Book Review: “A Little History Of Poetry”

a little history of poetry

Every so often a book comes along and it’s like a little breath of fresh air — and “A Little History Of Poetry”, by John Carey, is one such book.

With the limbo of semi-lockdown life still in place, it couldn’t be more timely!

As its title suggests, this is a very short history of poetry (“language made special, so it will be remembered and valued”).

It begins with the first surviving poem from nearly 4,000 years ago, and discusses mainly Western poetry right up until the present day. In doing so it reveals so much about our histories, and ourselves.

It’s absolutely fascinating! We start with an epic poem — “The Epic Of Gilgamesh”. From Mesopotamia (roughly speaking modern-day Iraq and eastern Syria), this poem was written on clay tablets in the earliest known alphabet, cuneiform script.

The ability to read this script was lost for hundreds of years until George Smith, a self-taught, working-class man from London, worked out how to decipher it after studying clay tablets at the British Museum.

We then move on to Homer’s “Iliad”, the first known war poem, and his adventure poem, the “Odyssey”.

A whistle-stop tour

We take a quick look at the poetry of Sappho, who lived from around 630 to 570 BC — snippets of text being all that remain.

Next it’s the Latin poets, like Virgil, Horace and Ovid.

Then we move onto Anglo-Saxon poetry — Beowulf — then masters of the Middle Ages, such as Dante and Petrarch.

Chaucer follows, and two of my own favourites, Shakespeare and John Donne.

From here, it’s a whistle-stop tour of poetry’s most memorable moments.

We’re treated to little potted histories of both the poets themselves and the wider historical setting they found themselves in. We learn about some outstanding individuals, as well as touching on different poetic styles, such as the haiku and the villanelle.

There’s also an interesting chapter on communal poetry — hymns, for example, and ballads.

A celebration of poetry’s brightest and best

I really enjoyed this! It’s a great read.

It’s so warmly written you feel like you’re chatting to a friend, discussing your favourites!

Perfect for reading however much time you have, and nice to dip in and out of.

This would be a lovely introduction to poetry, or a gift; a celebration of poetry’s brightest and best.

As lockdown was eased in Scotland prior to purchase, I bought my copy for £14.99 at Waterstones, Dundee.

I can’t tell you how nice it was to be back!

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Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!