Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the journalist and writer of detective stories invented the clerihew in his 1905 book, Biography for Beginners. What is the clerihew? This is what Wiki says about it:
The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB. One of his best known is this (1905):
Sir Christopher Wren
Went to dine with some men
He said, "If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."
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 (for comic effect); the third and fourth lines are usually longer than the first two
The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme
The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of the subject's name.
That seems a fair description though much depends on how you interpret 'comically irregular'. The term implies that you can have irregularity that is not comic; that one might even run to tragic irregularity. So what makes irregularity comic?
It is, I suspect, amusing in itself to rhyme simply on a person's name. It satisfies the child in us. It also assures us of an apparently childish but rather sophisticated pleasure in the accidents of language.
The chief accident of language is language itself. As has often been pointed out the word 'table' has nothing whatsoever to do with the object with four legs and a flat top off which you may choose to eat. Nothing intrinsically that is. It is, intrinsically, an accident. It is called other things in other languages, and we might choose to invent a language in which, say, the word 'bloof' indicated 'table'. From this perspective language is an enormous superstructure balanced precariously on thin air. The surprising thing is that it should remain so balanced when it has so far to fall. At the bottom of that fall it is, as the greatest English wordsmith put it: '...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing.'
Comedy is danger without damage. There is an old silent film in which two men begin a fight in the street. As they fight each other they move closer and closer to a cliff edge, at which point one hits the other and the man falls hundreds of feet to the bottom of the cliff. He hits the bottom.
On hitting the bottom he bounces up and shakes his fist in anger. (It is essentially the banana skin practical joke which stops being funny once the person falling starts to bleed.)
It certainly helps if the figure falling had some previous dignity. As G K Chesterton, the Catholic paradoxist, puts it somewhere, the fall of man on banana skin enacts the Fall of Man.
Your name is your dignity ('Won't you dignify it with a name?' asks the explorer's companion of the discoverer of a new plant). Dignity is name. But name too is accident. Ask Ed Balls.
So you have the dignity of the name and the comedy of the accidental rhyme. That's how you start. A rhyme is not only accident it is also contrivance (as language itself is contrivance, a contrivance of syntax and grammar). Having the second line unequal in length to the first increases the sense of contrivance. Look he has had to make the line longer / shorter to make it fit!
So we have accident and contrivance in the first two lines. But those lines are also a proposition that requires development. You only have four lines, so that leaves just two. The development could be in the form of antithesis, a kind of 'on the other hand' such as the last limerick below.
In the Bentley clerihew about Wren we get development. We have Sir Christopher at dinner in the second line. He has a servant to whom he leaves an instruction in the third line. He is, perhaps, too modern a servant for Sir Christopher judging by the language, so we are slightly off balance again. And then comes fourth line, which is both excuse and boast. It is also rhyme: a brief harmless accident waiting to happen.
The incident itself never happened of course. It has been contrived so that we can get to St Paul's by way of bathos.
I say 'contrived', but I don't really believe in contrivance as strategy. I believe in contrivance as accident, as improvisation, as a kind of sally or venture. In the case of the clerihew it is a very brief venture, a brief act of delicate teetering.
Delicacy is at the heart of it. Clerihew is soufflé not roly-poly. It is feather duster rather than wrecking ball. It is a delicate dance that looks clumsy but lands perfectly. A perfect epigram can behead a man, but a perfect clerihew will do no more than tickle him. The perfect epigram is built on firm metrical foundations. The perfect clerihew seems to be slipping all the time and only keeping itself upright by a sequence of extraneous movements - there is always something too long somewhere.
The clerihew needs to be attached to some idea of person, whether as biography, or as popular conception (public figures are as much popular conceptions as critical lives) and may make a passing remark on the person named in the first line. That remark may be pertinent in its way, but the clerihew is, ironically, not there to concern itself entirely with persons. It is useless as satire because what it really points at is not person but language.
The essential comedy is in language. The propositions of clerihew are ludicrous in just the right awkward proportions. There is no solemnity in clerihew. All solemnity can do in a clerihew is look ridiculous.
Over at Facebook, on a whim, I have been drip-feeding clerihews from a batch I made up a couple of years ago as silly gifts for friends. The response has been large. People have been responding with clerihews of their own, some brilliant, some clumsy, some perfect. Here's one I made earlier, as they say:
tried to break it to them gently:
the sad fact is very few
can turn a clerihew.
It seems quite a few can and take delight in it.
I wouldn't want to be exclusively a writer of clerihews, not even chiefly or substantially. But language is delight and overflow and comedy as well as a deadly serious matter. Samuel Beckett understood this supremely well.
See this face? he says. It is a human face. See those lines of pain, suffering, horror, disappointment, cruelty, lust, envy and loss? They're really there. And that great big thing above his head there? That's the sky. Perfectly empty. Hear me saying this: 'perfectly empty'. Can you hear how comical that sounds? Have you heard the one about...? And about..? Heard the one about Sir Christopher Wren? Now turn the lights out and go to sleep. Give me your hand first. There, there. It's all right. A man walks into a bar and says to the barman:
had a very nice voice,
better than that racket
made by Samuel Beckett.
Shall I sing that to you?
Shall I sing that to you?