Lots of people, especially rich and powerful ones, have cities, buildings, even stars named in their honor, but how many are forever known by the name of a verse form? Let’s see, there’s the Petrarchan sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian stanza—and the clerihew. E. C. Bentley, who died in 1956 at the age of eighty, was a British novelist and journalist much admired by Dorothy L. Sayers for his intricate detective stories featuring Inspector Trent, and by G. K. Chesterton for the invention of a verse form—the clerihew—that bears his middle name.
Clerihew is an old Scottish name, the origin of which is unclear, and the largest concentration of the family is in Aberdeenshire. The name became attached to the four-line verses because in 1905 Bentley published a volume of them, called Biography for Beginners, under the name E. Clerihew.
A clerihew typically is a gently humorous four-line verse, with an AABB rhyme scheme, about a notable person whose name ends the first line. The second line makes a statement about the person and rhymes with the name. The third and fourth lines develop some aspect of the person’s life or career, usually in a whimsical manner. No particular meter is mandated, and in fact, it is sometimes metrically irregular on purpose for comic effect. This aspect of the verse was satirized in a clerihew by an unknown wag:
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Who couldn’t get his poems to scan.
Bentley invented the verse form when he was a sixteen-year-old student at St. Paul’s School in London. One day he became bored during a chemistry class (well, who would blame him?) and idly wrote the following, much to the amusement of his fellow students:
Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
After that, there was no stopping young Edmund (and some people no doubt tried). By the time he was thirty, with a degree from Oxford in his pocket, he had cranked out enough of his four-line verses to make a book, including the following:
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.
It was a weakness of Voltaire’s
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.
A few other historically notable examples of the form must include:
Lived a long time ago.
He had nothing to do, so
He wrote Robinson Crusoe.
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some,
While writing anything gruesome.
“No, Sir,” said General Sherman,
“I did not enjoy the sermon;
Nor I didn’t git any
Kick outer the litany.”
Other irrepressible practitioners of the clerihew include Bentley’s friend Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and W. H. Auden
A crotchety satirist was Evelyn Waugh
And as dauntless a man as you ever saw.
It’s surprising that his best work all
Came after his Decline and Fall.
Always ordered à la carte.
He’d say “nix”
To the prix fixe.
T. S. Eliot
Took his tea, toast, and jam at
Exactly eight by his new clock,
Then he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
In a forest was lost.
But, entre nous,
Whose woods they were he thought he knew.
Laughed so hard he lost his voice
When the censors had several hissies
While reading Ulysses.
Sir Noël Coward
Shaved and showered,
Had coffee and a prune,
Then wrote a song in the morning and a play in the afternoon.