Saturday, 15 April 2017

Closely Encountered Clerihews

Clerihews! What on earth? you may well ask... and several of you have.

If this week's theme has proved one thing, it is that very few have ever encountered a Clerihew.  So, at the risk of sounding like a David Attenborough script, let us creep up on the little known fellow and observe it closely. What do we espy?

The Clerihew is neat and it is whimsical, but surprisingly isn't shy. Its structure is simple: it's got four lines and it contains two rhymes; (the first line rhymes with the second, the third rhymes with the fourth - aabb). It is also biographical, inasmuch as it contains the name of a (more or less) famous person in the first line and then proceeds to say something apt or witty about that person. For example:

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

That is reputed to be the first Clerihew ever composed by the man who devised the form, one Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), while he was still a schoolboy in late Victorian London (and a classmate of G K Chesterton).

After  school and university (Merton College, Oxford), E C Bentley became a journalist, working for several newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and The Outlook (a particularly right-wing periodical). He also wrote humorous verse, per the template above, and published his first collection of Clerihews as 'Biography For Beginners' in 1905, which served to make the idiom popular and inspired several reputable poets to devise Clerihews of their own, including W.H. Auden.

Bentley couldn't stop churning them out and his initial volume was followed by two further collections, 'More Biography' (1929) and 'Baseless Biography' (1939), proving that there was a continuing public appetite for such witty little things.

Although the Clerihew is what Bentley is best remembered for (if he is remembered at all), that is a shame, because in my view his greatest service to literature was as a crime writer.


E C Bentley's detective novels, featuring the exploits of amateur sleuth Philip Trent, were much admired between the world wars and were championed by no less an authority than Dorothy L Sayers. With their clever and labyrinthine plots, they can claim to have blazed the trail for modern mystery fiction. They sold well as Penguin Mystery & Crime paperbacks and one of them, 'Trent's Last Case', was made into a very entertaining film in 1929 (and remade in 1952). From 1936 until 1949 E C Bentley was president of the Detection Club (for crime writers).

ECB - A Clerihew For You
I have to say I'm not a great fan of the Clerihew as a poetic form. It is slight and amusing and on a par with the limerick. However, I've swallowed hard and written one for E C Bentley himself and it goes like this...

Dear Edmund Clerihew Bentley,
There's no way of putting this gently.
You wrote great detective novels, it is true,
But when it came to poetry you didn't have a clue!

Well, let's hope we don't have to do that again in a hurry.

Thanks for reading, have a good week and may the Easter Bunny be bounteous, S ;-)
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

So now we know Clerihews :-D

Anonymous said...

I thought your ECB clerihew was very funny in a "deliberately bad" sort of way.