A Little History of Poetry 
by John Carey.
Yale, 303 pp., £14.99, March 2020, 978 0 300 23222 6
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Thisbook is a departure from John Carey’s normal mode, much more intently introductory than anything else he has written in a long and distinguished career. A Little History of Poetry canters from Gilgamesh and Homer to Mary Oliver and Les Murray in three hundred pages with a breezy sense of mission, assuming in the reader no previous acquaintance with the subject (‘Confessional poetry is poetry that reveals personal confidences, especially relating to mental illness and hospitalisation’) or indeed with other sorts of knowledge that might be thought fairly general (‘Totalitarian regimes seek to control every aspect of life, including writing’). Carey finds in the obligation to be brief an opportunity for droll synopsis. ‘The son of a dissolute father and an unstable mother, he was born with a club foot, which always made him self-conscious,’ he says of Byron; and of Dickinson, no less winningly: ‘She was reclusive, tended to wear white clothing, which was thought odd, and scarcely left her bedroom in her later years.’ Such things strike a whimsical note, but usually Carey’s humour has a flintier edge. It is, for example, difficult to miss the disdain in a description of Stephen Spender as ‘a literary mover and shaker, knighted in 1983. His wealthy, artistic parents sent him to various private schools and Oxford, but he left without taking a degree.’ Similarly, it is hard not to detect the verdict of moral absurdity in his account of R.S. Thomas as ‘primarily a religious poet, tormented by a sense of God’s absence, and berating his parishioners for using refrigerators, washing machines, and other modern evils’, or of air-headedness in his remark that Mrs Yeats’s ability to hear spirit voices represented for her husband ‘a new breakthrough on the paranormal front’.

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. (The Elizabethans fretted about whether or not they were damned, he explains at one point, rather like ‘our searching the internet to see what our symptoms mean we are suffering from’.) He is keen not to scare the horses, reassuring his tyro readers that it is perfectly fine not to like some of these dusty masterpieces. Petrarch is ‘numbingly tedious and repetitive’, and if you find Shakespeare’s Sonnets a bit of a drag the former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford agrees that ‘though they are world famous, they may disappoint modern readers. Some of them consist largely of complicated wordplay, and scarcely engage our feelings at all.’ Equally, he is enthusiastic about the things he loves: Donne, for instance, is celebrated as ‘the greatest English love poet’, and Browning’s The Ring and the Book earns perhaps unexpected praise as ‘one of the all-time wonders of verbal art’.

Still, if this book represents a new sort of enterprise for Carey it also brings into play some of his abiding convictions and most characteristic mental habits. He is superbly omnivorous and at one stage or another seems to have tackled almost everything from Elizabethan lyrics to the novels of Leslie Thomas, but a small handful of preoccupations underwrites everything he has done, foremost among them a cult of ordinariness: few words possess a more positive timbre in his writings than ‘ordinary’. In his highly enjoyable memoir, The Unexpected Professor (2014), Orwell appears as one of his great heroes, as an essayist at least: for Carey, his genius lay in ‘giving life back its ordinariness’ and basing his judgments on ‘the life most people led’. In this spirit Swift is praised in A Little History of Poetry for the poems in which ‘he notices everyday things’; Dickinson as someone who, though odd, could ‘write wonderfully about the external, everyday world’; and William Carlos Williams, busy writing Paterson, is admired for his practice of going to the park on Sundays where he ‘watched what people did and made it part of the poem’. It is the great pleasure of encountering ancient Chinese poetry in Arthur Waley’s versions that ‘their glimpses of ordinary life communicate instantly across the centuries’; but then reading any great literature, as Carey says in the encomium with which he closes his autobiography, ‘makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary’: like Chesterton, another of his heroes, Carey professes an ‘amazement at normality’. Ordinary things can come in many shapes and sizes: when Arnold Bennett shows ‘how important the small and the ordinary are to us’ he is engaged in a slightly different business from Seamus Heaney, whose ‘subject matter was ordinary’, but they might both claim a kind of realism which is the fulfilment of an ethic, like the Dutch school of painters whose work Carey prefers to other visual art, as he says in his memoir, ‘because it took ordinary life seriously’. It is a deeply Careyan virtue that Ben Jonson articulates in ‘A Farewell to the World’ when, refusing the far-flung in favour of the close to hand, he vows to ‘make my strengths, such as they are,/Here in my bosom, and at home’. Ordinariness here is both a fit habitation for the heart and a way of using language: ‘I loved “such as they are”,’ Carey recalls nicely in An Unexpected Professor, ‘the modest disclaimer coming like a second thought, as if it’s just ordinary speech, not poetry, and he’s making it up as he goes along.’

