Wednesday, October 8, 2014

CLERIHEWS: Invented by an Oxonian (7 new ones here)

1. Edmund Clerihew Bentley,
Ever so gently,
Did what he had to do,
And invented the clerihew.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley was born in 1875 in London. He was an original thinker. His first mystery book was Trent's Last Case, published in 1913, in which the detective hero comes up with brilliant solutions to cases... that alas turn out to be wrong.

At 16 years of age at St. Paul's School, England, before going up to Merton College, Oxford, Bentley invented the "clerihew," a collection of which appears in his first book, Biography for Beginners (1905).

A clerihew is a potted biography. The orthodox form is two rhyming couplets, the first rhyme provided by the name of a famous person. The verse form was invented by Bentley and was picked up by G.K. Chesterton and W.H. Auden (who of course tried everything).

The clerihews most venerated are the shortest. The seven numbered clerihews are mine.  I am sometimes stumped for a rhyme to a name and I cheat by adding some words to the name in the first line, making it easier to find a rhyme.

2. The elder William Pitt,
Dreamt of empire, fully Brit.
The French at first he chased away,
But later they aided the USA.

3. George the Third
Liked tea taxes, absurd.
The colonies had a swift revolt.
What was he thinking? The dolt!

4. Frederick Lord North
Sent tax collectors forth.
Boston rebels made them swim.
How could he have been so dim?

5. George Washington thought that he was done.
When Yorktown got the Brits on the run.
But wise folk flew to his residence,
And begged him be first of our Presidents.

Here's one inspired by a comment last year from Wendell Fitzgerald (to whom I give a tip of the hat):

6. Henry George's plea
Was a tax, or a rental fee,
To cut tenants free
Of serfdom's poverty.

Here are classic examples.

The first-ever clerihew was written about Sir Humphry Davy by Bentley while at St. Paul's School.

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Here's another by Bentley:

John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote Principles of Political Economy.

Auden's Literary Graffiti includes:

Sir Henry Rider Haggard
Was completely staggered
When his bride-to-be
Announced, "I am She!"

A clerihew was written by the students of Sherborne School in England about their alumnus Alan Turing, the founder of computing. Turing was at King's College, Cambridge before going to Princeton University, attached to Einstein's Institute for Advanced International Studies, and then joining the Bletchley Park code-breaking group during World War II.

Must have been alluring
To get made a don
So early on.

To which I offer a petulant alternative:

7. Turing at Bletchley, says lore,
Broke Nazi code in the war.
But his nation looked away...
As he agonized for being gay.

A clerihew much appreciated by chemists is cited in Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes, and describes the inventor of the thermos bottle (or Dewar flask):

Sir James Dewar
Is smarter than you are -
None of you asses
Can liquefy gases.

In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:
Did Descartes
With the thought
"Therefore I'm not"?

I have specialized in clerihews of children's book writers and illustrators. Feel free to use any of my clerihews but please acknowledge and inform me of each use (teppermarlin [at] aol [dot] com).

Oxford bios. More clerihews, about children's book writers. Other clerihews: Millay.

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