might know.

  5. Chesterton was primarily a wine and beer man, so far as I know.

  6. Chesterton's drink of choice was Bordeaux (which the English insist on calling "claret"). But according to Maisie Ward, he would drink anything set before him, including even water.
    ~ John Peterson

  7. Once after going on a hike with Welsh writer Michael Davies, upon returning to my parents' house I offered him a water (it was a hot day). He replied with a grin as he poured himself a gin and tonic, "I'll try water some day."


  8. Gerard O'Shea6/18/2007 12:04 PM

    My favourite quote by GKC has to be "The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice." Now theres a challenge !

  9. Another nugget from GKC "Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it." - A Miscellany of Men


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