Lord Byron pictured here on the veranda of his home, the Villa Diodati, (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Glaring omissions of a whistle-stop tour

Carey is the tour guide of a magnificent villa telling of the wonders that lie beyond a closed door

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A Little History of Poetry by John Carey (Yale University Press, £14.99)

While the reputation of some critics is held aloft by their own wind, John Carey’s rests on sterner stuff. As a reviewer for the Sunday Times and the author of books about Dickens, Donne, and others, Carey is one of the cleverest and most entertaining critics in English. If asked for my ideal author for a book as ambitious as a “history of poetry,” even a “little” history of poetry, I would pick Carey with maybe one or two others.

A Little History of Poetry by John Carey (Yale University Press, £14.99)

He doesn’t showcase his wit in A Little History of Poetry because wit depends on dilatory time, and he’s moving too fast: in fewer than 300 pages, he covers Homer, Les Murray, and pretty much every major poet in between. Nor is this a history of English or “Western” poetry: he includes poets from South America, China, Japan, Russia, Greece, India, and elsewhere. He provides a brief biographical sketch of each poet, provides an extract or two from their poetry, and then moves on to the next subject. There is so much in here that even experienced readers of poetry will probably learn something from it.

Some chapters are dedicated to one poet while others cram in about a dozen to represent a historical period or literary movement. Reading some of these crowded chapters, which leave no room for Carey to quote and analyse poems, the reader begins to wonder why a mind as great as Carey’s is giving us information which is freely available elsewhere: some chapters are little more than lists of poets or poems.

Sometimes, Carey resembles the tour guide of a magnificent villa who comes to a closed door and tells the tourists, who have paid the price of admission, about the wonders that lie beyond that door but that they aren’t allowed to see what’s behind it.

In a section about Chinese poets, Carey tells us about Li Qingzhao (1084-1156) whose “renown now reaches out across the solar system. The International Astronomical Union has named two impact craters on the planet Mercury after her.” Well, the reader might have to travel there to find out more, because Carey doesn’t quote a line of her poems or even provide any titles. Having returned from his interplanetary flight, and still unable to find Li Qingzhao’s poems, the reader would be justified in replying “Gee, thanks for nothing, mister.”

There is so much in here that even experienced readers of poetry will probably learn something from it

The reader might also be annoyed about what Carey does include. In the first chapter, he argues that “there are no rights or wrongs in aesthetic judgement, only opinions”, an argument he developed fully in his book What Good Are The Arts? I’m not going to mention that this claim is potentially self-defeating — if it’s right, then it’s only an opinion — but I will mention that Carey himself doesn’t seem to believe it.

Starting his chapter about Yeats, Carey writes that the great Irishman’s “whole life as a poet was an attempt to escape from reality into a world of art, myth and magic”. Describing Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan”, Carey says that Yeats can also take a myth and give it “sensory and psychological realism”. Am I meant to believe that Carey is only expressing opinions here, or is he actually trying to tell me something about the many aspects of Yeats’s work?

Carey’s favourite word in this book is “masterpiece”. I wonder what he actually means by it. If he were fully committed to his argument that there are no aesthetic judgements, it must only mean “a poem I like a lot” or “a poem that many people like”. But that isn’t really what “masterpiece” means. A “masterpiece” is a work created with a huge degree of skill, and Carey’s failure to talk about skill is this book’s greatest fault.

Besides some cursory remarks about the sonnet and the Spenserian stanza, Carey says very little about poetic form and technique, two things a poetry tyro would want to know about. He tells us that Lord Byron used the ottava rima form for his great poems Beppo and Don Juan, but not how Byron’s facility with rhythm, rhyme, and metre makes those poems so much fun to read. In fact, Carey doesn’t even tell us what ottava rima is.

Nor does he mention that after Eliot’s free verse poems changed “poetry worldwide”, the technical virtuosity of poets such as Auden and Larkin would change it all over again. We might never know exactly how a poet can arrange words in a certain way to make them more than the sum of their parts, but trying to figure that out is part of the critic’s job. Why do poets go to so much trouble writing poems that rhyme and scan? Carey doesn’t tell us that, either. It’s a shame, because there would be few people who could give a better answer.

Why do poets go to so much trouble writing poems that rhyme and scan? Carey doesn’t tell us that, either

Treating poems as if they’re plain, spoken utterances is a helpful way to emphasise that they’re not codes accessible only to those clever enough to conjure meanings out of them: made from one of the few things we all share, language, they are some of our most moving and interesting statements about the things we experience every day: love, religion, uncertainty, hope, fear. Carey is right to take this approach, and it is what has made him such a popular critic.

But poetry has force precisely because it is not a plain, spoken utterance: there is, or at least should be, some skill involved in making it. Carey knows this and admits it, though he does so quietly: he quotes Housman’s dictum that “poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it” and emphasises that, in Housman’s poems, “the way of saying it often seems inseparable from the meaning”.

This is true of all good poetry but saying so explicitly might have put Carey in a conundrum: if “the way of saying” something is “inseparable” from the meaning, then that also means aesthetic judgements are inseparable from moral and intellectual judgements. Admitting that would make any history of poetry more than a collection of well-written opinions.

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