Thursday, September 11, 2008

Clerihew Boop Boop Be Doo

According to, a clerihew is 'a humorous verse, usually consisting of two unmatched rhyming couplets, about a person whose name generally serves as one of the rhymes.' Got that? The format was first used by Edmund Clerihew Bentley [1875-1956], later a popular British novelist and humorist.

The Literary Dictionary describes a clerihew: '…It consists of two metrically awkward couplets and usually presents a ludicrously uninformative 'biography' of some famous person whose name appears as one of the rhymed words in the first couplet… [I wonder if they're supposed to be written with ludicrous speed?]

Bentley's first clerihew was written by him in a boring [to him] science class when he was sixteen [1891.] He dashed it off quite easily, seemingly out of thin air:

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

Not being satisfied with just this one, he went on to create many others, including these from his 1905 work, 'Biography for Beginners.' The book was illustrated by Bentley's good friend, Gilbert Keith Chesterton [an American writer.] The latter went on to raise the stature of the clerihew with many fine examples of his own.

From the 1905 book:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.
What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.
It was a weakness of Voltaire's
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.

G K Chesterton penned the following:

You can scarcely write less than a column on.
His very song
Was long.
The Spanish people think Cervantes
Equal to half a dozen Dantes.
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.
James Hogg
Kept a dog.
But, being a shepherd
He did not keep a leopard.

Though the clerihew is often imitated by children or bloggers, they rarely get it right–--though it can be fun to try. It's difficult to be 'metrically awkward,' or to say something 'ludicrously uninformative' biographical image with tongue in cheek without supposing some knowledge of the subject in the first place.

Though not perfect [and I suppose these lines are somewhat reminiscent of limericks], I offer the following:

Horatio Alger
Liked nostalger;
Rags to riches;
Very few glitches.
Jane Austen
Was rarely in Boston.
On one occasion
She penned “Persuasion.”
L Frank Baum
Had no qualm;
Emerald writer,
Bad-witch fighter.

So, thus is the strange tale of the clerihew. I find creating them quite relaxing, though I do spend more time on cinquains, a subject for a later essay.

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