‘Ordinariness’ turns out to be a slippery concept if you force it do any serious work, but as an emotive appeal it can be very effective, especially as a criterion of moral health. ‘He was a moralist before he was a critic,’ Carey once said approvingly of Orwell, and the same might be said of him. In The Unexpected Professor, Carey described his youthful self as ‘dogmatically republican as well as socialist, edging on communist’, yet what mattered about Orwell wasn’t his card-carrying socialism but the notion of ‘a basic human goodness that binds people together’, an ‘ordinary human decency’. Rather like Orwell, Carey devotes a lot of his remarkable rhetorical resources to coming across as a plain man; and with plainness comes pugnacity. Ordinariness only comes into its own as an idea when it needs to be championed against something spurious and sophisticated. That dig at Spender, for instance, draws on a rich medley of antipathies that Carey inherited from Orwell – the literary, the affluent, the arty, the expensively educated, the feckless, the undeservedly rewarded – and which have always animated his most feisty writing. Poetry is on his side, it turns out: ‘Generalisations about poetry are rash,’ Carey says early on in A Little History of Poetry, ‘but in the main poetry, especially modern poetry, is sceptical of power, wealth, luxury and celebrity, and sceptical, too, of people who admire them.’ This is far from a universal view, of course: ‘The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power,’ Hazlitt thought, and Carey himself has found plenty of exceptions to his own generalisation over the years, writers (especially modern writers) who are disagreeably full of themselves and require taking down a peg or two. Orwell, Carey writes in his autobiography, maintained ‘a permanent hatred of the rich’, and nothing rouses his own gift for truculence so much as a wealthy dimwit – Diana Cooper, for instance, whose ‘capacity for abstract thought’ he memorably declared to be ‘roughly that of a strawberry mousse’ – unless it is what Orwell called the ‘pansy left’. Spender belonged to this class, the antics of which, Carey once said, represented merely ‘a new way for the dandified and over-privileged to express their resentment at the decent, responsible and hard-working middle-class elements in society, whose existence was a continual reproach to their own foppish incompetence and a continual threat to their undeserved cultural eminence’.

Such prose didn’t articulate much of what Auden called ‘nuance and scruple’, but then it never set out to. As Jonathan Raban once said, Carey was ‘the hatchetman’s hatchetman’. In his autobiography Carey recalls his early scholarly tasks of editing Milton and of compiling a student anthology of critical essays about Andrew Marvell, experiences that awoke him to the full horror of academic Lit Crit: ‘researching these two books made me resolve never to write such stuff myself, and to deride it whenever I came across it.’ Much of the introduction to the Marvell collection anatomised the ways in which his fellow critics were ‘derivative, irrelevant, obscure or factitious’. ‘Are you allowed to be as funny as that about a sacred subject?’ Christopher Ricks, his commissioning editor, is said to have asked; and being funny is obviously an important element in the iconoclasm. When Ian Hamilton asked him to reflect on the contemporary poetry scene in 1972 for the Review, Carey duly noted some positives but also expressed some regrets, namely the recent deaths of Plath and Roethke ‘and the award of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry to R.S. Thomas’ – an excellent joke in the Hamiltonian spirit, which makes you wonder how much of Hamilton’s gift of witty belligerence was learned from Carey, his tutor at Oxford. Hamilton remembered Carey, whom he often commissioned to write pieces, as ‘full of life, vigour and ideas, clever as hell’.

