The clerihew was invented by and is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). He claimed to have invented this poetic form when he was sixteen years old and bored in a St. Paul’s chemistry class. First written for his own amusement, as a means of relaxing in the classroom, Bentley’s clerihews were not published for another fifteen years. Gavin Ewart, in his introduction to The Complete Clerihews, places Bentley’s age at eighteen the time he composed his famous lines about Humphry Davy. That famous first clerihew, which, in Ewart’s judgment, was never bettered by Bentley, reads as follows:
Sir Humphry Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium.
Later Bentley changed “Detested” to “Abominated.” As that chimes nicely with “odium” and “Sodium”, it can certainly be called an improvement. Bentley 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 and illustrated by his son, Nicolas Bentley, whose own version of the form appears below.
The first use of the word, “clerihew”, in print was in 1928. According to Bentley’s son, Nicolas, I think it gave him more pleasure than anything else he achieved in life to see the word ‘clerihew’ . . . enshrined in the Oxford Dictionary as part of our language. (It was probably handy that the practice of naming forms after their practitioners did not develop; imagine a “crapsey” instead of a “cinquain.”) Like the haiku, the clerihew is a very short type of poetry with a specific form. A clerihew has four lines and consists of rhyming couplets. It is, also, usually a witty anecdote about a famous person. The classical clerihew, Ewart writes, is free from malice. . . . The clerihew could easily be used for satire, and even satire of great bitterness, but as far as I know it never has been. He describes the tone of the clerihew as both civilized and dotty, a mini-cocktail. Henry Taylor (see below) calls them four-line, raggedly-metered miniature biographies.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) born one year earlier than his friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, was also educated at St. Paul’s. Both of them were later to write novels. In fact, Chesterton dedicated one of his novels, The Man Who Was Thursday, to his friend Bentley whose most famous novel is the detective story, Trent’s Last Case. Chesterton began writing poems in the clerihew form shortly after Bentley created it. Though he did not attend college, he did attend the Slade School of Art to become an illustrator. He illustrated many of Bentley’s clerihews when they appeared in book form in Biography for Beginners (1905). His own clerihews, a selection of which are included below, helped to popularise the form.
W. H. Auden (1907-1973) also wrote clerihews which he published under the title Academic Graffiti
(1952, 1970). According to Gavin Ewart, Nobody much except Bentley has ever written really good clerihews.
But Auden’s Academic Graffiti,
part of which was published in the May 8, 1971 issue of The New Yorker
, also contains gems like those I have included below. While some were written in 1952 and included in an earlier collection, Homage to Clio
, many were new. According to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, they were the sort of thing he had been writing in his notebooks since undergraduate days.
Auden, along with his friend, Chester Kallman was also responsible for what has come to be known as “the world’s shortest clerihew. “To the Poetry Editor of the New Yorker” was composed, over breakfast, by Auden and Kallman, in honour of Howard Moss, poet, critic, and poetry editor of The New Yorker.
Despite or because of the poem’s brevity, Auden and Kallman manage to rhyme the names of three different people. The poem was discovered years after Auden’s death in a manuscript notebook donated by his heirs to the New York Public Library. It has apparently never been printed in The New Yorker
TO THE POETRY EDITOR OF THE NEW YORKER
Is Robert Lowell
Better than Noel
Pulitzer Prize winner, Henry Taylor, has, like Auden, written a book of clerihews, Brief Candles, which I’ve used as the title of this post. As he explained in an interview in The Cortland Review, I had a little adventure with a plasma cytoma in my jawbone between April and November of 1998; I seem to have come through it successfully, but it was quite preoccupying for several months, and during that time serious poetry seemed to be something I didn’t want much to do with. I could teach it all right, but I didn’t feel like writing anything that had any ordinary seriousness or ambition. Instead, I got on a weird, sometimes manic roll with these clerihews. It started with an odd one or two, and then burst into a sequence of a dozen and a half about book reviewers, that I did over two or three days in June. That led me to think of doing others in categories—the British Poets Laureate, the present nine Justices of the Supreme Court…
George Szirtes is a modern master of the clerihew. In his blog he writes about his own clerihews (see below): For a while now I have taken occasional recourse to the Clerihew, the form coined by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, aka E C Bentley, author of the Trent series of detective novels, but also practiced with great skill by Chesterton and Auden. Here is a set I wrote in an intense half hour or so this evening in a state between tension (about things to be done) and sleepiness (at the thought of them). They were a great pleasure to write, each about an artist. He has the ability to toss clerihews about like pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. On another occasion he posted a set of clerihews on his Twitter account (@george_szirtes) on 12th June 2015.
Clerihews by Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
(Revised version of the first clerihew ever written)
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I’m going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I’m designing St. Paul’s.”
It was a weakness of Voltaire’s
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.
Seldom troubled a dairy.
He wrote the Inferno
On a bottle of Pernod.
Lived a long time ago.
He had nothing to do, so
He wrote Robinson Crusoe.
The meaning of the poet Gay
Was always as clear as day,
While that of the poet Blake
Was often practically opaque.
Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some,
When writing something gruesome.
