Clerihew corner (philosophy edition)

by Harry on October 31, 2017

I rediscovered Clerihews at my dad’s house recently, noticing and devouring his copy of The Complete Clerihews. Clerihews were invented by EC (Edward Clerihew) Bentley (author of Trent’s Last Case, one of the greatest detective novels to be written by someone who wrote only one detective novel). [1] They have a strict format: they must be about a person who is reasonably well known, 4 lines, with an AA BB rhyming scheme. They also seem to observe other unstated criteria. They are not cruel, or didactic, and the person about whom they are written must have some sort of substance. Gavin Ewart points out in his introduction to The Collected that they could be used for biting satire but Bentley never does that and he (Ewart) is unaware of them ever being used so. They are gentle. The pay-off would ideally come as something of a surprise, but not be completely irrelevant: Surrealism and whimsy are permitted, indeed encouraged. The name of the subject usually (but not always) comes at the end of the first line, challenging the author to find a good, but non-obvious, rhyme (as you’ll see in a moment he rhymes Plato with potato which is only one part of the genius of my favourite clerihew). There are no rules about rhythm except, as far as I can tell, that if you write several, you should vary the meter. (All Bentley’s clerihews seem to have been illustrated by GK Chesterton: I can’t rival that!).

Here are three of Bentley’s best:

The intrepid Ricardo
With characteristic bravado
Alluded openly to Rent
Wherever he went.

It was rather disconcerting for Hannibal
To be introduced to a cannibal
Who expressed the very highest opinion
Of cold pickled Carthaginian

And my favourite of all:

Although the dialogues of Plato
Do not actually mention the potato
They inculcate strongly that we should
Seek the Absolute Ideal Good.

The unwritten strictures rule out certain subjects. It seems morally dodgy to be whimsical about President Trump, for example (Bentley does one about Goebbels and Hitler, and it doesn’t feel right at all, especially when you learn it was written in 1939); and just difficult (though not impossible, and I don’t think dodgy) to be whimsical or surreal about Jacob Rees-Mogg (how can you be surreal about a person who declares himself, correctly, an embodiment of the surreal?). Bentley tends toward historical subjects – kings, presidents, philosophers, musicians, literary figures – with just a smattering of his contemporaries, most of whom are no longer household names, represented (Captain Wedgewood-Benn features – with luck there will always be a Benn about whom to write clerihews).

So, I’ve been trying to write some. They’re hard!

I thought I’d manage a couple a week, but it’s been 2 months and I have 12 so far, rather too many of them about cricketers (two about Boycott!; though none yet about Stokes, because it seems unkind, but once he’s back in the team he, Woakes, and Foakes should be easy pickings). I’ll start posting them, to invite i) constructive criticism and ii) your own efforts (if you provide enough, I’ll do a special post of my favourites!)

Here are the four I’ve drafted so far about philosophers (you’ll have to wait a bit for the cricketers, but not too long because one of them about a contemporary cricketer has already been overtaken by events.):

“I think therefore I am” was the mantra of Descartes
He thought his mind and body were necessarily apart
God he thought a concept so perfect it must be real
But his life was a dream: he only thought that he could feel.

Immanuel Kant objected to lying,
Sitting comfortably, and crying.
Regrettably he was wrong
And his influence persisted too long.

In matters of sense and reference
Gottlob Frege earns our deference
But all sane people reject his views
About Jews

Far too few of Bentley’s clerihews are about women. In fact, his introductory comment is:

The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography
Geography is about Maps
But Biography is about Chaps [2]

So, I’ll slowly try to correct the absence of women from the canon: and what better time than this, given the prevalance of terrific women philosophers, and the sudden leap in the profile of women’s cricket. [3] Here’s the only clerihew I’ve done so far about a contemporary philosopher:

It’s widely rumoured that Frances Kamm
Has spent three weeks now on the lam
Her alleged crimes were stealing a gentleman’s brolley
And chucking a grenade to divert a trolley.