The spirit of this Little History of Poetry is inclusive and elucidatory rather than tendentious, but traces of polemic are visible. One favourite topic is anti-intellectualism: Carey has always celebrated writers who, as he once said of D.J. Enright, ‘champion … ordinary existence over the whimsies of the overeducated’, and this new book ends with a celebration of Les Murray, a poet of the non-whimsical and ordinary whose blokeish credentials seem cast iron. ‘His values were down-to-earth and Australian. He detested Anglo-American modernism because it excluded ordinary readers. He was suspicious of liberals and intellectuals.’ Being an intellectual is one way of resisting the ordinary that Carey has set himself against with special vehemence, another trait he shares with Orwell, who was fond of saying things such as: ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that. No ordinary man could be such a fool.’ Many people have had it in for intellectuals and the case against is normally some version of the case against bloodless abstraction – ‘All theory is grey, my friend,’ as Goethe observed, ‘but forever green is the tree of life.’ Carey sometimes takes this line: it lies behind his admiration for Ted Hughes, for instance, whose poetry exposes ‘the fragility and misplaced pride of the human intellect’. But, as Stefan Collini has observed, what really gets under his skin is intellectuals being snobby and condescending, and in his impressively disgusted book The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) he had no problem collecting some pretty dreadful opinions about the workers and other low-lifes uttered by prominent figures of the modern tradition. None of those opinions seemed particularly characteristic of intellectuals, however. Hatefulness and bigotry seem spread quite generally across the social classes. Similarly, Carey once wrote a dazzlingly funny essay for Hamilton’s New Review called ‘Down with Dons’ (1975) all about how awful academics are, but its target was actually the feckless superiority complex that a decent public school and one of the older Oxbridge colleges tend to instil in a chap. Anyway, as Peter Conrad reasonably suggested in reply, you could just as well characterise academics by their neurotic maladjustment and social dysfunction as by their braying voices and lofty disregard for the human reality of the head porter.

The awful dons in that essay take us to the world of Lucky Jim, which Carey once chose as one of the fifty most enjoyable books of the century, and as soon as you clock the connection the precise nature of his wit becomes clear. Once, reviewing the memoirs of Edward Blishen, Carey singled out for comment an exasperating professor of Blishen’s acquaintance whose only discernible gift was for burning his visitors’ toast: ‘Any normal person would want to wire Maurice up to this obsolete toaster and pass several hundred volts through him,’ Carey wrote, which is just the sort of Tom and Jerry violence that Jim Dixon wishes he could direct at his own appalling head of department – he wants ‘to tie Welch up in his chair and beat him about the head and shoulders with a bottle’ and so on. It is very English, completely wrapped up in absurdities of class, and probably untranslatable into any other culture. As it happens, around the same time Carey’s book about intellectuals appeared, Edward Said published his Reith Lectures on Representations of the Intellectual, and the old adage about two peoples separated by a common language could not have acquired a better exemplification. For Said, intellectuals are full of heroic possibility, charged with answering back to power, and he quoted with approval the sociologist C. Wright Mills: ‘The independent artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things.’ You could hardly put into one sentence more of what Carey doesn’t think: in fact the self-aggrandisement of the sentence and its attribution of something less than genuine life to those other people would have made another piece of evidence for the prosecution.

The ‘independent artist and intellectual’ that Wright Mills pairs off are close kin in Carey’s account too, though more as partners in crime than forces for life. His suspicion of isolated artistic genius seems to have been first sparked by reading a good though now mostly forgotten book, Robert Currie’s Genius (1974), which analysed with panache the Romantic invention of the phenomenon and its diverse aftermath in 20th-century avatars such as Samuel Beckett and Adolf Hitler. The lonely artist inhabits a superior aesthetic realm, Currie says, ‘precisely other than the quid pro quo of the alienated many who substitute lifeless materialism and acquisitiveness for true humanity’: it was, Carey said in his review, ‘one of those rare books that indelibly re-maps a section of one’s intellectual landscape’. Certainly his own map of modernity seems to have been permanently redrawn, though he subsequently gave the ‘independent artist’ sociohistorical bearings and dated its full establishment as a literary ideology a little later. The Artist with a capital ‘A’ emerged, as he sketches out the case in A Little History of Poetry, in response to the advent of mass literacy towards the end of the 19th century, a phenomenon that presented writers with a stark choice: ‘Some welcomed the new market for their work,’ he says, but ‘others despised it.’ It is those others who have largely occupied him when he has propounded this historical thesis before, for instance in the introduction to Original Copy (1987), a selection of his journalism: ‘English writing in the 20th century has persistently catered for minorities and elites to the exclusion of a large potential readership of ordinary, intelligent people who have developed, over the years, a thoroughly understandable dislike of “culture” and the “cultured”.’ This sorry story constitutes both a moral failure and the abandonment of a proper vocation: ‘If the function of literature is to foster imaginative sympathy, should not the writer, of all people, set an example by having enough imaginative sympathy with his audience to gain and keep their attention?’

