"Over the centuries, countless thousands of poems have been forgotten. This is a book about some that have not." In this 10th book in Yale's splendid Little Histories series, which began with E H Gombrich's A Little History of the World, the eminent Oxford literature professor and chief Sunday Times critic spans 4,000 years with admirable concision as he reflects on some of the finest poems ever written; from the "Epic of Gilgamesh" in Chapter 1; to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver and Les Murray in Chapter 40.
Carey is excellent at sketching biographies, quoting judiciously and generously, and keen to be explanatory without being patronising: you can see in the use of anecdote and analogy the experience of years lecturing to drifting undergraduates. (The Elizabethans fretted about whether or not they were damned, he explains at one point, rather like ‘our searching the internet to see what our symptoms mean we are suffering from’.) He is keen not to scare the horses, reassuring his tyro readers that it is perfectly fine not to like some of these dusty masterpieces. Petrarch is ‘numbingly tedious and repetitive’, and if you find Shakespeare’s Sonnets a bit of a drag the former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford agrees that ‘though they are world famous, they may disappoint modern readers. Some of them consist largely of complicated wordplay, and scarcely engage our feelings at all.’ Equally, he is enthusiastic about the things he loves: Donne, for instance, is celebrated as ‘the greatest English love poet’, and Browning’s The Ring and the Book earns perhaps unexpected praise as ‘one of the all-time wonders of verbal art’.
Carey may be a distinguished scholar, but he is remorselessly anti-elitist: he wants to make us love poetry. Here he is on one of the most important poets of the last century: ‘[T.S.] Eliot is known as a “difficult” poet. In fact he is not.’ Two crisp, reader-friendly sentences that make you want to turn at once to the poetry itself. But he’s brilliant, too, on Chaucer’s bawdy geniality or the lofty dottiness of W.B. Yeats. If this dazzling book, as packed with gems as a billionaire’s birthday bash, doesn’t make you want to rush to your local bookshop to buy some poetry for the long summer, then check your pulse.
Sometimes Carey’s ambitious, thematic chapter-groupings include the unexpected too. For example, in the chapter rather oddly called Poets Of The Seen World And The Unseen (which surely includes all poets?) he sums up the work of the anonymous medieval Gawain poet and William Langland — and also plonks down beside them their contemporary Persian poet Hafez, still a favourite in Iran. It’s so brief as to be almost pointless, yet if somebody reads some Hafez as a result, that’s fine by me.
John Carey’s hectic, reader-friendly introduction to poetry gloriously ignores these problems. It is redolent of a time when grammar school sixth formers studied Milton in class and the Romantics on reading camps in the summer holidays. Its assumptions are unencumbered by critical theory or identity politics. It believes that the work of poetry is to open up to its readers an emotional variety and grandeur far beyond the limits imposed by the trifling boundaries of their own selves; that poetry’s aim is not to confine or confirm, but to transcend.
Throughout this amusing book, he gives himself free rein. Dante? “His beliefs are, for us, often repellent.” Moreover, “he does not seem to have been attractive as a man, either. He comes across as vengeful and unforgiving.” Our great nonsense poets? “Lear was gay and an epileptic; Dodgson had a weakness for scantily clad little girls.” Baudelaire? “His self-pity can pall.”
Covering so much ground so fast, the professor has little choice but to simplify and, like all effective educators, proclaim the bleeding obvious as if it was news. “Like death, love is one of poetry’s perennial subjects,” he tells us. “William Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District and it had a profound influence on him and his poetry.”
This book is a lot of fun, thanks to Carey’s eye for anecdotes. Poets are oddballs. Take Yeats, with his obsession with the occult and fear of ageing so profound that, at nearly 70, he underwent an operation to restore his sexual potency. Or Marianne Moore, who swept around Greenwich Village in a tricorn hat and a cape and spent her free time indulging in her fanatical love of the Brooklyn Dodgers.... Some English professors would have treated the brief to write a Little History of Poetry as an easy opportunity to cash in. Carey can’t stop himself thinking originally or repress his instinct for mischief for more than a few pages. This book is all the better for it.