What is a Clerihew?

It may not have escaped your notice that most of the verses on this site are tagged as Clerihews.

But what makes a Clerihew a Clerihew?

The short answer is it’s a four line verse in the style set out by the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley.

Clerihew was born in 1875 and supposedly devised the first Clerihew while a schoolboy at St Paul’s School, Hammersmith.

The ground-breaking verse concerned Sir Humphrey Davy.

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

With these four lines Clerihew set out the classic rules for a Clerihew, namely that it should have:

  • Four lines
  • Rhyming couplets of AA, BB
  • A person’s name as its first line
  • Something to say about that person
  • And it should make you smile

Some of the best Clerihews also have a convoluted rhyme in the final couplet. Reading some of his best rhymes, you can almost sense Clerihew’s delight at cracking a particularly tricky couplet.

“I quite realised” said Columbus,
“That the Earth was not a rhombus
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid”

While Clerihews are a very English form of verse, Clerihew used his Greats education to borrow heavily from Latin (as well as modern French and even broad Scots dialect) when the need for a rhyme dictated it.

Although Don Bradman
Screamed and fought like a madman
And condemned the procedings in toto
They insisted on taking his photo

Reading the Complete Clerihews it is striking however that a large proportion of the great man’s poems did not possess all the attributes we associate with a classic Clerihew.

In particular, Clerihew’s first lines were often a whole line of verse, rather than just the name of the subject of the Clerihew, as with the Columbus verse above.

So there’s plenty of latitude for would-be Clerihew composers.  The rules are more guidelines than a strict requirement.

Some of Clerihew’s most lovable verses have an awesome silliness about them. It’s often the juxtaposition of a great man (they were nearly always men) and some fancilful detail that gives many Clerihews their charm.

It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose

It’s also quite encouraging that some of ECB’s Clerihews aren’t very good either.

Writing a good Clerihew can be ridiculously easy, or fairly difficult. They are quite hard to force. If it can’t be done, it can’t be done. Even as great a poet as WH Auden wrote some fairly dreadful Clerihews and wasn’t too proud to keep them swept under the carpet either.

So if you’re tempted to write a Clerihew, don’t worry too much about the rules.  After all, ECB himself chopped and change the structure of his verses as it suited him.  There’s no reason why you (or I) shouldn’t do the same.

A final word on Clerihew

Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Said “I like my name immensely
But sometimes when I’ve had a few
I call myself Edmund Bentley Clerihew”

By Mark Hoult


About this site

Verse.org.uk likes to mark significant moments in public life with a short verse - usually in Clerihew form. We've tightened our poetic belt and cut everything right back to the bare essentials. Every verse on this site takes up fewer than 140 characters, so feel free to tweet them to your friends.

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