John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote ‘Principles of Economy.’
The younger Van Eyck
Was christened Jan, and not Mike.
The thought of this curious mistake
Often kept him awake.
What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.
Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.
Chapman & Hall
Swore not at all.
Mr Chapman’s yea was yea,
And Mr Hall’s nay was nay.
The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Clerihews by G. K. Chesterton
The novels of Jane Austen
Are the ones to get lost in.
I wonder if Labby
Has read Northanger Abbey
(Labby was an English journalist.)
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.
David cut off the end of his cloak
For a joke.
Of the prophet Ezekiel
I do not wish to speak ill;
But he himself owns
He saw a valley of Dry Bones.
You can scarcely write less than a column on.
His very song
The Spanish people think Cervantes
Equal to half a dozen Dantes;
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.
Kept a dog,
But, being a shepherd
He did not keep a leopard.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Clerihews by W. H. Auden
Sir Henry Rider Haggard
Was completely staggered
When his bride-to-be
Announced, “I am She!”
Never stayed in a Hilton
Which was just as well.
When Karl Marx
Found the phrase ‘financial sharks,’
He sang a Te Deum
In the British Museum.
Had too much to say:
He could never quite
Leave the paper white.
When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must
But only just.
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Was mortally afraid of Madams:
In a disorderly house
He sat quiet as a mouse.
Was greatly beguiled,
When into the Café Royal walked Bosie
Wearing a tea-cosy.
Was never tardy
When summoned to fulfill
The Immanent Will.
No one could ever inveigle
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Into offering the slightest apology
For his Phenomenology.
Found Newton hard to take,
And was not enormously taken
With Francis Bacon.
When Arthur Hugh Clough
Was jilted by a piece of fluff,
He sighed “Quel dommage!”,
And wrote Amours de Voyage.
Said Robert Bridges,
When badly bitten by midges:
“They’re only doing their duty
As a testament to my beauty.”
W. H. Auden
Clerihews by Henry Taylor
According to Matthew
the wrath you
flee may be your own.
Live not by bread alone.
Hearing from afar a hollow moo,
said to himself, “That’ll
be Nineveh thriving: also much cattle.”
never met Dolly Parton.
It made him quite surly
to have been born too early.
Alexander Graham Bell
has shuffled off this mobile cell.
He’s not talking any more
But he has a lot to answer for.
wasn’t the sort you’d confide in;
there was no limit to the secrets he’d tell
in lyrics set to music by Henry Purcell.
most of her cinquains
fade as invisible ink wanes.
was subject to urges
whose nature and history
remain shrouded in mystery.
was disdainful of golf. He
more vulgar than rutting.
Henry James Pye
is extremely difficult to justify;
none of the writing he managed to do
has been reprinted since 1822.
considered four-and-twenty birds worth
a walk as far as the banks of the Wye.
There are some things money just can’t buy.
lived into the era of fridges
but doubted they were worth their price.
He hadn’t much use for ice.
Could make moisturizing lotion.
Much of what he now creates
Is slick and fragrant, and evaporates.
Clerihews by George Szirtes
was not always nice:
his Saturday Night was followed Sunday Morning.
Let this be a warning.
and is hardly worth defending –
but he did give Lear a happy ending.
Too randy for a cleric.
thought it peculiar.
e e cummings’
will shortly be published in a book –
stood in the rain.
It rained in his heart.
He did it for art.
liked his rum neat
and would never think of adding Cola.
He’d sooner eat his bowler.
simply adored Film Noir
and kept nagging at Jean
“Make your old dad a Film Noir! Aw, go on!”
resisted all forms of donné.
When someone suggested he should paint the cathedral at Rheims,
he replied, “In your dreams!”
decided to pickle a shark
as a kind of tableau,
but then left it to Pablo.
woke up feeling grotty
having painted an enormous fresco
Fra Filippo Lippi
was kinda dippy
but succeeded in laying tons
worshipped Veronica Lake
but secretly thought The Blue Dahlia
something of a failure.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
was never mean or petty,
though he would occasionally fiddle
with Lizzie Siddall.
refused to read
“Too many sharks.”
J M W Turner
liked a nice little earner
and was untroubled by greed,
painting Rain, Steam AND Speed.
Jack B Yeats
told all his mates
to ignore his brother Willie.
“Those bloody fairies are just too fecking silly.”
could sing falsetto
but once he was off his face
he growled in bass.
Clerihews by X. J. Kennedy
Won lasting glory
Grew large and lardy
From dining to excess
On many a fine mess.
Flushed himself down the drain
When it seemed clear
That The Bridge didn’t cohere.
Stepped out on the breeze,
His work unrequited.
Still, he keeps being sighted.
Penned satires fierce.
He thought it mannish
Simply to vanish.
X. J. Kennedy
More brief poems by X. J. Kennedy are available on the Beetles post.