The​ overall picture that emerges in this new book is rather less gloomy, though there are certainly some deplorables. Baudelaire does not come out of it well, ‘inspired, to an unusual degree, by hatred’, especially of the rabble; or Mallarmé, deliberately cultivating poetic obscurity to keep away ‘the kind of people who, he said, were fit to read only newspapers’. Taking up the Symbolist tradition, Yeats was, as we probably knew, contemptuous of the ‘common people of Dublin’ because they hated ‘art and culture’, and thought some sort of caste system would do Ireland no end of good – opinions that, in Carey’s laconic judgment, ‘have understandably dismayed many of his admirers’. But Eliot, whose prose can certainly supply dismaying opinions if required, is treated warmly: ‘His ear for linguistic resonance and genius for evocative phrases give immediate pleasure.’ Carey offers some helpful advice about how to live with modernist difficulty: ‘pay attention only to the metaphorical or associational meanings of words while ignoring their literal meanings,’ he advises readers attempting Hart Crane. ‘This is difficult, but easier if you read very quickly, and aloud.’ (The faux-solicitous note recalls one of his best jokes, in a review of David Lodge’s Working with Structuralism: ‘His title,’ Carey said, ‘has a making-the-best-of-it ring, rather like “Surviving with Sciatica”.’) Based on this account, there is not much doubt where his own preference in the 20th century lies and it is very far from Hart Crane: in the Movement poets, pre-eminently Larkin, who ‘believed poetry should make sense, and should communicate with ordinary people, not just highbrows’.

Like a lot of Movement writing, including Larkin’s, this hits a note that you might think of as philistine, a note that Carey has long been brilliantly and provokingly adept at hitting. Disputing on one occasion the claim that opera deserves public subsidy because, like high art generally, it is ‘difficult’ and therefore naturally a minority taste, he reflected:

What is difficult about sitting on plush seats and listening to music and singing? Getting served at the bar in the interval often requires some effort, it is true, but even that could hardly qualify as difficult compared to most people’s day’s work. The well-fed, well-swaddled beneficiaries of corporate entertainment leaving Covent Garden after a performance and hailing their chauffeurs do not look as if they have been subjected to arduous exercise, mental or physical.

This shares the temper of Larkin’s ‘My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps/To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps/You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend’ (‘Vers de Société’). It is like Jim Dixon, a peppery grammar school Candide, contemplating the grinding boredom and patrician self-regard of the ‘arty weekend’ organised by Professor Welch – ‘the kind of smug, blinkered, inefficient freak (still observable in senior common rooms) who is useless in a university and unemployable outside one’, as Carey himself put it in full Jim mode. Carey’s riff on opera-goers comes in a book called What Good Are the Arts? (2005), which repeatedly attempts to épater les clercs. You don’t have to wait very long for the archetypal English philistine to make his appearance: ‘Modern art, as seen through the spectrum of, for example, the Saatchi phenomenon, has become synonymous with money, fashion, celebrity and sensationalism, at any rate in the mind of the man on the Clapham omnibus.’ That level-headed, exemplarily ordinary citizen does not much resemble Professor Carey, needless to say, but Carey has more than a soft spot for him and likes to make common cause. He never got on with the novels of Dostoevsky, for instance, as he explains in The Unexpected Professor: they’re the sort of thing intellectuals like, but seemed to him sentimental and religiose. ‘I know this may seem shallow and philistine, but I think it’s a reaction Dostoevsky tempts you to have, to see if you’ve got the depth he requires of you, and I hadn’t.’ Test failed, and yet somehow test passed with flying colours. Similarly, he writes elsewhere in that book that as a young man he loved Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Sohrab and Rustum’: ‘I found it deeply moving, even the parts that sophisticates might consider sentimental.’ (I’m with him there.) And you sense no higher praise could be earned by Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse than to be hailed by the highbrows, as Carey reminds us it was in A Little History, as ‘a “triumph of philistinism”’.

