Who, in the long run, benefits mankind more? Is it the deviser of a new literary form or the inventor of a new machine?
If the answer is the deviser of a new literary form, then Edmund Clerihew Bentley has served mankind more enduringly than the inventor the motor car.
E.C. Bentley, a political and literary journalist who died in 1956 was a most remarkable man-remarkable in the sense that he preferred to make a casual, almost humorous use of his many gifts. His life-long friend G.K. Chesterton has left us the best portrait of the man. "It was a poetic delight to see him walking down the street a bit pompously and then suddenly climb a lamp-post like an agile monkey and then drop down and resume his walk with an unchanged expression of serenity. (Charles Dickens had this same fantastic talent for clowning).
Bentley, while at St. Paulís School wrote an essay on "A dog in the manger (in which he cattle as being prevented from "refreshing their inner cows". It was this brilliant phrase which led his teacher to exclaim most perceptively, "That boy looks at the world standing on his head."
Bentley devised a literary form which has endowed him with a limited immortality and that is the Clerihew. Bentleyís Clerihiew in the only light verse form since the limerick that has "caught on" in the sense, it attracts the spontaneous efforts of even non-professionals. The Clerihew is even easier to construct than the limerick and it affords endless opportunities for mental amusement.
When Bentley was a school boy of 15, he was impelled to set down these remarkable words in a remarkable order;
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
of having discovered sodium.
In the course of his well-spent life, Bentley wrote many more of such captious capsule biographies-indeed three small volumes of them-Biography for beginners (1896), More biography (1898) and Baseless biography (1902).
In the fourth edition of the first of these volumes, the author is listed as "E. Clerihew" ó a name, as he explained later, "those who happened to be listening heard being bestowed on him at his christening." His admirers immediately fixed on this daring innovation in narrative form the name "Clerihew."
The range of Bentleyís biographical research is as notable as the originality of his findings. In the authorís "Introductory remarks" to the omnibus volume Clerihews Complete is to be found:
The art of biography
is different from geography
Geography is about maps
But biography is about chaps.
Bentley has thrown light on so many famous people that one is at a loss to choose from so much wealth, but three examples will throw light on Bentley and his elegant art.
The best known Clerihew is perhaps his treatment of Sir Christopher Wren.
Sir Christopher Wren said,
"Iím going out to dine with some friends"
If anyone calls, say Iím designing St Paulís."
Here is one of the few clerihews in which a personal note is allowed to creep.
"Iím not Mahomet"
"Far from it"
"Thatís the mistake
"All of you seem to make."
A hitherto unknown chapter in the life of Christopher Columbus.
"I quite realised," said Columbus
"That the earth is not a rhombus"
"to find it an oblate spheroid."
Bentley lives in part by his own cheri-humour, but even more splendidly in the inspiration he provided to thousands of happy followers. When he died, one of them "Otto Watteau" spoke for all of us.
Edumnd Clerihew Bentley"
"Enthroned himself gently"
"By setting the entire world to work on a quick."