A Little History Of Poetry
Yale University £14.99
Roughly 250 years ago, James Boswell asked Dr Johnson: ‘What is poetry?’
‘Why sir, it is much easier to say what it is not,’ replied Johnson. ‘We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.’
John Carey kicks off A Little History Of Poetry by asking precisely the same question: ‘What is poetry?’ In answering his own question, he is bolder than Dr Johnson.
An illustration of Edward Lear’s The Dong With A Luminous Nose by Leonard Leslie Brooke
‘Poetry relates to language as music relates to noise,’ he writes. ‘It is language made special, so that it will be remembered and valued.’
This is still, of course, the broadest of definitions. It has to be, as this short book covers poets and poems of all sorts, from Edward Lear to John Milton, and from the Epic Of Gilgamesh in 2100 BC to Maya Angelou and Derek Walcott in our own century.
One of the many qualities of this amazingly energetic survey is that, unlike so many other academics, who like to bolster their status by valuing the obscure above the familiar, Carey does not shy away from quoting some of the world’s best-known poems. Consequently, his pages are awash with well-loved lines: ‘Theirs not to reason why… Gather ye rosebuds while ye may… Not waving but drowning… April is the cruellest month… Not with a bang but a whimper… Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear… And is there honey still for tea?’
It is striking quite how many of these lines have lodged in our minds, even if we don’t know where they are from, or who they are by. Such is the magic of poetry.
Carey is a welcoming host, full of enthusiasm, and the opposite of crusty. He can throw sparkling light on a poet’s method in a handful of words. ‘The aim of his style is dynamism,’ he writes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘– to break open the unseen wonders within everything.’
He ends his introduction by saying: ‘I hope you will find poems in this book that you did not know before, that they become part of your daily thoughts, and that you will trust your own judgement of them.’ Well, it certainly worked for me. After finishing the book, I found there were plenty of poets I wanted to chase up.
How about this, for instance?
‘Families when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.’
It might have been written yesterday, in the UK, but it was in fact written in China, 900 years ago, by a government official called Su Tung-po, on the birth of his son. Carey also quotes this beautiful two-line poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):
‘She by the river sat, and sitting there
She wept, and made it deeper by a tear.’
Now aged 85, John Carey, the emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, has written this Little History Of Poetry with a view to attracting, or at least incorporating, a young readership. ‘It was explained to me I should keep teenage readers in mind,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘That suited me fine. It meant I could leave out any boring theory and technical terms, and put in plenty of anecdotes to bring the poets to life.’
Rare among English professors, he has long been an advocate for clarity and simplicity. He maintains a particular loathing for intellectual snobbery. In his book The Intellectuals And The Masses he argued that the spread of literacy in the early 20th century had impelled intellectuals to celebrate writing that was difficult to understand, as a way of excluding ordinary people.
Though he is somewhat less strident in his battle against obscurity in this book, he has some harsh words for poets who have been long-winded, tricky or boring. He may never go quite so far as Groucho Marx, who once said that his favourite poem was the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’, ‘because it actually tells you something’, but he chastises William Shakespeare, no less, for producing poems that ‘can seem ornate and slow to modern readers’, adding that ‘as a narrative poet, he was no match for Christopher Marlowe’. Of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he complains that ‘Some of them consist largely of complicated word-play, and scarcely engage our feelings at all.’
He includes a chapter on ballads and hymns, which many academics probably wouldn’t regard as poetry at all. In it, he traces the story of Abide With Me, one of many poems more famous than its author. Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) was a little-known clergyman who suffered from tuberculosis and wrote Abide With Me on his deathbed.
In 1912, it was said to have been played by the band as the Titanic went down (‘In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me’). Ever since 1927, it has been sung before kick-off at the FA Cup Final.
In a chapter called Shaking The Foundations, Carey bundles together a group of 13 poets so diverse – Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Edward Lear, Charlotte Mew – that they really have nothing in common at all, beyond a shared interest in poetry
But as the book progresses through the centuries, there are more and more poets and poems to cover in fewer and fewer pages. This means that in a brief, seven-page chapter on the poetry of the First World War, no fewer than 11 poets are mentioned in the heading, along with countless more mentioned in passing, yet David Jones, the greatest of all of them (at least to my mind), doesn’t even get a look-in.
His chapter on poetry of the Second World War is even more of a squeeze, with 17 poets covered in just seven pages.
Another chapter, Shaking The Foundations, bundles together a group of 13 poets so diverse – Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Edward Lear, Charlotte Mew – that they really have nothing in common at all, beyond a shared interest in poetry. With so little space, Carey tends to write less about their poems, and more about their lives.
That’s not to say that their lives were uneventful. In her autobiography, the novelist Muriel Spark, who once worked at the Poetry Society, noted that ‘in no other job have I ever had to deal with such utterly abnormal people. Yes, it is true, poetry does something to them’. And a peculiarly large quantity of poets throughout history seem to have been mad, bad or dangerous to know.
In the 15th century, Francois Villon murdered a priest; in the 17th century, Ben Jonson killed a fellow actor in a duel, and had ‘F’ for Felon branded on his thumb; Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a pub brawl in Deptford; and, closer to our own time, Ezra Pound considered Hitler a saint, and gave a Nazi salute as he was finally released from his lunatic asylum.
But the book is to some extent a victim of its own brevity. For example, Carey deals with the poems of the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in just one sentence: ‘Lorca’s poetry combines the ballads and folklore of the Andalusian countryside with Symbolism and Surrealism (the Surrealist Salvador Dali was a close friend).’ The rest of the short paragraph on Lorca is devoted to his life rather than his work.
The same chapter – ‘Poets in Politics’ – includes R S Thomas, the eccentric and irascible clergyman who was a Welsh nationalist, but whose poems were less about politics than about religion and the natural world. We hear that he used to berate his parishioners for using refrigerators, washing machines and other modern evils, but there is no time left for his poetry, its flavour or purpose.
For all its many virtues – its range, its spark, its sense of delight – A Little History Of Poetry is simply too little to incorporate its own contents. By the end, with one snappy biography leading on to another, it has become more about poets, and their peculiar ways, than about their poems. It is almost as though the poetry itself has been shunted to one side, in order to fit everything else in.