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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 November 2023

In dark times, Malcolm Guite finds relief in the humour of poems of E. C. Bentley

BROWSING in an Oxfam bookshop the other day, I was delighted to find a first edition of E. Clerihew Bentley’s More Biography. This is his second collection of Clerihews, the wry four-line biographical poems to which he gave his name. The first line is always the name of the poem’s subject, and, from there, it can go in almost any direction — apposite, satirical, absurd, fantastical — but always memorable. The rhymes are often outrageous, and the metre is very loose. One of his most famous, composed in 1905, went:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

My copy of More Biography, published in 1929, opens with the famous lines:

George The Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

Collections of Clerihews are often printed with charming, satirical, or comic illustrations, and my Oxfam find included many illustrations by Bentley’s lifelong friend G. K. Chesterton. Bentley does a particularly good one of Sir Robert Peel serenely speaking in the House of Commons while being shouted down by those around him (some things don’t change):

Sir Robert Peel
Said it was not genteel,
But, on the contrary, very rude
To tax the people’s food.

Once the form became well known, many others tried their hand. Indeed, W. H. Auden took a leaf out of Bentley’s book and published a whole collection of them, Academic Graffiti. This included some memorable lines about another poet:

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a siren.
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

Auden could be serious enough, as poems such as “September 1st 1939”, and “In memory of W. B. Yeats” attest; but, like all of us who live in dark times, he needed the relief of humour, the shifted perspective of wit.

I have also composed in this form, though I haven’t, until now, published any of the results. Casting an eye on my Anglican heritage, I thought that I should do one on Richard Hooker, whose courtesy in debate is sorely needed now:

Judicious Richard Hooker
Wasn’t much of a looker.
He eschewed general jollity
To write Ecclesiastical Polity.

In the course of writing these reflections, I looked to see whether anyone had composed a Clerihew on E. C. Bentley himself, and was surprised not to find anything. So, I thought that I had better put things right with this:

Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Asked to be treated gently
For the heinous crime
Of aggravated rhyme.

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