Clerihew

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A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB. One of his best known is this (1905):

Contents

Form

A clerihew has the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it pokes fun at mostly famous people
  • It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect); the third and fourth lines are usually longer than the first two
  • The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme
  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of the subject's name.

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 (similar to the schoolboy style of 1066 and All That).

The unbalanced and unpolished poetic meter and line length parody the limerick, and the clerihew form also parodies the eulogy.

Practitioners

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.[1] Together with his schoolfriends, he filled a notebook with examples.[2] The first use of the word in print was in 1928.[3] Clerihew published three volumes of his own clerihews: Biography for Beginners (1905), published as "edited by E. Clerihew";[1] 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.[1] Other serious authors also produced clerihews, including W. H. Auden,[4] 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.

Examples

The first ever clerihew was written about Sir Humphry Davy:

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