The origin of the clerihew immediately reveals its noble pedigree: it was invented by a bored student. The student was the sixteen year old Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), and it was in a science class that he wrote the first ever clerihew (humbly named after himself):
Sir Humphry Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
Perhaps this is mainly funny to chemists and dieticians, but you get the idea. A clerihew is simply a four-line poem—rhyming AABB—that makes fun of somebody famous. The lines themselves can be of any length, and the main aim is to sum up an entire life through one incident or detail. Often clerihews go beyond the biographical record and make something up, but even then they should capture something of the person’s character or reputation.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley published three collections of clerihews in his lifetime, starting with Biography for Beginners in 1905. Each clerihew was accompanied by a humorous pen and ink illustration. Since then the genre has always had its fans, some of them accomplished poets. W. H. Auden, for instance, published a collection of clerihews called Academic Graffiti. One of Auden’s best clerihews goes as follows:
Johann Sebastian Bach
Was a master of his Fach: [business]
Nothing could be more kluge [clever]
Than his Kunst der Fuge. [art of the fugue]
This example demonstrates precisely why the clerihew has remained a fairly obscure genre, a sort of pastime for the erudite. Many great clerihews show their wit in having unusual rhymes, including foreign words and phrases. In this case, without a bit of German we’d be lost.
One of the challenges of writing a clerihew, then, is to make sure that the poem can be understood through its own logic, even when it has added layers of complexity. Take, for instance, this gem by Auden:
When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.
You don’t have to know much about Immanuel Kant’s philosophy to get at least something of the joke. Alternatively, some clerihews are entirely nonsensical, as in Bentley’s absurd portrait of Brahms:
It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms.
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose.
The problem, though, is that this is pretty weak stuff. There are no clever rhymes and there is no sense in which this description is especially suited to Brahms, unless he had some strange fetish we don’t know about. The truth is that it is rather difficult to write a good clerihew, and both Bentley and Auden wrote many a dud.
In recent years, the clerihew has been taken up as a side project by a few authors. Of note is Henry Taylor’s collection Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews (published in 2000). Taylor groups his clerihew by profession, and he has series on poet laureates, Jesus’ disciples, literary theorists, supreme-court judges, and so forth. Some are surprisingly satirical:
Could make moisturizing lotion.
Much of what he now creates
Is slick and fragrant, and evaporates.
On the whole, Taylor’s clerihews are well-crafted, but often treat lesser known subjects.
If you’re thinking of taking up the clerihew, let me give you some further pointers. Obviously you will want to write about people who are fairly well known. Next, the trick is to find names that allow for clever rhymes, as ideally you should conclude line 1 with the name. You can cheat a little, but if you do it should be for dramatic effect. In the following clerihew about Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, it makes thematic sense that the first line needs a little extending:
Franz Schubert – he
Was well beyond puberty
When he wrote a symphony
A movement short and in a minor key.
Alternatively, you can break the rules by including two subjects in the first line, as in this Auden clerihew:
Luther & Zwingli
Should be treated singly:
L hated the Peasants,
Z the Real Presence.
If you’re very brave, you could even introduce the real subject further into the poem, as in the following example, which nevertheless still manages to end line one with a name:
After courting Florence Nightingale
For nine years and to no avail,
Richard Monckton Milnes realized he was mad
To have lent her his collection of de Sade.
In other words, there is some room for bending the rules about ending line 1 with the subject’s name.
Another piece of advice is to think about the length of the line. The last clerihew experiments with fairly long lines, in part because the name is so long. However, often concision is key, as is understatement. One of Bentley’s best is this hilarious description of Homer travelling past the burning ruins of Troy:
“Dear me!” exclaimed Homer,
“What a delicious aroma!
It smells as if a town
Was being burnt down.”
Here’s one more example of a quick punch line:
Henry the Eighth
Had a chauvinistic faith:
To leave his wife in the lurch
He started a church.
Incidentally, we might expect “Calvinistic” rather than “chauvinistic,” which is a another feature of the clerihew: upsetting expectations.
Something that Bentley was particularly good at was including dialogue in the clerihews. One of his best is the portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s cathedral:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
The casual nature of the lines is hard to achieve, and adds to the comedy. Here’s an attempt at a similar effect:
Said Dante Alighieri
To Virgil on the ferry,
“What is that stink, what is that smell?”
“That is the Styx, and we’re in hell.”
Again, it’s important to think about the structure of the lines, as the last two have a parallel rhythm, especially with the near-rhyme of “stink”/”Styx.” The whole aim is to create a sense of bathos, the literary term for reducing epic or sublime moments to the level of triviality. How you achieve this—through slang, anachronism, or some other method—is up to you.
My last advice is to include some puns and plays on words. See if you can spot the puns in these examples:
The Dalai Lama
Wore a silk pyjama
Manufactured in the West
And longed to return Tibet to rest.
Played with such élan,
That when he got upset,
He settled for a tête-à-tête.
As you can see from the last example, anyone famous can be the subject of a clerihew, including soccer players. Indeed, there’s no need to be a history buff to enjoy this genre. You can even make up clerihews about fictional characters.
So, if you enjoy writing poetry, or if you are a teacher who wants to add some variety to the curriculum, then why not explore the clerihew form? There are few things as satisfying as crafting a witty clerihew. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement, but it’s still a great poem to add to your repertoire.
One final thing: if you’re truly serious, think about adding a humorous illustration to complete the effect:
Auden, W. H. Academic Graffiti. Illustrated by Filippo Sanjust, Random House, 1972.
Bentley, Edmund Clerihew. Biography for Beginners. Illustrated by G.K. Chesterton, T.W. Laurie, 1905.
Taylor, Henry. Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews. Louisiana State UP, 2000.