A clerihew (//) is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light, or revealing something unknown or spurious about them. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and metre are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books. One of his best known is this (1905):
A clerihew has the following properties:
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.
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 of his first clerihew, about Humphry Davy, came into his head during a science class. Together with his schoolfriends, he filled a notebook with examples. The first use of the word in print was in 1928. 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 illustrated by the author's son Nicolas Bentley.
G. K. Chesterton, a friend of Bentley, 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. Other serious authors also produced clerihews, including W. H. Auden, 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.
There has been newfound popularity of the form on Twitter.
Bentley's first clerihew, published in 1905, was written about Sir Humphry Davy:
The original poem had the second line "Was not fond of gravy"; but the published version has "Abominated gravy".
Other clerihews by Bentley include:
W. H. Auden's Academic Graffiti (1971) includes:
Satirical magazine Private Eye noted Auden's work and responded:
W. H. Auden
Suffers from acute boredom
But for his readers he's got some merry news
He's written a collection of rather bad clerihews
A second stanza aimed a jibe at Auden's publisher, Faber and Faber.
Alan Turing, one of the founders of computing, was the subject of a clerihew written by the pupils of his alma mater, Sherborne School in England:
A clerihew appreciated by chemists is cited in Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes, and regards the inventor of the thermos bottle (or Dewar flask):
Sir James Dewar
Is a better man than you are
None of you asses
Can liquefy gases.
Dark Sun also features a clerihew about the German-British physicist and Soviet nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs:
In 1983, Games magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:
The clerihew form has also occasionally been used for non-biographical verses. Bentley opened his 1905 Biography for Beginners with an example, entitled "Introductory Remarks", on the theme of biography itself:
The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about Maps,
But Biography is about Chaps.
The third edition of the same work, published in 1925, included a "Preface to the New Edition" in 11 stanzas, each in clerihew form. One stanza ran:
On biographic style
(Formerly so vile)
The book has had an effect
Greater than I could reasonably expect.