Hugh Kenner, who devotedly attended the monuments of high modernism from the other side of the Atlantic, once wrote a spirited book called A Sinking Island, all about the dismal effects that an endemic philistinism had wrought in England, encompassing everything from the dreariness of its belletrists to the ghastliness of its sandwiches. Among modern poets, Larkin came in for a particular drubbing with his ‘plain-guy platitudes’, and you can imagine that Kenner would have fallen on Carey with the gratitude of someone who sees an argument well and truly clinched. But as you read on through Kenner’s denunciation it can be difficult sometimes to tell who the joke is on; and, as Barbara Everett remarked in her marvellous review of his book in the LRB of 10 November 1988, ‘if philistines created the longest and strongest and richest literary tradition in existence, there must be something interesting and complicated about some forms of philistinism.’ Carey has always been alive to what he once called ‘the strengths of the unliterary’, the salutary effect that a principled suspicion of the aesthetic may have on the actual practice of art; and a disinclination to subscribe to the charms of the merely literary is no doubt a source of strength in both critic and writer alike, a way of putting ‘tough literary minds on their mettle’, in Everett’s words. ‘I have no trust whatever on Poetry,’ as Keats wrote so splendidly, ‘the marvel is to me how people read so much of it.’ The great benefit that such a sceptical cast of mind has for Carey is his readiness to bring to literature the undeluded, stubborn discursive intelligence that you might hope to bring to any other piece of writing: it is his greatest distinction as a critic to say what it is that writers are actually saying. That artists are properly subject to the same rules of conduct as anyone else is evidently one of his most firmly held beliefs, and their works, too, should be held to account within the terms of what William Golding (about whom Carey wrote an admiring biography) memorably called ‘the ordinary universe’.

Still, as Frank Kermode observed in his review of Original Copy (LRB, 12 November 1987), ‘plain men cannot write plain prose in the manner of Orwell or Carey: to do it you must be over-educated.’ It is not difficult to twig that Orwell’s anti-intellectualism has a paradoxical relationship with the real Eric Blair, who was nothing if not a serious intellectual, though it would be wrong to see that paradox merely as a matter of faking it: the mistrust of lefty eggheads was a vital ingredient in what made ‘George Orwell’. Carey’s philistine gestures, too, are at once heartfelt and gestural, like Larkin’s, and in both, ordinariness is more ‘interesting and complicated’ than it may appear. When Larkin wrote a poem for Kingsley Amis’s newborn daughter he expressed the wish that she should be ‘ordinary’ (no Yeatsian posturing here, thank you very much), but then he ended with the lines:

If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching at happiness is called.

Well, it’s an ‘if’ all right: the poem makes an extraordinary shift (as Larkin’s poems often do) into a kind of experience that feels rare rather than humdrum, isolate, precious, exquisite even, and certainly resistant to articulation. There is an aspect to Carey that is not unlike this numinous counter-voice to the plain Movement virtues, and it expresses itself in a couple of tenaciously held though slightly puzzling critical doctrines which are both on display in A Little History of Poetry. One is his declared hostility to paraphrase in criticism: this was the argument made most prominently in his inaugural lecture as Merton professor, a piece of stern polemic in which critics who offered a paraphrase of a poem or a bit of a poem were portrayed as vandals, destroying the author’s meaning or imposing on it irrelevant and distracting meanings of their own. You could as well push a stone out of a pyramid with your bare hand, Coleridge said, as change a single word in Milton or Shakespeare without causing damage, a bon mot that Carey quoted approvingly in his lecture and now repeats in this book, applying it at one point as a criterion of poetic excellence: ‘“Kubla Khan”,’ he says, ‘would be selected by many as the greatest English poem, partly on the grounds that, though it makes grammatical sense, attempts to paraphrase it look ridiculous.’