[1] Another, I think, is Salt is Leaving, which is brilliant. Did Priestley write others? If so, what are they, I want to read them…
[2] I’ll offer variants on this in a future post
[3] I’m not suggesting that only philosophers and cricketers are appropriate subjects of clerihews, and in fact I have a great one about Montgomery. But so far my output has skewed in those directions.



Peter E 10.31.17 at 5:00 pm

A quiet man is Harry Brighouse
Maybe quieter than the proverbial churchmouse
But if it’s a noisy noise you are after
Read Crooked Timber and savour the laughter


casmilus 10.31.17 at 5:17 pm

Private Eye had a “Clerihew Corner” in the 80s. Remember this one about Frances Morrell, head of the “loony left” Inner London Education Authority:

Frances Morrell
Has done very well
To become head of the ILEA
Without being black or working class or gay

PE showing its underlying Toryism, there.


john burke 10.31.17 at 6:08 pm

Unlike his next-but-one successor
Henry the Eighth was not known to be a fresser
And although he liked his beefsteaks rare, he
Was less bloody than his daughter Mary.


Harry 10.31.17 at 6:16 pm

I thought it was The Spectator (and meant to credit them, I deleted the paragraph which did that by accident).
Thanks Peter! Not sure that quiet describes me, and am sure it didn’t when we were at school….


Neville Morley 10.31.17 at 6:41 pm

This is, I suppose, in an indirect manner, about Graham Allison, and also about Thucydides.

The ‘Thucydides Trap’
Is a load of crap.
You can’t blame me for trouble in the South China Seaa
Says Thucydides.


Dave Heasman 10.31.17 at 7:17 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg
Would spend hour after hour on the bog
But no matter how vile his activity had been it
Never occurred to him to clean it.

Didn’t Boris Johnson wrote a clerihew about Erdogan?


Alan Peakall 10.31.17 at 7:20 pm

Craig Brown (who may well have authored some of the Spectator and Private Eye offerings) wrote a collection on the scalps claimed by the Blair landslide. The one that stuck in my memory was:

Sir Nicholas Bonsor,
By God, he’s gone, sir;
Not to worry because,
I never knew who he was.


Steve 10.31.17 at 7:24 pm


Tom Hurka 10.31.17 at 7:33 pm

I thought the rule about metre was that there must be a different number of syllables in each line.

W.H. Auden published a volume of clerihews, under the title Academic Graffiti. Three of his about philosophers were (if I remember them correctly):

The young Immanuel Kant
When told to kiss his aunt
Obeyed the Categorical Must
But only just.

John Stuart Mill
By a mighty effort of will
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote the Principles of Political Economy

No one ever could inveigle
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Into giving the slightest apology
For his Phenomenology.

I tried to write some many years ago. One (now dated politically) was:

Would not have liked NATO
But his heart would have cracked
At the Warsaw Pact.

Anyway, nice to think about clerihews. But Harry, you don’t mention that E.C. Bentley was the father of Nicolas Bentley, the cartoonist and illustrator.


Whirrlaway 10.31.17 at 8:17 pm

The Master of Fang Peak, Huang Po
Had a thought he would like you to know
In truth, there is no truth, whereever you go
So whatever you think, it ain’t so.


oldster 10.31.17 at 9:06 pm

My all-time favorite (I believe by Bentley himself):

King George the Third
ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
at so grotesque a blunder.

To my taste, the lines must be short and clipped. So, I’m sorry, Harry, but I think your Descartes one does not fit the genre.


ffrancis 10.31.17 at 9:09 pm

The young Margaret Drabble
Often cheated at scrabble;
Much to the disquiet
Of her sister A.S. Byatt


oldster 10.31.17 at 9:20 pm

I suppose I also think that the basic metre should have no more than four accentuated syllables per line, even if it has a random number of syllables otherwise.

So here are a few for contemporary philosophers who have connections to CT–a bit like valentines, but for Halloween.

Noted ethicist Tom Hurka
is not your blog-standard lurka.
When not busy rubbishing perfection
he’s active in the comments section.

Metaphysician Laurie Paul
had the unmitigated gall
to write on the ethically normative
with results that have been transformative.


duncan 10.31.17 at 9:52 pm

Not sure whose it is, but my favourite (which certainly fits into the short and clipped category:

Miss Mae West
Was one of the best
I’d rather not
Say the best what.


Colin Danby 10.31.17 at 9:53 pm

Friedrich Hayek
Eschewed the algebraic
And disputed in prose
What the planner knows.


Gavin Kostick 10.31.17 at 10:00 pm

To call the poet simply Homer
Is surely a misnomer
He seems of many voices to be
But sadly, all are Greek to me.


P.D. Magnus 10.31.17 at 10:20 pm

The Scotsman Thomas Reid
had a commonsensical creed,
a fondness for calico cats,
and questionable taste in hats.


Joel Walmsley 10.31.17 at 10:21 pm


Phil 10.31.17 at 10:23 pm

I think it was Wendy Cope who developed a variant on the clerihew, with much stricter rules; she certainly wrote several of them. What rules, I hear you cry. It’s easier to demonstrate (this is one of Cope’s that’s stuck in my mind):

Emily Dickinson
Used to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Readers and editors
Call for the cops.

I think that’s rather wonderful – and it can be applied to a surprising number of well-known people, although that’s really just another way of saying that a surprising number of well-known people have double dactyls for names.


Gavin Kostick 10.31.17 at 10:24 pm

Descartes, immured within his oven
Dreamed of wonders by the dozen
Only to find when he awaked
His mind and body alike, half baked.


P.D. Magnus 10.31.17 at 10:24 pm

Another bit of doggerel:

The mustachioed John Dewey
might have gone all kablam and kablooey
if he had not understood inquiry
in a way that avoided such injury.


Colin Danby 10.31.17 at 10:28 pm

Joan Robinson said dash it all
How do you aggregate capital?
Cambridge (Massachusett)
Could never quite do it.


Theophylact 10.31.17 at 10:34 pm

Adapted from Ogden Nash’s lyrics for Carnival of the Animals:

Camille Saint-Saëns was wracked with pains
When people called him Saint Sanes.
He held the human race to blame
For butchering his name.


Colin Danby 10.31.17 at 10:53 pm

Soren Kierkegaard
Took his breakup with Regine Olsen pretty hard.
Despite his deflation
He finished his dissertation.


Mercurius Londiniensis 11.01.17 at 12:06 am

A musical example has stuck in my mind:

When Carlo Maria Giulini
Was teeny-weeny
His parents weren’t quite sure,
Hence the nomenclature.


Alan White 11.01.17 at 3:28 am

Tersely A. N. Whitehead
repeatedly footnoted one Greek dead
for two thousand years or so
until formed again from Play-Doh.


dr ngo 11.01.17 at 4:18 am

Phil @19: The double-dactyl or “Higgledy-Piggledy” was around well before Wendy Cope “developed” it. Wikipedia says it was invented in 1951, and I recollect it from the 1960s, if memory serves (which it well may not, at least not into the service court).


TheSophist 11.01.17 at 4:29 am

The manic Slovenian Zizek
Writes what is surely seen to be dreck
It’s pseudo-Marxist rot
Profundity it’s not


TheSophist 11.01.17 at 4:33 am

The genius of Philippa Foot
The problem so succinctly put –
Turn the trolley’s wheel, save five
But one would be no more alive


TheSophist 11.01.17 at 4:36 am

The Frenchman Michel Foucault
Truly did everything know
His History of Madness
Was full of tales of sadness

Ok, I’ll stop now


J-D 11.01.17 at 5:34 am


Apparently not invented by Wendy Cope, but by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal.

Or possibly Anthony Hecht and John Hollander?

Or Pascal, Hecht, and Hollander?

Or just Hecht?


