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The Lives of the Poets: Clerihews after Auden


“ . . . to stink of Poetry / is unbecoming, and never / to be dull shows a lack of taste. Even a limerick / ought to be something a man of / honor, awaiting death . . . / could read without contempt . . .”


—W. H. Auden, “The Cave of Making”


William Blake

took the cake

playing at Adam and Eve in the nude.

Said Catherine Sophia: But isn’t it rude!?

Robert Browning,

not given to clowning,

instead of a risqué anthology,

contrived Bishop Blougram’s Apology.

George Gordon, Lord Byron,

never slept with a Siren.

He would’ve if he could’ve.

Which is not to say he should’ve!

Arthur Hugh Clough

wasn’t all that tough.

Say not the struggle nought availeth,

he was heard to complaineth.

George Herbert

denied himself a second scoop of sherbert,

fearing such indulgence

would mess up his metaphysical refulgence.

Edward Lear,

that owlish old dear,

kept a cat called Foss.

Who was clearly the boss.

John Milton

never raised a toast at the Paris Hilton

but enjoyed a festive trinque

at the Four Seasons Hotel George V.

Alexander Pope,

no kind of dope,

would not have wanted just any old motto

in his personal grotto!

Thomas the Rhymer,

that street-smart old timer,

was disturbed by the implications

of The Gotham Review of Revelations.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

(on the quiet)

took Noli me tangere

for a come-hither query.


Auden’s clerihews are neat,*

Just as witty perhaps as sweet

—he was not too grand to think

up metaphors teetering on the brink.

*W. H. Auden, “Academic Graffiti,” in Collected Poems (Vintage International, 1991), 676–86.



Previously published in the New English Review, November 2023.

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