A Little History of Poetry

John Carey
Yale University Press ($25)

by James P. Lenfestey

John Carey, a retired Oxford don, tells this “Little History of Poetry” like your pipe-smoking uncle in an easy chair by the fire, with a wink of delighted eros. Or like a benevolent naturalist walking you through the woods pointing out all the plants and animals he knows, many of which he loves, and explaining how they live and reproduce. The voice is deeply knowledgeable, softly opinionated—it’s that of a storyteller, not a critic. The book is a helpful guide, as Carey’s historical survey includes a valuable ear for poetry’s unique reach into the ripeness of life, the inevitability of death, the tortures and pleasures of love, the bitterness of injustice and conflict, and the well-told tale ending in mayhem, redemption, surprise, or even laughter. If, as Blake wrote, “Prayer is the Study of Art,” then this book is a fine ear’s open-hearted museum.

Carey has a remarkably unpretentious and encyclopedic knowledge of names, places, poems, poets, and poetic moments and movements, while offering a subtle critique of modernist obscurity. Still, one wishes he had offered a modest disclaimer. The “little history” here is of mostly European-American Poetry; significant swaths of global history are missing, even though Carey finds ways to mention Hafez, Tagore, and the great Japanese and Chinese poets through the window opened by Arthur Waley’s pioneering translations in the early 20th Century.

Carey opens by deftly summarizing the 4000-year-old epic of Gilgamesh (and its homage to homosexual love), the heartbreak of war in The Iliad, and the murder of Penelope’s unfaithful maidservants in The Odyssey, which he notes is “the first depiction of a hanging in world literature.” Sappho’s reaction observing her lover, he similarly points out, is “the first description of . . . passionate love by a woman in Western literature.” He also discusses the Roman propaganda embedded in Virgil’s Aeneid, the alleged pornophilia of Horace, and the “lustful but horribly vindictive and vain” gods and goddesses of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reminding us how pervasive those mythic stories were in the Euro-American world until Emerson cast them out.

The Beowulf story, Carey finds, is driven by “Anglo-Saxon metre is as relentless as a drum-beat.” He is comprehensive in his review of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including riddle poems—some bawdy, others unsolved for 1000 years. He notes without surprise the odd British tendency to commemorate lost battles, and comes alive condemning Dante’s joy in inventing hellish punishments. Dante’s vicious ”unsexing,” Carey notes, was a deliberate riposte to the joyful eroticism of the Troubadours such as Arnaut Daniel (1110-1200), whom Dante burns in his invented Purgatory.

As the book progresses, Carey warms up with numerous sage asides. His chapter on Chaucer is a delight, noting him “genial and tolerant”—which could apply to Carey himself, who recommends the bawdy, hilarious Miller’s Tale, a “dirty joke turned into a great work of art,” above all the other Canterbury Tales, pointing out the contrast between the Christian moralism in Gawain and the Green Knight and the earthy enthusiasms of Chaucer.

A joyful surprise in this Euro-centric work is to see the marvelous Persian poet Hafez surface next to the discussion of Chaucer, his contemporary. Hafez’s “treatment of bodily joy, not as a temptation but as a mystical equivalent of the divine, is an achievement . . . inconceivable in Western poetry of the Middle Ages.”

Carey notes how the alliterative meter of William Langland’s Piers Plowman—“in a summer season, when soft was the sun”—remains beautiful still, a reminder to all poets how well that form fits the English tongue. Likewise he celebrates the poem’s dominant theme, “the contrast between rich and poor,” containing a list of 14th-century English miscreants that reads like it could come from a Carl Hiassen novel; ”Go where money is, and you will find crooks,” is the poem’s message, he writes. Written after the ravages of the Plague, Piers Plowman seems especially relevant in our pandemic Gilded Age.

After a look at Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, an imagined national epic for England in troubled times, Carey provides a helpful guide to Shakespeare’s sonnets: Start with the fifteen most famous. His refreshingly pragmatic scholarship reminds us that the stories in these love poems are almost certainly not autobiographical but derive from the skilled imagination of the playwright. John Donne, on the other hand, was called by contemporaries “Copernicus in poetry” because he absorbed and articulated new realities, the continent of America and the Copernican cosmology. He did this so well that it is often forgotten how good a poet of love he is, “like gold to airy thinness beat.”

