Late in the 19th century, a daydreaming British preppie named Edmund Clerihew Bentley gave the world a new form of nonsense verse. Author of the story “Trent’s Last Case,” Bentley (1875-1956) is best remembered as the inventor of the clerihew (his mother’s maiden name and his middle name). Bentley’s son, Nicholas, wrote, “I think it gave him more pleasure than anything else he achieved in life that he lived to see the word clerihew enshrined in the Oxford Dictionary as part of our language.”
When Bentley was 12, he went to St. Paul’s, the famous London boys’ school. It was there in 1891, when he was 16, that, to pass the time in a study hall, he concocted his first clerihew:
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having invented sodium.
The clerihew (usually lowercased) is a whimsical, pseudo-biographical quatrain (four lines) rhymed (often outrageously) as two couplets with short, pithy lines of uneven length and meter. The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line, as in this creation of mine:
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Wrote light verses expediently,
For which he became rather famous.
That fellow was no ignoramus.
And here’s one that I’ve written immodestly about myself:
Richard Henry Lederer
Will undangle your participle, etceterer.
In a manner most definitive,
He’ll also unsplit your infinitive.
Among the most famous of Clerihew Bentley’s clerihews are:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half a dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.
Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He also liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome.
The form may have been outrageous; it was also contagious. The clerihew became the rage at St. Paul’s School and somehow found its way, in Bentley’s words, into “the hands of connoisseurs of idiocy everywhere.” Soon the clerihew joined the limerick as one of the few popular fixed poetic forms indigenous to the English language.
Nowadays, few people know about or create clerihews, but given the overwhelming responses I‘ve received to my limericks and Tom Swifties contests, I invite you, my verbivorous reader, to wing me your original clerihews to the email address below. Start with a famous name, adhere to the aabb rhyme scheme, strive for creative rhymes and toss in a heaping helping of telling wit. Three winners will receive signed copies of my book “Monsters Unchained!”
The deadline for submissions is July 6. Limit of three clerihews per contestant. I’ll publish the most pyrotechnic entries in my July 11 column. Please include your name, address and the name of your community.