What is a Clerihew?
The Clerihew is a whimsical form of poetry, named after its inventor.
The Clerihew owes its name to its inventor, noted English novelist E. C. Bentley, who conceived the form as a 16-year-old student at St Paul’s School in London. It is said the form (and the first line of his first example, about Humphry Davy) came to his mind during a science lecture. Afterwards he and his school friends filled a notebook with a number of poems about other celebrities of the time.
The first use in print of the term Clerihew appears in 1928, though Bentley published the original book of poems he wrote at school as Biography for Beginners in 1905. He would return to the form in 1929 with a second collection: More Biography. His final collection of Clerihew poetry appeared in 1939, titled Baseless Biography, and featured works originally published in Punch Magazine, illustrated by his son Nicholas Bentley.
As a somewhat nonsense, humorous verse, the Clerihew became popular as an easy-to-write form. A surprising number of ‘serious’ poets also used the Clerihew, including G. K. Chesterton, who had worked on the original notebook of Clerihew poetry and provided illustration for Biography for Beginners. W. H. Auden also produced a number of them, and contemporary satirist Craig Brown has often featured them in columns for the Daily Telegraph.
In recent years, the form has seen a new popularity on Twitter. Its short verse, simple execution, and humour seem almost tailor-made for the platform.
There are few rules to the Clerihew. They are almost exclusively biographic, poking fun at notable figures, though they have also been written about different subjects.
A Clerihew features four lines, with a very simple rhyme scheme.
These rhymes are usually humorously contrived, to the point of using other languages, even Latin, in order to rhyme awkward names.
All the lines of the poem are irregular lengths and metres, further adding to the comedy of the form.
In a letter written in 1960, Bentley said that the first line should end with the subject of the poem’s name, as the point of the form was to rhyme strange names. Many first lines are solely the name of the subject of the poem.
Clerihew are used to lampoon famous figures in a light-hearted manner. This can be through either singling out a bizarre fact about the subject, or by inventing something so ludicrous, it could not possibly be believed.
When selecting a subject, it’s most fun to choose someone with an irregular name. Common names or easy rhymes are to be avoided; the worse the rhyme, the better the Clerihew.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.