After the sonneteers, many of whom sound much alike, we get a burst of individuality in English poetry, prompted possibly by Protestantism and random encounters created by city life in booming London, where Ben Johnson was branded with an F (for felon) on his thumb. Today the singsong metrics and woebegone loves of three centuries of English poems can be deadening, so among the old English poets, it’s a thrill to come upon this extraordinary triplet of Robert Herrick’s:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.

Many English poets were or became clergy, the educated class—Herrick, Donne, Johnson, Hopkins. The religion that dominated European poetry to the middle of the 19th century is marginal in our era, so it is often hard to sympathize with the violent spiritual struggles of a George Herbert, although powerfully rendered.

Even to readers who have already made ecstatic discoveries in the works if writers such as Wordsworth, Shelly, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Yeats, and Akhmatova, Carey brings some fine surprises. Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), a Welsh metaphysical poet, bears rediscovery—“I saw eternity the other night: / Like a great ring of pure and endless light”—as does Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), whose work was only truly uncovered in 1903: “All life and sense, / A naked, simple, pure intelligence.” The chapter on Milton is well worth reading; that towering figure lived a harsh mortal life, and yet angels dictated great poems to him.

It is a bit of relief to get away from the lockstep iambic tetrameter and pentameter, though brilliantly executed by so many, if only to the heroic couplets of Dryden and Pope. Though in the end that rhythm too deadens the ear these days, still it’s worth remembering Dryden became the first British poet laureate; his straightforwardly political subjects make him unreadable now, but his achievement should give succor to political poets today.

Carey presents women poets, often omitted from such histories, as “vital” to the Romantic movement. Anna Laetitia Barbald (1743-1782) wrote a poem that correctly predicted the demise of the monarchy in Britain and the rise of democratic America, a work savagely denounced at the time. Carey also invokes Phyllis Wheatley’s (1753-1784) extraordinary trek from slavery to poetry. It is heartening to read that many poets, then as now, denounced slavery and blood sports, exalted nature over industrialism, and preferred serenity over “the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” as Thomas Gray (1716-1771) put it in his still famous Elegy.

The pace quickens with chapters on Wordsworth and Coleridge. Carey claims “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge “would be selected by many as the greatest English poem.” As one who determinedly memorized it for its bursting images and amazing first-person conclusion, I agree. Another hero of mine, Shelley, earns several pages acknowledging the great sonnet “Ozymandias” and his profound belief in women’s rights, the corruption of Jesus’s life by Church pomposities, and passive resistance to tyranny—ideals that influenced Tolstoy and Gandhi.

Carey adds a useful chapter on what he calls “communal poetry”: the tradition of folk songs and hymns, many with authors unknown, yet with a blessed persistence in our culture to this day. Blake is rightly praised, too, for his ecstatic ferocity against the depredations of “Reason” versus sensual joy. Byron does not weather well, either his poetry or the inept idealism which left him to die in a malarial swamp during the Greek Civil War. (Readers, don’t miss Edna O’Brien’s delicious 2009 takedown, Byron in Love.)

Carey switches to 19th-century Germany for Goethe, an astonishing force in world poetry who rose to become “virtual prime minister of the young nation,” his first novel inspiring a rash of copycat suicides. Rilke continues to inspire many today, his short-lived genius described dreams for all of us who “still don’t know if I am a falcon, a storm, or a great song” (Robert Bly translation). From Russia, it is valuable to learn more about Pushkin (1799-1837), who single-handedly tried (and failed) to pull his country out of its bitter feudal medievalism; he’s another great poet who died in a duel.

Among the Victorian poets, Tennyson’s astounding musicality still stands, though the biographical details make him seem petty. Carey usefully reminds us the real action at this time was with English geologists and evolutionists, who created the modern understanding of the world, undermining nearly two thousand years of Biblical certainties—a divide still clear in American evangelical politics. Matthew Arnold captured this change in the still powerful “Dover Beach.”

