A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

All those who delight in the beauty of language, expressed in its most refined form, poetry, will embrace this history.

John Carey is an eminent academic, currently Emeritus Professor at Oxford. He has written several books. It is an indicator of his standing in the field of literature when his stature beyond the universities has attracted the “Sunday Times Best Seller” accolade for his biography, ‘The Unexpected Professor’.

The History begins with the Mesopotamian “Gilgamesh”, which, not strictly a poem as expressed in language, is in cuneiform, 4,000 years old; it features the theme of a hero and his quest. This stands as a prelude to Homer and his “Odyssey”.

Chapter Two leaps forward to around 700 BC and The Iliad, which portrays war as both glorious and horrible, and cowardice is despised. These are feelings that are intrinsically human.   Homer’s Odyssey is a ten-year adventure, and this title is now part of the language to describe an enduring saga.

A cornerstone of Western Civilisation, Carey maintains, is Virgil and his ‘Aenead’; a great epic that consists of six books.  Its vividness and emotional depth eclipse the politics. It is noted for its wisdom.

A sharp contrast to Virgil, the ‘Divine Comedy’ of Dante is dismissed, in a way, by Carey as he states ‘it is less appealing to the modern reader, because it is riddled with medieval theology and repellent in some of his, Dante’s, beliefs’.

Chaucer, regarded as the greatest English medieval poet, was also European. He wove French and Italian literature into his work. ‘The Parliament of Birds’ is recommended to readers new to his work and seeking a good starting point.

Various periods in history featured fine poets but the sonnets of Shakespeare cannot be ignored. Word play can make them difficult, but the first fifteen are fine examples of Elizabethan dramatic poetry.

In the hundred years before the birth of John Donne in 1572, Christopher Columbus and Copernicus both altered the world view.  The finding of America and the proclamation of the earth revolving around the sun had profound affect.  John Donne’s poems demonstrate his embracing of this new world. His work is much loved and admired. It is diverse, humorous, brilliant.

The age of individualism followed, Ben Jonson, Herrick and Milton.They were distinctive in every possible way.  This is a change from the Elizabethan poets who, being similar, were often mistaken for each other.

Satire came to the fore with the leading Augustan poets, Dryden and Pope.  Suffering pain all his life, Pope nonetheless could produce the masterpiece ‘The Rape of the Lock’ – a blend of satire and sympathy. He is a master of the mock-heroic tone.

Only an academic who is as erudite as John Carey could construct, in less than 300 pages, such a comprehensive book on poetry. He presents excerpts from poets’ work with illuminating comments which frequently encourage further reading of a work.

Wordsworth, Keats, Hardy and Manley Hopkins and many others are here, of course. His reach extends to Hughes and Plath. Poets, fired by twentieth century politics, such as Lorca, Neruda and Akhalova are there, and, in the final chapter, entitled ‘Poets Who Cross Boundaries’, Heaney, Angelon and Les Murray. These latter show the ability and power to cross cultural boundaries.  Not exclusively devoted to English poets, Carey includes some from France, America, China and Japan

This Little History is a sparkling introduction to poetry. Poems consist of language that is memorable, and this book serves as an absorbing guide to the pleasures of it in this form. It is made accessible to a wide audience by avoiding dense academic analysis, instead giving enticing examples of a particular work. Most chapters are brief. For me, it is a History to treasure.

A Little History of Poetry

[2020]

by John Carey

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS    

ISBN  9 780300 232226

$35.99; 312 pages

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