Friday, July 10, 2015

BIRTH: July 10–Oxonian Edmund Clerihew Bentley (Updated Feb. 21, 2016)

1. Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Ever so gently,
Did what he had to do, And gave us the clerihew.
Edmund Bentley, in '75, / Wasted no time in coming alive. / Alone he created the clerihew. / Read on a bit, and I'll share a few.

At 16, at St. Paul's School, England, before going up to Merton College, Oxford, he invented a kind of verse, a potted biography made up of two rhyming couplets, the first line of which is provided by the name of a famous person.

A collection of clerihews appears in his first book, Biography for Beginners (1905).

The verse form was subsequently picked up by G.K. Chesterton and W.H. Auden. An examples from Auden follows below.

The most venerated clerihews are the ones that do their job in a very small number of words.

The authors of the unnumbered clerihews are identified. The seven numbered ones, for better or verse, are mine.

2. The elder William Pitt,
Dreamt of empire wholly Brit.
So he chased the French away,
But they came back for the USA.

3. George the Third
Gave the word:
"Tax the Yanks!"
They said: "No thanks!"

4. Frederick Lord North
Sent tax men forth -
Boston's sailors made them swim.
How could he have been so dim?

5. General George Washington -
After Yorktown said: "I'm done!"
But, lined up at his residence,
Folks said: "Please be first of our Presidents!"

Here's one inspired by a comment in 2013 by Wendell Fitzgerald (to whom I give a tip of the hat):

6. Reformer Henry George
Hammered at the land-tax forge.
He tried to make it the major key
For eliminating poverty.

Now that you have gotten the idea, it is time to appreciate the classic examples.

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

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

Here's another 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!"

The subject of a clerihew written by the students of Sherborne School in England, was Alan Turing, the founder of computing, who was at King's College, Cambridge before going to Princeton University and joining Einstein's Institute for Advanced International Studies before he became part of the Bletchley Park code-breaking group.

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

To which I offer an alternative that gains points for being more topical but loses them again for being longer.

7. Turing at Bletchley, says the lore,
Broke Nazi code and shortened the war.
But his nation later looked away
As he suffered dearly 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, which I savor again and again, each time appreciating it the more, was:

Did Descartes
With the thought
"Therefore I'm not"?

Bentley would have wallowed in the subtlety of the Descartes clerihew, in which the amount of time left to think–and therefore be–asymptotically approaches zero. Bentley's first mystery book was Trent's Last Case (1913), in which the detective hero triumphally announces how he has uncovered a brilliant solution to the murder... but is then shown by a lesser mind why this solution is, inconveniently, wrong.

More Oxford bios here.

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