Thomas Lumley 11.01.17 at 7:01 am

Henry Reed
Did not feel the Army fulfilled his every need
The flowers and the bees managed a lot
Of swiving, which in his case he had not got


Trader Joe 11.01.17 at 11:34 am

Paul Krugman
Economics his legerdemain
Explains the liberal conscience
Using the dismal science


oldster 11.01.17 at 1:21 pm

good work so far, all contestants, but for my money the palm clearly goes to ffrancis at #12. That is close to an ideal Clerihew in meter, sense, economy and mood. The fact that it is also a double-Clerihew, in memorializing two famous people, is just the icing on the top.


chris y 11.01.17 at 2:18 pm

Back in the day I got an honourable mention in a New Statesman comp. to turn out a Clerihew on some sport or game. This was in the days when Bobby Fischer was making a fool of himself on every possible occasion:

Computer chess
Fails to impress.
For a start the machine is clearly unable
To complain about the lighting or the shape of the table.


Z 11.01.17 at 2:26 pm

Chavez said of Chomsky
He peaked on Hegemony
Trust rather Google Ngram
And read The Minimalist Program


Retaliated Donor 11.01.17 at 3:01 pm

Thomas Nagle
Could not finagle
The obvious conclusion that
It’s nothing much to be a bat.


clerihew bentley 11.01.17 at 3:50 pm

Poor Mark Halperin
Is gulping aspirin,
His career on the ropes
After too many gropes.

Follow my tweets!


oldster 11.01.17 at 3:54 pm

To his critics, David Lewis
conceded, “Typically, few is
to be preferred to many. I feel ya.
But these are non-actual possibilia.”


Retaliated Donor 11.01.17 at 4:02 pm

Some paintings by Picasso
Resemble masks he’d seen from Burkina Faso.
Where did he see ’em?
At the Trocadero Museum.


Retaliated Donor 11.01.17 at 4:10 pm

Judith Butler
Could not have been subtler
In rendering
Performative gendering.


clerihew bentley 11.01.17 at 5:20 pm

A philosopher’s trolley
Is rarely jolly
But rather, offers thrills
About hypothetical kills.


clerihew bentley 11.01.17 at 5:25 pm

Steven Pinker
Is a deep thinker
Who has financially gained
From claims violence has waned.


steven t johnson 11.01.17 at 6:32 pm

Tory ‘n’ historian David Hume,
Looked inside himself and saw the spume
Of perceptions, sensations, desires, and deliberations,
Whipped up by a tempest of associations.

Not good, much harder than it looks.


Jim Parry 11.01.17 at 7:32 pm

To the Twittering antics of Donald J. Trump
We’ve become so accustomed we now merely shrug.
Which we do at our peril. Watch out for the thump
On our doors at some midnight: Black Shirts of this thug.


Stephen 11.01.17 at 7:42 pm

Hilary Rodham
Clinton said, Sod’em
All, I won in the bits
Where the voters ain’t shits


Stephen 11.01.17 at 8:01 pm

Hillary Rodham
Clinton said: In Sodom
My important husband Bill
Could have taken his fill.


Jim Parry 11.01.17 at 8:10 pm

Higgledy piggledy
U.S. democracy
Faces a threat from a
An orange subterfuge.

Some rate the risk of a
Trump-run autocracy
As pretty small but as
Trump says, “It’s yuge!”


Stephen 11.01.17 at 8:32 pm

Hillary Rodham
Clinton screamed Goddamn
Every stupid, ignorant voter
In Wisconsin, Michigan and (almost) Minnesota

As one who would have voted for Bernie Sanders, if an US citizen, I’ll leave it at that.


Thomas Lumley 11.01.17 at 9:13 pm

Immanuel Kant
Said “If I don’t think everyone should do something then I shan’t”
If he’d had a wife
She would have led a frustrated life


Jim Parry 11.01.17 at 9:44 pm

Higgledy piggledy
George Papadopoulos
Sings to the Feds and
The White House turns pale.

Trump throws a tantrum, screams,
“This guy could topple us!”
George is a Greek bearing
Grifters to jail.


deverettf 11.01.17 at 11:45 pm

Bishop Berkeley
was full of malarkey:
he was mad as a hatter
when he said there’s no matter.


