Definitions

Clerihew

Clerihew

[kler-uh-hyoo]
A clerihew is a very specific kind of short biographical humorous verse.

Structure and style

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 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. As a 16-year-old student at St Paul's School in London, Bentley invented the clerihew on Humphry Davy (see below) when the lines came to his mind during a science class, and it was a great hit with his friends. The first use of the word in print was in 1928. Clerihew published three volumes of his own clerihews, including Biography for Beginners (1905), which was published under the name "E. Clerihew".

Bentley's friend, G. K. Chesterton, was also a practitioner of the clerihew and one of the sources of its popularity. Chesterton provided the illustrations for 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.

Examples

The first ever clerihew was written about Sir Humphry Davy:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

When this clerihew was published in 1905, "Was not fond of" was replaced by "Abominated". Other classic clerihews by Bentley included:

George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote Principles of Political Economy.

In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:

Did Descartes
Depart
With the thought
"Therefore I'm not"?

See also

Notes

  • Teague, Frances. "Clerihew" in Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. 219-220.

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