Let's Bring Back the Clerihew!

February 28, 2013 | 0 comments

E. C. Bentley

G. K. Chesterton dedicated his novel The Man Who Was Thursday to his friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). By fans of detective fiction Bentley is remembered best as the author of Trent’s Last Case (1913), which many consider the first of the modern whodunits. Other people know Bentley because of the poetic form he invented and gave his middle name to, the clerihew.

The clerihew is a four-line poem about (usually) a famous person. The first line contains the subject’s name—and sometimes nothing more. The other lines are of irregular length and meter, for comic effect, and they are rhymed couplets. Often the poem contains a moral reflection.

Bentley’s first clerihew—and some consider it his best—was written when he was a schoolboy at St. Paul’s School, London, where he met Chesterton:

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

Years later, at the time of the Boer War, Bentley wrote about his and Chesterton’s friend:

Mr Bernard Shaw
Was just setting out for the war,
When he heard it was a dangerous trade
And demonstrably underpaid.

Just before a later war, Bentley wrote this clerihew:

“The moustache of Adolf Hitler
Could hardly be littler,”
Was the thought that kept recurring
To Field Marshal Goering.

Bentley’s son Nicholas eventually tried his hand at the genre and came up with this:

Cecil B. de Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of “The War of the Roses.”

Not a few of the senior Bentley’s clerihews concerned Catholic figures or touched on Church history. Among my favorites are these:

Mr Hilaire Belloc
Is a case for legislation ad hoc.
He seems to think nobody minds
His books being all of different kinds.

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half a dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

(In that last line, you have to say “Itterly” for the country.)

The last one I offer you takes a little close reading. Try saying it aloud:

Henry the Eighth
Took a thuctheththion of mateth.
He inthithted that the monkth
Were a lathy lot of thkunkth.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

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