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What Is a Clerihew?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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The diminutive clarihew poem came into popular culture in Great Britain around the turn of 20th century. Named after British writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the rules that govern these four-line poems are basic and accessible to a wide audience of poets and poetry lovers. Following a pattern of AABB, with the end of the first two and last two lines rhyming, these poems are generally a jocular observation about a particular person, or type of person. Reflecting this biographical format, the end of the first line is usually where the name of that person appears, with the punchline coming somewhere in the second set of lines.

Though the formation and purpose of the clerihew is fairly rigid, the amount of possible syllables is boundless. The first two lines could be, "Backstreet Boys/Plastic toys." They could also be much more involved like, "The acting legend Pauly Shore/Isn't known to work anymore." Though the main joke is generally made in the second couplet of the clarihew, more than one funny observation is possible just by making a pointed characterization.

The second part of the poem can then be directed at making the critical observation of the subject. In the above examples, that could mean writing, "Backstreet Boys/Plastic toys/They once made tears of joy/Flow from even little boys." The Pauly Shore example might end, "He last was seen in party gear/Just shooting through another year."

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Though it is unclear whether he founded the form, British humor writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley is credited with popularizing this type of poem. His first collection of poetry, 1905s Biography for Beginners, contained the first recognized versions. Among the very first was, "Sir Humphrey Davy/Abominated gravy./He lived in the odium/Of having discovered sodium." Though these poems most often waxed on a particularly personage, it would not be unusual to pen a clerihew about a type of person. For instance, "The wise attorney,/Law's sad gurney/Carrying justice/Just to dust us."

Clerihew is a close relative to a few other biographical poems. The closest relation is the balliol rhyme, which has the prerequisite of naming the subject in the first line but also follows a more exacting meter. A double dactyl poem follows the same biographical mission but uses two four-line stanzas. The subject is named in the second of eight lines in this type of poem, and the final word of each four-line stanza are the only two parts that must rhyme. One final condition is that somewhere in the fifth through seventh lines, just one often-obscure, double-dactylic word must stand alone, such as "antedeluvian."

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