July 10 is Clerihew Day, named for English author Edmund Clerihew Bentley and taking place on his birthday. While Bentley is praised for having written Trent’s Last Case, a well-known early twentieth century detective novel, his other great claim to fame is the poetry form which bears his name: the Clerihew.
Now, you may be wondering, “What in the world is a Clerihew!?” So no, it’s not as well-known as the Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian sonnet, or either of their namesakes. It is, however, a most humorous verse form. There are typically five classic rules for a Clerihew: four lines, rhyming couplets of AA/BB, a person’s name as its first line, something to say about that person, and it should make you smile. There’s no fixed meter, which means no scansion involved (meaning all literary scholars may collectively exhale). Plus, these seem like the sorts of rhymes you might find in a Dr. Seuss story. Either that or some sort of nursery rhyme. The poems can be critical, but are mostly used in jest. The rhythm involved is bouncy, sing-songy, and unavoidably catchy.
The form was invented by Bentley when he was a 16-year-old student at St. Paul’s School in London. He was in science class when a poem about Sir Humphry Davy popped into his head. It read:
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium.
Bentley published three volumes of poems constructed by the form which was named for him, but other writers have used it as well. Anglo-American poet, W.H. Auden, was known to have utilized the Clerihew form for some of his poems, which he published under the title American Graffiti. British satirist Craig Brown has also often employed the form in his discussions of famed cultural figures.
Can you write a clever Clerihew?