Frank Wilhoit 11.02.17 at 2:05 am

W. H. Auden
Was absolutely sauden;
He was even more drunk
Than anyone could have possibly thunk.


MD 11.02.17 at 2:18 am

Bertie Russell
Put in a very good hustle,
And though for war there remains no cure,
At least ‘the’ is a bit less obscure.


MD 11.02.17 at 3:35 am

Willard Van Orman Quine,
When he encountered a sign,
thought we’d be dreaming
to go beyond its stimulus meaning.

It once fell to Rudlof Carnap
to analyze the concept of ‘burlap’.
All of his attempts were magisterial,
but in the end he thought it a primitive material.


MD 11.02.17 at 3:49 am

Hartry Field
Has built an impressive shield:
It affords nominalists protections
From a number of objections.


JakeB 11.02.17 at 3:57 am

Although Marxian
— Terry Eagleton
Also has a thing for God
And doesn’t even think it odd


Jim Parry 11.02.17 at 4:14 am

Higgledy piggledy
Born Robert Zimmerman
This kid from Hibbing
Has done pretty well

Songs that are lit’rature?
Many a dimmer man
Couldn’t foresee that
He’d win a Nobel


Jim Parry 11.02.17 at 4:16 am

Higgledy piggledy
Eric Blair chose a name
Destined to conjure
A statist control

Don’t call it Blairian
Big Brother rose to fame!
“Eric Blair” goes down
The memory hole


Jim Parry 11.02.17 at 6:19 am

Crooked timber
Of humanity?
Just watch Fox and
Its Sean Hannity!


RichT 11.02.17 at 9:13 am


Albert Einstein was right
I can’t turn out the light
and (though it would be a lark)
be in bed before it gets dark.

Poor Sigmund Freud
Was very annoyed
That the interpretation of dreams
Is not as simple as it seems.

Its good old Max Planck
That we have to thank
That, although we don’t want ta,
We have to understand quanta.

For Isaac Newton, gravity
Not sin, lust or depravity
Nor famine, want or dearth,
was the burden of the Earth.


RichT 11.02.17 at 10:37 am

More scientists:

Werner Heisenberg was sure,
(And so was Niels Bohr)
That the elementary particle
Is a most indefinite article.

Edwin Hubble
Caused a lot of trouble
(for which he had a gift)
By discovering red shift.


Wehrner von Braun
Liked to count down
And on reaching zero
Send into orbit a hero.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Really did remarkably well
Despite the burden of his name
He achieved engineering fame.

And philosophers:

Daniel Dennett
Once cried out ‘Gordon Bennett!
‘It’s quite clear that, inter alia
‘There’s no such thing as qualia’.

Pity poor John Searle
His mind was in a whirl
And he said ‘Say what you please
‘I’ll never understand Chinese’.

More than enough..


MD 11.02.17 at 1:36 pm

All of mine need editing, but these are fun to do. Here’s a couple more.

A non-good-maximizing feature of Sidgwick’s
was his habit of having luxurious picnics.
His utilitarian friends called this treason,
But he’d cite the dualism of practical reason.

Ruth Barcan Marcus
once discovered a carcass.
She then faced a moral dilemma:
Take the time to report it or prove one more lemma.


P.D. Magnus 11.02.17 at 2:43 pm

This one ropes in some extra philosophers just to get the rhyme:

GE Moore, if I understand,
made much of the fact that he had two hands.
Also two-handed: Russell and Chisholm.
Is this epistemology or ableism?


Colin Danby 11.02.17 at 8:26 pm

Cockery blockery
Wilhelm Reich argued that
Fascism’s built atop
Sex we’ve forgone.
Later he moved to New York
And constructed
Curious boxes
To capture orgone.


iamtheonlynigel 11.02.17 at 9:02 pm

The best ever from Private Eye, which I remember from only having read it once (shame it’s out of date) is this:

Pope John Paul the Second
Is generally reckoned
To be the sort of person you want if
You’re looking for a pontiff


Shannon N. 11.03.17 at 3:29 am

Here’s one I wrote:

Elliott Sober
A great science prober
Looked at theories under test
And cried, ‘The simplest is the best!’