Today it is the Victorian women poets who resonate, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s resolute anti-slavery and anti-child labor campaigns in spite of her family’s dependence on Jamaican sugar. Her love poems are all the more moving and passionate for the lack of stilted conventional mythology and read today like real love; a shining star, she anticipates 20th-century ecological concerns in her final poem, ”A Musical Instrument,” in which a careless god Pan spreads poetry and ruination at once. Another poem Carey includes in its entirety is Christina Rosetti’s remarkable valedictory, “Song.”

Carey devotes a long chapter to American poets Whitman and Dickinson, who changed everything in their singularity; they remain icons for our age, if not their own. His reading of Dickinson is slightly reductive, but what can any scholar do with that impish genius?

Back in England, Carey brings us lesbian poets such as Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)—admired by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Pound, and Hardy—and discusses the stunning rhythmic inventions of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which stir still. (p.190-91) Carey clearly reveres the poetry of Edward Thomas, known in the U.S. mostly as an influential friend of Robert Frost; killed in World War I, “he is the father of us all,” said Ted Hughes three generations later. And D. H. Lawrence’s poems still stand up, as in “The Snake,” in which Lawrence realizes he has been on the wrong side of nature, fearing it—“a pettiness.”

Yeats merits a long chapter, whimsically titled “The Great Escapist.” Carey rightly sees that Yeats’s belief in magic, séances, and the rest, although ludicrous, “gave his imagination this boundless, surreal freedom,” yet regrets his later drift toward the order of fascism. The following chapter on T. S. Eliot also depresses; Carey sees his poems as “difficult” but appreciates the music of his lines as transformative: “The ‘meaning’ of his poems matters less.”

Arthur Waley’s eminent contribution translating Asian poets is celebrated in a terrific, fast moving chapter demonstrating how Waley, and later Pound, introduced the West to ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry and forms, especially the Japanese tanka and haiku, also creating the movement called Imagism.

After suitable exposition on influential American poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Carey adds the strong counterpoint of Harlem Renaissance poets and writers. “The modish side of modernism cut no ice with the Harlem poets. Unlike Wallace Stevens, they did not regard the world as imaginary, but knew it to be real and unjust. Nor did they pursue obscurity, but wrote to be understood.”

Readers will be inspired by his chapter on the eccentric Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who despite her small output had a “wider range of tone and feeling than any other modernist, even Eliot.” A chapter on Auden and other poets who flirted with Marxism in the ’30s, then sensed the doom of coming war and tyranny, is valuable too. Many British poets were killed during the war; among American soldiers, Richard Wilbur preserved only two of his war poems.

Carey sneaks in a subtle takedown of Robert Lowell, though is tolerant of the many other unstable poets of his generation. But in post-War England, the so-called Movement poets had another idea: to be understood. Philip Larkin is “Britain’s best-loved poet” according to a 2003 survey, though he wouldn’t stand a chance today against the recent—and first woman—Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Larkin loved Hardy’s plainness more than the mysticism of Yeats, and it shows, sadly; though everyone likes “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” his unhappy longing for “oblivion” is a hard road for contemporary readers.

Carey concludes A Little History of Poetry with the pas de deux of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, their intensity of passions and first-rate talents. Hughes aimed to “reinvigorate language,” Plath to survive her living and psychic demons. And a terrific chapter on political poets states baldly, “the twentieth century was the most politicized in world history.” Discussing the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the devolution of empires, Carey invokes the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her life decimated by Stalin, though he leaves out the many great Polish poets, including Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize winner in 1995 and the greatest poet ever of uncertainty.

Carey ends with a masterful chapter on tough, dear poets of our time: Heaney, Walcott, Angelou, Oliver (whose anthem “A Summer’s Day” merits full inclusion), and the brilliant Australian barefoot farm boy Les Murray, who grapples with the problem of language and meaning. Discussing Murray’s “The Meaning of Existence,” Carey, our tender learned don, leaves us with the question that perplexed Murray, and continues to vex us all: Does language shape reality? Or “does the poem’s ending show poetry’s power to unsettle beliefs and question certainties, even its own?”

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