Monday, 16 July 2012

Elephant No. 288: Clerihews

I didn't feel like constructing a physical object today, so I thought I'd try a literary form instead.

A clerihew is a four-line biographical poem that has an A-A-B-B rhyming scheme, but often a highly irregular metre. It was invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley when he was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy at St. Paul's School in London. During a science class that must have been scintillating, the following words about Humphry Davy popped into his head:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Bentley and his school friends filled a notebook with similarly ridiculous examples. Bentley's first book of clerihews was published in 1905, featuring such gems as:

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


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

Bentley went on to publish two more collections of his own clerihews, and a number of other writers took up the form, including W.H. Auden. Today, it remains a popular form of humorous poetry, and is often the subject of literary contests.

Despite the form's rather whimsical nature, there are a few guidelines to writing clerihews:

1. A clerihew should be biographical, and show the subject from an unusual point of view.

2. Although a clerihew usually pokes fun at famous people, it is meant to be gently absurd, rather than satirical or abusive.

3. The rhyming structure is A-A-B-B, but the rhymes are often somewhat convoluted for humorous effect, and sometimes include phrases in Latin, French and other non-English languages.

4. There are four lines, but length and metre are highly eccentric, also for humorous effect. Some say that this is done partly to parody limericks and inscriptions on tombstones.

I don't remember ever encountering this literary form before, and it seemed so eccentric that I thought it might actually prove hard to write. Sometimes it's easier to write to strict rules than looser ones.

Since the clerihew is biographical, I decided to write about five elephants. I'm supposed to be working on some massive editing projects today, so I only wrote five clerihews, shown below in the order in which I wrote them. I've included a link to the original stories about each elephant from this blog, if you want to learn more about them.

Little Miss Dally
On an Alp did rally.
Playing her harmonica,
She went nowhere near Salonica.

Missed long elephant grass.
But in Charlemagne's France
He learned ballroom dance.

Jumbo the large
Could have sunk a barge.
But because he was tall,
His name's famous at malls.

Nana and Frankie
Tossed chairs and a hankie.
Then they drank up the pool
And covered dishes in drool.

Although mourning lost love
Romeo was no dove.
His very best skill
Was the serial kill.

Okay, this wasn't hard at all—as you can probably tell by the silly results. The most difficult part was finding something brief to say about each elephant, and then finding rhymes. You will notice that I only used the word "elephant" once, and not at the end of any line. It's one of the worst words to rhyme.

I found this a bit too unstructured for my taste. I think my favourite form of poetry for this blog so far has been the limerick. On the other hand, if you feel like writing a silly bit of verse with very few rules, this is definitely an interesting distraction.

Elephant Lore of the Day
To balance the silliness of the poems above, today's elephant lore features a sad story.

Topsy was a female elephant who belonged to the Forepaugh Circus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She spent her last years at Luna Park on Coney Island, but because she killed three men in three years, she was deemed a threat to people, and it was decided that she should be put to death. Little attention was paid to the fact that one of the men Topsy had killed was a drunk and abusive trainer, who tried to feed her a lit cigarette before she smashed him to death.

Topsy performing at Coney Island.

The first suggested form of execution was hanging, for which there was actually an elephant precedent. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, however, objected so strongly that other ways were considered. Inventor Thomas Edison came up with the bright idea of electrocuting Topsy.

Although electrocution was more humane than hanging, Edison had additional motives. Most importantly, Topsy's electrocution would serve as a demonstration of the superiority of Edison's direct current over the alternating current of his rival Nikolas Tesla. Edison also planned to film the electrocution, later showing it across the United States in his kinetoscopes.

Topsy was fed carrots laced with potassium cyanide before 6,600 volts of electricity were sent coursing through her body. In the film she is apparently seen toppling to the ground and moving for a few seconds before lying still. Several of the 1,500 people who witnessed Topsy's death that day said that she died without trumpeting or groaning. Interestingly, when Luna Park burned down in 1944, the fire was dubbed "Topsy's Revenge".

Sadly, the film showing Topsy's last moments still exists, and in 2003, a commemorative work of art was commissioned by the Coney Island Museum for a kinetoscope featuring Edison's footage.

On a happier note, Edison lost out to Tesla in the long run. Tesla's alternating current became standard—not because it was better at electrocuting elephants, but because it was more reliable, easier to transmit, and easier to adjust to different voltages.

Top of kinetoscope featuring Topsy's ignominious execution,
Coney Island Museum.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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