Retaliated Donor 11.03.17 at 2:05 pm

Karl Popper
Thought it proper
To posit falsification
As the criterion of demarcation.


Retaliated Donor 11.03.17 at 3:13 pm

Wrote of herders who starred in
A tragedy neomalthusian.
Ostrom showed the scenario to be mostly a delusion.


Mike Schilling 11.03.17 at 9:35 pm

Groucho Marx
Was fond of larks.
He exercised his fearful temper
On any club that would have him for a member.


Jeremy Fox 11.04.17 at 12:49 pm

Over at Dynamic Ecology we’ve been having fun with clerihews about ecologists and evolutionary biologists. Thanks for the inspiration! Some samples, about people whom CT readers will have heard of:

Friends told ailing old Charles Darwin
You better finish that book about evolvin
Young A.R. Wallace wrote a letter
And he got it right, but your book is better

To many a friend of Darwin
His work was an abominable sin
But his readers died
Without getting fried

Ideas from Trivers
Will surely send shivers
Up and down a mom’s spine
When kids cry and whine.

We also had a clerihew poetry battle over who founded the field of biogeography. Commenter Rafael says it was Alfred Russel Wallace:

Look to this poor man called Wallace
He was not born and raised in a palace
But don’t get fooled by this misleading photography
The man is the father of biogeography

Jeff says it was von Humboldt:
Von Humboldt travelled and mapped plants
When schoolboy Wallace wore short pants
So in a more accurate historiography
Von Humboldt’s the father of biogeography

Rafael again:
Humboldt came first, I will not deny
But Wallace is the father and I’ll tell you why
He was not the first to study species distribution
But the one who explained it through evolution

Jeff again:
Sure, Hooker embraced Darwin’s evolution
And came up with a very modern conclusion
But fatherhood is not about interpretation
It’s about the initial insemination


Oliver Morton 11.04.17 at 1:37 pm

Bruno Latour
reminds us of days of yore
His thinking is often odd, and
He has never been modern


Harry 11.04.17 at 3:00 pm


Z 11.04.17 at 4:38 pm

This thread is great fun! I like the jab at Fischer, Thomas Nagle and the first on Darwin. Speaking of which

Pandas have thumbs wrote Stephen Jay Gould
And pink birds smile, yet he would
Face opprobrium
For punctuated equilibrium.


Thomas Lumley 11.05.17 at 5:43 am

Jacob Rees-Mogg
Has six children and a dog
He says God is quite happy
For someone else to handle the nappy


bad Jim 11.05.17 at 8:18 am

Daniel Kahneman
knew more than anyone
about thinking fast or slow —
mind how you go.


bad Jim 11.05.17 at 9:01 am

Rolex, Rolodex, Rolls Royce? No. Rawls
Would wean us from wealth and unwork the walls.
What is your worth if your birth is uncertain?
Justice is just what is outside the curtain.


bad Jim 11.05.17 at 9:30 am

Western civilization is indebted to Aristotle.
He enriched us all by his thought, al-
though his opinion on female dentition,
notwithstanding having had two wives, is a curious position.


steven t johnson 11.05.17 at 12:59 pm

bad Jim@78 I’ve got to wonder if Aristotle did count…on a much younger wife whose wisdom teeth had not erupted. Obviously he lacked a thorough grasp of biological variation and the statistical necessity for sampling. But that seems a high bar for science
2 300 years ago.


Gourdox 11.05.17 at 11:03 pm

If we ponder on Jonathan Swift
Estimate his most ponderous gift
It serves not as a tonic
To see him as ironic


bad Jim 11.06.17 at 6:19 am

steven t johnson: sure, or tooth loss could have been an issue, but then my own wisdom teeth never came in. I prefer to imagine his wife bit him whenever he attempted a count, but think it more likely that he was repeating a conventional view.

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