White House Clerihews by Mark Granier
was always at home on the stump,
while the White House, unfortunately,
is more of a tree.
fired by the looser cannon,
landed with a light heart
seemingly, has grown
to finally understand the score
and who not to take a bullet for.
was seen to become tense
on hearing Trump pronounce
scrambling for any port
in a storm, any vessel docked in Shit Creek,
asks only that it won’t leak.
managed to separate Trump from his favourite telly
but, when it came to Twitter,
had to conscript the wife, the bodyguard and the babysitter.
These clerihews were first published in LIGHT, a journal of light verse since 1992.
Anglo-Irish Clerihews by Derek Mahon
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Is still read today;
While other Victorian novels degenerate in the attic,
Its reputation remains static.
Was no fonne;
If her husband came home late she would call out:
“You drunken vainglorious lout.”
Preferred the Algonquin
To any other hotel –
Though he liked the Plaza as well.
And Elizabeth Bowen
Dramatic Clerihews by Daniel Galef
committed grievous cultural trespass
taking a perfectly satisfactory artistic genre like a choric song and ruining it for millennia by introducing a single new complicating factor:
the first actor.
lived 2500 years before the first Carry On…
but all subsequent comedians owe him their loyalties
and probably a few million in royalties.
The plays of Euripides
run longer than Pheidippides
and, far from being dull, if anything they’re perhaps a little too exciting,
unless you think someone being decapitated onstage is lackluster writing.
from Victorian society exiled
but revered today;
his writing has aged better than Dorian Gray.
quivered like Jell-o
when while in search of six characters for a new play he discovered, behind the scrim,
they were also looking for him.
may have been upright and honest and echt
but no one ever checked
because of his Verfremdungseffekt.
thought it would wreck it
if the titular Godot
would actually show.
is able to pander
to theatre nerds and civics nerds alike by rapping with passion and verve
about the Federal Reserve.
These clerihews were first published in Snakeskin, September 2021 issue.
Clerihews on the Sex Lives of Poets by Dick Davis
Sex Lives of the Poets (SLOP)
Was accused of rape. What could be coarser?
So that’s how Eng. Lit. began.
And he seemed such a nice old man.
Marlowe liked buggery
And political skullduggery;
When stabbed, he asked, “For which Secret Service
Do I deserve this?”
Did Shakespeare get more joy
From a boy as a girl or a girl as a boy?
Whatever: he liked the nice surprises
Engendered by disguises.
It’s clear that Aphra Benn
Really liked lots of men
Around her and inside her:
Most anyone could get to ride her.
Hadn’t a hope
With Lady Mary Wortley Montague:
“When it comes to inches,” she said, “you certainly want a few.”
Swift’s sexual growth, as is well attested,
Was rather arrested;
He licked his lips at secret names,
And potty talk, and baby games.
William Wordsworth was a cad
Who felt great about feeling bad;
Abandoned girls and lovers’ quarrels
Rewrote themselves as lofty morals.
When it comes to Christina Rossetti
And a sex life . . . well, not to get petty
There wasn’t any, or at least none that was visible.
This clerihew’s sad, not risible.
Philip Larkin simpered and snickered
When he thought of a schoolgirl de-knickered;
What had him really in clover
Was the phrase, “Bend over.”
Was turned on by the wrath
Of Daddy. It was a mistake though to confuse
Daddy with Ted Hughes.
This poem was first published in Light – Winter 2015 issue.
Never wrote a Mass in A.
It’d have been just too bad,
If he had.
Alfred de Musset
Used to call his cat Pusset.
His accent was affected.
That was to be expected.
(Whatever his other claims)
Is not always too deuced
Had an unusually loud voice;
Knightly knock eternally wood he make
Cecil B de Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of “The War of the Roses”.
(The son of Edmund Clerihew Bentley)
May not be bad verse.
But God knows
It’s bad prose.
There’s no disputin’
that Grigori Rasputin
had more will to power
Dean W. Zimmerman
Was sliced and diced,
And punched with holes
To save our souls.
Hardly ever went out to dine.
Be the menu never so abundant,
He found “green leafy lettuce salad” tautological and redundant.
Suffered from one of the rare asthmas.
His worst wheezes
Were caused by over-ripe cheeses.
Saw ‘The Full Monty’
Which he thought was vile,
Bar Robert Carlyle.
said his wife, ‘I wish you would sing more,
not just sit there playing chess against Death and being glum’.
But Ingmar kept shtum.
loved his aunt.
When he was alone,
He would try her eau de cologne.
Sad his wife looked back. He saw it as an opportunity
For her to become a pillar of the community.
Wanted to leave behind the boa,
But God made the rules and wouldn’t be contradicted,
So Noah’s options were constricted.
As German as measles,
But his engine stayed mobile,
So his legacy’s global.
took little interest in finding a great tailor,
unlike his sometime pal
The Wikipedia page on the clerihew.
Wikipedia page on Edmund Clerihew Bentley.
The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley, edited by Gavin Ewart.
Henry Taylor writes about the brief candles he calls his clerihews.
Cody Walker writes about the clerihew in The Kenyon Review.
George Szirtes on his blog discusses the clerihew.
Philosophical clerihews by Dean W. Zimmerman
A site devoted to the contemporary clerihew.
Results from the Practical Pyromaniac Clerihew Contest.