A Little History of Poetry John Carey

Little Histories
Publication date:
09 Feb 2021
Yale University Press
320 pages: 216 x 140mm
40 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

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
“[A] fizzing, exhilarating book.”—Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times, London

“Delightful.’”—New York Times Book Review
What is poetry? If music is sound organized in a particular way, poetry is a way of organizing language. It is language made special so that it will be remembered and valued. It does not always work—over the centuries countless thousands of poems have been forgotten. But this Little History is about some that have not.
John Carey tells the stories behind the world’s greatest poems, from the oldest surviving one written nearly four thousand years ago to those being written today. Carey looks at poets whose works shape our views of the world, such as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Yeats. He also looks at more recent poets, like Derek Walcott, Marianne Moore, and Maya Angelou, who have started to question what makes a poem “great” in the first place.
For readers both young and old, 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.

More about this title

John Carey is emeritus professor at Oxford. His books include The Essential Paradise Lost, What 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.

“[The] book reviewer and Oxford don has great fun, galloping through 4,000 years of verse. Reputations are flayed and poetic gems are uncovered.”—Robbie Millen and Andrew Holgate, The Times and Sunday Times, “Best Books of 2020”

 “[A] fizzing, exhilarating book”—Sebastian Faulks, Sunday Times

“Carey’s delightful survey never takes itself or its subject too seriously. ‘Over the centuries countless thousands of poems have been forgotten,’ he writes. ‘This is a book about some that have not.’”—New York Times Book Review

“Don’t let the diminutive title fool you. This is an expansive, not to mention accessible, tour of poetry’s importance and evolution, from ‘Beowulf’ to Shakespeare to Maya Angelou and beyond.”—Washington Post 2020 Holiday Gift Guide

“Few modern literature professors are capable of writing a book as interesting and mischievous as this.”—James Marriott, The Times ‘Best Literary Non-Fiction Books of 2020’

“This supremely compact and erudite introduction doesn’t just pack in a bunch of facts and potted biographies, it somehow manages to convey the transcendent glory of the form through the ages, whether it’s sagas, hymns, ballads or verse...Carey is frighteningly well informed but always accessible, and this guide will offer riches whether you’re a total newbie or a poetry buff.”—Sybille Bedford, The Sunday Times 'Best Literary Books of 2020' 


“As an introduction to poetry, and a reminder of its power to find beauty and consolation in almost every human experience, this anthology is a delight.”—Jane Shilling, Daily Mail ‘Must Reads'

“This characterfully compered mini-anthology would make a great guide for anyone just beginning to explore poetry, at any age.”—David Sexton, Evening Standard

“Carey is a welcoming host, full of enthusiasm…He can throw sparkling light on a poet’s method in a handful of words.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

“Exhilarating”—Bel Mooney, Daily Mail 

“[A] short but impressively comprehensive account of poetry”—Duncan Ferguson, The Herald

“[F]or more than 50 years, his taut, spry, flexible, idiomatic style has enabled [Carey] to engage a large non-specialist audience without, for the most part, stinting his deep infectious belief that literature is serious, and matters.”—Leo Robson, New Statesman

A Little History of Poetry succeeds…because it communicates Carey's love for a poet clearly and infectiously. It would be a dull reader who did not finish the chapter on Chaucer with an itch to reopen "The Miller's Tale", yes, but even Troilus and Criseyde as well.”—Harry Cochrane, Times Literary Supplement

A Little History of Poetry is delightful and succinct: 40 perceptive chapters in 295 pages, covering nearly 200 poets…Still, the book is a history – a history of poetry and the contexts in which it is embedded: personal, cultural, religious, social, linguistic, political.”—Brian B. McClorry SJ, Thinking Faith [online journal]

“Does anyone know more about poetry than John Carey? Almost certainly not.”—The Times, Best Books for Summer 2020

“[A] dazzling book…John Carey has been writing brilliant, eminently readable literary criticism for as long as most of us can remember.”—Roger Alton, Daily Mail

“Chapters are enticingly short and compelling to read. Carey is immensely readable with so many poets’ work and biography underpinned with illustrative personal stories and fascinating observations.”—Word Matters [Journal]

“John Carey, the "Unexpected Professor", has done it again. From Homer to Heaney in 300 pages of crisp prose, apt quotation and illuminating judgement, he shows how poets have dealt with politics, race, religion, thought, landscape, history, memory and the movement of the human heart.”—Piers Plowright, The Tablet

“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.”—Seamus Perry, London Review of Books

“This handsome book is a wonderful introduction to poetry from many different cultures across a range of eras...As an introduction to the different forms poetry can take, it can hardly be bettered.”—Terry Freedman, Teach Secondary

“Warm in tone, informative, generous in its sympathies, inviting in its choices, with a clear emphasis on human stories underpinning poetic achievement.”—Emma Smith, author of This is Shakespeare

“This wonderfully positive and vivid history is a delight on every page ... Carey’s sparkling Little History of Poetry is an astonishingly full introduction to English poetry from Beowulf to the present, set in a framework extending in place and time from Gilgamesh to Akhmatova and Seferis.”—Bernard O'Donoghue, Winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award

“Here is an informative, fast-moving book … Like Carey’s previous works, it’s forceful as well as clear, and it’s populist, no-nonsense and anti-elite in its sympathies. Many people may find new favourites here.”—Stephanie Burt, Professor of English, Harvard University

“Books about poetry are rarely page turners, but Carey’s little history is gripping, is unputdownable! Reading this book and its galaxy of poets is like looking up at the sky and seeing the whole wheeling and constellated universe.”—Daljit Nagra, author of Look We Have Coming to Dover!

“An elegant history of poetry, what it is, what it does, why it matters, written in an authoritative and engaging voice. Masterly.”—Ruth Padel, author of 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem