A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

Review by Rob Spence

In 1935, the doyen of art critics, Ernst Gombrich, was a young, unemployed former student with a PhD in art history.  He was commissioned by an Austrian publisher to write a short history of the world, primarily for younger readers. He managed the task in six weeks, and the book was an immediate success. Only towards the end of his life did Gombrich revise the book, and it was not until 2008 that an English version appeared. That book, A Little History of the World was a surprise bestseller, and gave rise to the “Little History” series, of which this volume is the latest.

John Carey is an ideal guide for this subject. He is a distinguished literary critic, known for his no-nonsense approach to his field. That attitude is certainly in evidence here, in an impressively comprehensive account of poetry from the earliest times to the present day. Inevitably, the emphasis is on Anglophone poetry, but Carey ranges widely, including poetry from many cultures in his survey. Indeed, Carey starts with the epic Gilgamesh, composed about 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. He establishes the habit of early poetry to concern itself with the actions of gods in his description of the Homeric epics, and then offers an overview of the Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid and Catullus.  Only then do we embark on the poetry of these islands, with a concise and entertaining account of Beowulf.  In these early chapters, Carey tends to summarise adroitly rather than quote, and his characteristic urbane, humane tone lends authority to his deft synopses of these often vast and complex works.

It is important to note that, true to the title, this is a history: it is not a textbook, replete with specialist jargon. Obviously, some terms are introduced — epic, sonnet, free verse — but sparingly. The emphasis always is on the language and the worlds that language evokes. Carey picks out little details very tellingly to convey the flavour of a particular poet’s work, and, refreshingly, he is honest about some poems’ obscurity, at several points admitting defeat.

After a survey of medieval poetry taking in Dante, Petrarch and Villon, the first poet to be afforded an entire chapter is Chaucer, who is dubbed “A European poet” by Carey, emphasising his debt to the French and Italian traditions which are present in his vernacular verse. Carey goes on, in an admirable tour-de-force, to survey seven centuries of English verse, with many detours into the poetry of France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan and China among other nations. The phases of Anglophone poetry, from the court poets of the Elizabethan age to the public satires of the eighteenth century, the rise of Romanticism and the Victorian crisis of faith, to the iconoclastic moderns and their successors, are all covered with wit and a penetrating intelligence.

These later chapters are richer in quotation, and it is noticeable how cleverly Carey picks the apt reference, not necessarily the obvious one.  Naturally, in the compressed space available, some poets are omitted, and some given limited exposure. Nevertheless, Carey manages to maintain a lively, rattling pace, leading the reader sure-footedly through the changing fashions of poetic expression. He is always keen to relate the poetry to the culture and politics of the time, so the reader is given a very rounded view of how and why particular poetic tastes developed and decayed. He is also not afraid to express some perhaps contrary views: Yeats, for example, is afforded his own chapter, but comes in for some trenchant criticism.

In the final chapters, the pace flags somewhat as Carey perhaps attempts to cover too much, so that in accounts, for example, of the poetry of the Second World War or American Modernists, the narrative amounts to little more than a series of brief pen portraits. 

Overall, this is a very entertaining survey, elegantly written, clear, and amazingly comprehensive. It is a worthy addition to this series, handsomely produced by Yale University Press. Nick Morley’s linocut illustrations for the chapter headings are also a delight. Recommended for anyone just coming to a serious consideration of poetry and as an admirable refresher course for those who have laboured long on the foothills of Parnassus.

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

John Carey, A Little History of Poetry (Yale University Press, 2020) 978-0-300-23222-6, 312pp, hardback.

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