Clerihew Poems: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Have you ever made up funny little rhymes to pass the time in a particularly boring class? In this lesson, you'll learn all about a type of poetry that got its start this way and see a few examples of these works known as 'Clerihew poems.'

Whimsical Wit: Clerihew Poems Defined

You've probably heard all kinds of humorous rhymes involving people's names, and you may have even come up with a few of your own. If so, what you produced could very well have been a Clerihew poem, a witty and whimsical four-line poem, usually concerning a famous figure.

Often referred to as simply 'Clerihews,' these tiny poems are a type of epigram: a verse work that is characteristically concise and cleverly amusing. The name of the famous individual who is being discussed in a Clerihew typically appears in the first line. In fact, the name is regularly the only thing in the first line and may be used as the 'title' of the piece.

From the person's name, the poet will devise a rhyme pattern usually based on the scheme AABB. Since many people's names have unique sounds or pronunciations, writers of Clerihews often rely on a clever use of rhyme (i.e. approximate or 'slanted' rhyme). This sometimes also entails the use of foreign words, especially Latin and French in many of the examples of this verse form.

Origin of the Clerihew

The Clerihew poem takes its name from its creator, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. Reportedly, Bentley was mind-numbingly bored in his chemistry class one day and so decided to jot down a silly (yet learned) rhyme on Sir Humphrey Davy. The pattern of Clerihews is derived from this first poem, including their characteristic mixture of clownish and cultured elements. Take a look at the examples below to see if you can identify just what makes them Clerihews!

E.C. Bentley (1875-1956); British novelist, humorist, and inventor of the Clerihew
Photo of E.C. Bentley

Examples of Clerihew Poems

Sir Humphrey Davy

This first Clerihew poem ever penned was published by Edmund Bentley in 1905. We can see the underlying inspiration of the apparently droll chemistry class in Bentley's construction of the poem around Sir Davy and his discovery of the element sodium. The poet uses the Latin word odium ('anger, hateful state') to rhyme with the chemist's discovery while connecting it to the saltiness (sodium content) of gravy.

Sir Humphrey Davy

Abominated gravy.

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered sodium.

Cecil B. de Mille

Bentley's son Nicolas also composed some famous Clerihews, including this one on Cecil B. DeMille (or 'de Mille'), a filmmaker renowned for serious historical inaccuracies in his work. In this piece, Nicolas pokes fun at this characteristic by asserting that, given the chance, DeMille would have included the ancient Hebrew patriarch Moses in a movie on the Wars of the Roses - conflicts fought over the throne of England from 1455-1485.

Cecil B. de Mille

Rather against his will

Was persuaded to leave Moses

Out of the Wars of the Roses.

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