Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf

I think I should apologise for this clerihew in advance.

Here’s one definition of the clerihew verse form: a whimsical, four-line biographical poem. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced.

You can disagree with the specifics of this definition (I do, kind of) but one thing is important, the humorous intent. The following poem, however, follows the structure of the clerihew without trying to be funny. I include it here because, when I wrote it, I was challenged to re-write it in the form of a haiku. It was an interesting challenge. After the poems, I will add some of the background to them.

Hemingway and Woolf, The Clerihew

Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway
Both went and kicked off in the lemming way –
He with a weapon that loads and locks
She with her pockets full of rocks.

In contrast to a clerihew, a haiku consist of 17 syllables, in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively; usually it also contains a reference to a season. So the haiku version of the clerihew might become….

Hemingway and Woolf, The Haiku

Woolf and Hemingway
In their winter of despair
Took the quick way out.

The clerihew uses the myth of lemmings committing mass suicide, which owes its popularity to the Disney company (see Wikipedia). The myth of lemming “mass suicide” is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Disney Studio illustrator Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title “The Lemming with the Locket”. This comic, which was inspired by a 1954 American Mercury article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.Even more influential was the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, in which staged footage was shown with lemmings jumping into sure death after faked scenes of mass migration. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found that the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but in fact were launched off the cliff using a turntable.

Ernest Hemingway, an adventurous but accident-prone writer, committed suicide by shotgun in 1961 after a period of mental instability that has been attributed variously to heavy drinking, continuing pain from his many accidents, or a genetic tendency towards haemochromatosis.

Adeline Virginia Woolf, novelist, essayist and publisher, had a long-standing battle with depression and mental illness. That, exacerbated by the general misery occasioned by the outbreak of the Second World War, prompted her to fill the pockets of her overcoat with rocks and walk into the river Ouse in 1941.


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