Thursday, July 20, 2006


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

This simple silly verse is commonly considered the first clerihew, a poetic form named for its creator, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. He was a school friend of GKC, who also wrote some clerihews, and provided illustrations for some of Bentley’s (like the one above.) Bentley allegedly came up with the idea for the biographical poems while bored at school. Whatever the case, he later published a book of them (Biography for Beginners) with illustrations by Chesterton.

The form of the poem is simple:

They are four lines long.
The first and second lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other.
The first line names a person, and the second line ends with something that rhymes with the name of the person. (In some cases, the person’s name comes at the end of the second line, in which case the first line rhymes with the name.)
The lines can vary in length, they just have to rhyme.
A clerihew should be funny.

That’s about it.

Oh, and of course, even Bentley broke the person rule occasionally. Here’s an example (with another Chesterton illustration.)

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

The clerihew is beloved by Chestertonians. There is a regular column about them in Gilbert magazine, and the annual Chesterton Conference includes a clerihew contest.

As noted earlier, Chesterton’s connection with clerihew’s goes beyond simply illustrating them for Bentely: He wrote some himself.

Three that are attributed to GKC are:

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.

Bentley is the most famous of the clerihew writers. W.H Auden also published a book of them (Academic Graffiti).

Henry Adams
Was mortally afraid of Madams:
In a disorderly house
He sat quiet as a mouse.

Oscar Wilde
Was greatly beguiled,
When into the Café Royal walked Bosie
Wearing a tea-cosy.

More recently, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Henry Taylor published a collection of Clerihews called Brief Candles, 101 Clerihews. Here’s two of his:

Thomas Warton
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.

But getting back to the Bentley, here’s a few more:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, 'I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's.'

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

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.

There’s even a Mystery Clerihew site - - (appropriate, because Bentley’s greatest fame came from his mystery book, Trent’s Last Case) where I came across the following:

Father Brown
Gained wide renown.
Not for prayerbooks or hyminals,
But for collaring criminals.

And here’s a final Bentley, with a GKC illustration:

What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.


Nick Milne said...

Thank you for posting this, Lee. I had been meaning to do something with the delightful images from Biography for Beginners, but have never been able to get my hands on a copy.

The one with the two scientists is just awesome.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There was a man called Wittgenstein,
I wish he'd been a friend of mine.
He never had a sense of humour,
And hated jokes about his tumour.

Anonymous said...

A philosopher called David Hume,
Some considered a bit of a loon,
For inviting Rousseau as his guest,
Then soon wanting to strangle the pest.
(copyright 18/7/2012 KJB

Anonymous said...

The recent novels of martin Amis,
have simply been his very lamest.
I'd rather read Ian McEwan,
Atleast he still knows what he's doin'.

Anonymous said...

I've heard Clive James, poor poor Clive,
Is gravely ill, and barely alive.
And while his critics may wish him dead,
I wish they all would die instead.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

DH Lawrence
Viewed England with abhorrence.
But Kipling had more loyalty
To Empire and to Royalty.

Anonymous said...

Poor old Martin Amis
Wanted to be famous,
Just like his famous Dad.
Which is really kind of sad.

Anonymous said...

James Joyce was one of those,
Who wrote stream-of-consciousness prose.
Which some readers found quite troubling,
Especially if they lived in Dublin.

Anonymous said...

I have a few issues with Mr Charles Dickens,
His characters multiply as the plot thickens.
Then he pours on the sentiment, sickly and cloying.
I prefer Wilkie Collins, he's far less annoying.