A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. One of his best known is this (1905):

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's."[1]



A clerihew has the following properties:

  • It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it pokes fun at mostly famous people
  • It has four lines of irregular length and metre (for comic effect)
  • The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme, including the use of phrases in Latin, French and other non-English Languages[2]
  • The first line contains, and may consist solely of, the subject's name.

Clerihews are not satirical or abusive, but they target famous individuals and reposition them in an absurd, anachronistic or commonplace setting, often giving them an over-simplified and slightly garbled description (similar to the schoolboy style of 1066 and All That).

The unbalanced and unpolished poetic meter and line length parody the limerick, and the clerihew form also parodies the eulogy.


The form was invented by and is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley. When he was a 16-year-old pupil at St Paul's School in London, the lines about Humphry Davy came into his head during a science class.[3] Together with his schoolfriends, he filled a notebook with examples.[4] The first use of the word in print was in 1928.[5] Clerihew published three volumes of his own clerihews: Biography for Beginners (1905), published as "edited by E. Clerihew";[3] More Biography (1929); and Baseless Biography (1939), a compilation of clerihews originally published in Punch illustrated by the author's son Nicolas Bentley.

Bentley's friend, G. K. Chesterton, was also a practitioner of the clerihew and one of the sources of its popularity. Chesterton provided verses and illustrations for the original schoolboy notebook and illustrated Biography for Beginners.[3] Other serious authors also produced clerihews, including W. H. Auden,[6] and it remains a popular humorous form among other writers and the general public. Among contemporary writers, the satirist Craig Brown has made considerable use of the clerihew in his columns for The Daily Telegraph.


The first ever clerihew was written about Sir Humphry Davy:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.[7]

When this clerihew was published in 1905, "Was not fond of"[4] was replaced by "Abominated". Other classic clerihews by Bentley include:

George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.[8]
John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote Principles of Political Economy.[9]

Auden's "Literary Graffitti" includes:

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

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

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

A modern literary example is:

Ted Hughes,
Sylvia's muse,
was rather good-looking.
Let his wife do the cooking.[10]

In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:

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

See also


  1. ^ Bentley, E. Clerihew (1905). Biography for Beginners. ISBN 978-1443753159. 
  2. ^ What is a Clerihew?
  3. ^ a b c Gale, Steven H. (1996). Encyclopedia of British Humorists: Geoffrey Chaucer to John Cleese. Taylor & Francis. p. 139. ISBN 0-8240-5990-5. 
  4. ^ a b Bentley, E. Clerihew (1982). The First Clerihews. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-212980-5. 
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. 
  6. ^ O'Neill, Michael (2007). The All-sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry Since 1900. Oxford University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-19-929928-5. 
  7. ^ BBC - h2g2 - Sir Humphry Davy FRS (1778 - 1829)
  8. ^ Freeman, Morton S. (ed.) (1997). A New Dictionary of Eponyms. Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 0-19-509354-2. 
  9. ^ Biography for Beginners. Swainson, Bill (ed.) (2000). Encarta Book of Quotations. Macmillan. pp. 642–43. ISBN 0-312-23000-1. 
  10. ^ Credited to Caroline Dworin
  • Teague, Frances (1993). "clerihew". Preminger, Alex; Brogan, T.V.F. (ed.), The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press. pp. 219–220.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • clerihew — humorous verse form, 1928, from English humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875 1956), who described it in a book published 1906 under the name E. Clerihew …   Etymology dictionary

  • clerihew — n. a witty satiric verse containing two rhymed couplets and mentioning a famous person. [WordNet 1.5] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • clerihew — [kler′ə hyo͞o΄] n. [after E. Clerihew Bentley (1875 1956), Eng author] a humorous, quasi biographical poem made up of two rhymed couplets with lines of varying length and meter …   English World dictionary

  • Clerihew — Ein Clerihew ist ein kurzer scherzhafter pseudobiographischer Vierzeiler, eine Gedichtform, die von Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956) erfunden wurde. Er besteht aus zwei Reimpaaren mit ungleichmäßiger Länge und mehr oder weniger freiem Rhythmus …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • clerihew — /kler euh hyooh /, n. Pros. a light verse form, usually consisting of two couplets, with lines of uneven length and irregular meter, the first line usually containing the name of a well known person. [1925 30; named after E. Clerihew Bentley… …   Universalium

  • Clerihew —    Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875 1956) was a British journalist who became a detective fiction writer; his best known novel was Trent s Last Case. But Bentley was immortalized not by his novels, but by his humorous quatrains about a person or… …   Dictionary of eponyms

  • Clerihew — Cle|ri|hew [ klɛrɪhju:], das; [s], s [engl. clerihew, nach dem ersten Verfasser E. Clerihew Bentley]: vierzeilige humoristische Gedichtform: Leser dichten s (Hörzu 25, 1973, 93) …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Clerihew — Cle|ri|hew [ klɛrihju:] das; [s], s <aus gleichbed. engl. clerihew, nach dem ersten Verfasser E. Clerihew Bentley> vierzeilige humoristische Gedichtform …   Das große Fremdwörterbuch

  • clerihew — noun Etymology: Edmund Clerihew Bentley died 1956 English writer Date: 1928 a light verse quatrain rhyming aabb and usually dealing with a person named in the initial rhyme …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • clerihew — noun A rhyme of four lines, usually regarding a person mentioned in the first line. The clerihew, as you can see …   Wiktionary

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