The Human Animal: Fun or Folly?

Penning a clerihew for fun



Are we made for fun or folly? I’d vote for fun over folly, and it would be folly to so sharply limit our options. Why not allow for both?

Let me begin with fun. Penning a clerihew is fun. What’s a clerihew, you ask? Its inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a friend of G.K. Chesterton, is its inventor. It’s a mini-poem that has just four lines composed of a pair of closed couplets. The first couplet, and this invites some fun, begins with a proper name, at whom (or which) the clerihew takes aim.

Here’s an in-house example:

Que viva vintage NOR,

Bright shining like a star,

Now with its digital archives

Winning readers’ high-fives!

Maybe I’ll enter this (modest) effort in a contest. Maybe not. How to decide? So weighty a decision might occasion an appeal to “received wisdom,” that is, an appropriate conventional insight. OK, a platitude. The trouble is that platitudes, like fortune cookies and the best laid plans of men and mice, go oft astray.

Check out four of my favorites.

– “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Application: yes, I’ll enter my clerihew! Problem: Maybe if I venture nothing, I’ll remain an unknown yet at least not disgraced poet.

– “A watched pot never boils.” Application: don’t hide my clerihews under a bushel whilst waiting for “just the right one” to go public. Problem: If I light a hotter fire under my poetic pot, and then submit my effort, the result might be boiler plate.

– “Who laughs last, laughs best.” Application: since my clerihews (to my wife’s amazement) make me laugh and laugh, I’ll be the one who laughs last. So I why not submit today’s effort? Problem: Studies show, or they should show, that oftentimes others laugh louder than the one who laughs last. Plus, interim laughers might be laughing at me.

– “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Full disclosure: this was one of my dad’s favorite platitudes. But given inexorable inflation, it’s better course to spend a penny while it’s still worth something. Besides I can’t figure out how this platitude can help me decide whether or not to enter my clerihew in a contest. Ditto for lots of other platitudes.

A chap by the name of Holbrook Jackson was another of Chesterton’s many friends, and he penned a little book titled Platitudes in the Making. Some of them won Chesterton’s approval, but most of them he was inclined to revise. If we follow his lead, we should pick and choose, as well as make and unmake, our candidate platitudes. Holbrook Jackson, as it happens, did this very thing. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” in his estimation, should be revised. He proposed “Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference.” Chesterton—in his own copy of the book in question— inked in his revision and added a comment. Familiarity, he wrote, “can breed surprise” and suggested that that the skeptic “Try saying ‘Boots’ ninety times.”

Still, Chesterton judged some of Jackson’s platitudes “sound.” I join Chesterton in giving high marks to this offering. “Man is the only animal that can be a fool. In this there is hope. Folly may be the loophole of retreat.” It’s a bit long for a platitude. Still, he combines making fun of the fool and his folly, and including us in his company, with having a bit of fun! Q.E.D.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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