A Little History of Poetry by John Carey – 50 Years in 50 Books

A Little History of Poetry is part of Yale’s ‘Little Histories‘ series. John Carey tells the stories behind the world’s greatest poems, from the oldest surviving poems written nearly four thousand years ago to those being written today. This little history shines a light for readers on the richness of the world’s poems—and the elusive quality that makes them all the more enticing.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, John Carey gives us an overview of the many considerations that come with compiling a history of Poetry; from Gilgamesh to Geoffrey Chaucer, Emily Dickinson to Maya Angelou and many more in-between.


Article by John Carey

Being asked to write A Little History of Poetry was a tall order. Did it mean poetry in English, or in any language? I took it to mean in any language, or any language I could either understand or get hold of in translation.

Then there was the question: where should such a History begin? I decided to start with The Epic of Gilgamesh which is said to be the oldest surviving literary work, composed over 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, and after that I included Homer and Sappho and the Latin classics, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Catullus, and Juvenal, some of which I had studied at school.

I was helped because a relative was married to a gentleman who was fluent in Russian, so I was able to check my translations of Pushkin and Lermontov. My French was just about good enough to offer a selection of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Valéry.

I was painfully aware that my selection left out half of the world’s poetry, but I tried to remedy this by including selections from Arthur Waley’s One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems and Japanese Poetry: the Uta. I also used Waley’s translations of Japanese Noh plays and the 11th century Tale of Genji.

T.S. Eliot. All illustrations by Nick Morley

But the chapter that offered a different kind of challenge was “Inventing Modernism: Eliot and Pound”, since these are poets who, for perhaps the first time in poetic history, made themselves deliberately unintelligible to escape the stain of “the masses”. Extracts from this chapter give some detail of what is meant by their respective ‘difficulty’:

“Eliot is known as a ‘difficult’ poet. In fact he is not. His ear for linguistic resonance and genius for evocative phrases give immediate pleasure. The ‘meaning’ of his poems matters less. Asking who Prufrock is visiting, or who the Lady is in Portrait, is pointless, because Eliot has withheld this information. Instead he depicts states of feeling, ranging from rapture (‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’) to awkwardness and embarrassment, as when the speaker in Portrait is so rattled by the Lady’s woeful reproaches that he wants to stop having human feelings – ‘cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape’. You can read these poems as novellas with most of the humdrum stuff left out but with feelings left in. The Waste Land is different only because of its abrupt changes of speaker, location and time.”

Pound’s early poetry imitated the fake medievalism of Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). So despite his eagerness to be modern, and his watchword, ‘Make it new’, he seemed out of date. The inaccuracy of his translations (The Wanderer and The Seafarer from Old English; the Latin of Propertius in Homage to Sextus Propertius) also attracted criticism . . . In Italy Pound began work on his long, formless, unfinished poem, the Cantos, in which he expounded his ideas about economics. He wanted a fairer distribution of wealth, and hated capitalism because it was not truly productive. He favoured a system called Social Credit devised by a Scot, Major C.H. Douglas. It would have to be imposed by the state, he realised, and this led him to Fascism.

In perhaps his most famous poem, Pound was inspired by the Japanese form haiku to write the imagist poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’. You can read more about the influence of China and Japan on English language poetry in an extract from A Little History of Poetry below.


About the author:

John Carey is emeritus professor at Oxford. His books include The Essential Paradise LostWhat Good Are the Arts?,  studies of Donne and Dickens, and a biography of William Golding. The Unexpected Professor, his memoir, was a Sunday Times best-seller.


About the book:

A Little History of Poetry

John Carey

A vital, engaging, and hugely enjoyable guide to poetry, from ancient times to the present, by one of our greatest champions of literature — selected as the literature book of the year by the London Times

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Books by John Carey:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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