First​ among the critics in the dock at the inaugural was William Empson: ‘I came in for some of the rough stuff myself,’ Empson recalled, sounding more puzzled than wounded, and with good reason. ‘It struck me,’ Empson went on, ‘that the programme as he announced it was actually incompatible with teaching, let alone his own style of written criticism.’ Coleridge’s remark about the pyramids, taken literally, conveys a magical or mystical point of view and not one that feels obviously in tune with the brisk rationalist spirit otherwise abroad in Carey. He is a wonderfully good paraphraser of literary meanings – and no wonder, you might think, since paraphrase is all about striking a relationship between literary language and the voice of the ordinary. To say, for instance, as he controversially did in the aftermath of 9/11, that Samson in Milton’s poem is ‘in effect … a suicide bomber’, is to offer a paraphrase which uses the well-judged disjunction between text and commentary to make its point in a way that seems to me wholly effective and indeed rather like Empson. (Carey also chose Seven Types of Ambiguity as one of the fifty most enjoyable books of the century, the only work of literary criticism to make the cut.) How’s this for a paraphrase of God’s treatment of Satan in Paradise Lost? ‘When his elaborately redundant police force makes its one arrest God realises the prisoner is a homicidal maniac and lets him go at once.’ My own favourite example of periphrastic Carey is his account of Housman: ‘Crudely paraphrased, what the poems say is what any self-respecting, buttoned-up male might say when asked how he is: “Mustn’t grumble”’ – how well, how wittily and humanely, that gets at the muddle of feelings in A Shropshire Lad, poems forever striking a stoic pose while hanging on for a sympathetic hearing. The declared objection to the practice is that no paraphrase can be adequate to the full meaning of the work it is rewording and is therefore reductive in a bad way; but every paraphrase wears its inadequacy proudly on its sleeve, and good instances of reductivism, in A.D. Nuttall’s fine words, ‘do not imply suppression of the material which is left unspecified’ but ‘rather alert the mind to the presence of a possible, unuttered richness’. You really don’t have to say ‘crudely’.

Coleridge’s remark about the pyramid is a piece of proto-Symbolist theory, removing poetic language from its discursive implication in the ordinary universe and anticipating the sort of mystification with which modernists sometimes liked to invest their writings. Another closely related element in Carey that has always seemed slightly incongruous also has surprisingly modernist credentials: his insistence that all critical judgments are entirely subjective, a point he reiterates early on in A Little History of Poetry: ‘My preferences will not be yours, for we bring different minds and different pasts to what looks superficially like the same poem. There are no rights or wrongs in aesthetic judgment, only opinions.’ Kant, who also thought that judgments of beauty were subjective but did not think them therefore merely personal, accordingly gets short shrift: ‘It is strange that this farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion should have achieved a position of dominance in Western thought,’ Carey says of the Critique of Judgment in What Good Are the Arts? But while it is probably true that our response to works of art is usually less aesthetically ‘pure’ than Kant wants it to be, his description of the way we need our serious judgments about art to feel like something more than our own private property seems to lie at the heart of why we bother to communicate our views on such matters to one another in the first place. No one, certainly not a moralist, ever ventures into print convinced that any view is just as good as any other: even a self-declared relativist like Carey wants to persuade you that relativism is truer than the other options on the table. ‘The ignoramus’s attitude to art used to be parodied as “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,”’ he says elsewhere in What Good Are the Arts? in one of his most audacious flirtations with Daily Mail Philistia, ‘but this, it seems, is all any of us can say.’ Why we would trouble to say it at all is not obvious, especially given the curious pessimism about communication that is occasionally evident in Carey’s writings. Our experiences cannot be compared because other people’s views are, he says, ‘shut away in other people’s consciousness’ and it is simply not possible ‘for two people to share the same consciousness’, so we each pursue the tenor of our doom in wholly private worlds of our own. But most ordinary people would not think sharing a consciousness (whatever that means) the precondition for understanding what someone wanted to tell us about themselves; and, as Terry Eagleton once observed, the stricken view of the individual in his isolation that pops up from time to time in Carey’s writing is oddly close to the plight described by the tragic modernists of whom he disapproves for their repudiation of the common lot: ‘We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.’

For all its wish to celebrate a shared normality there is something slightly lonesome about Carey’s critical persona. ‘Her ideal is not “sloppy” romantic togetherness,’ he wrote of Stevie Smith with a suggestion of fellow feeling, ‘but a lonely, educated life, watchful and critical, recognising that the price of intelligence is seeing through other people.’ He wrote elsewhere that ‘the English have always suspected that people engaged in the arts are, in the main, rather soppy,’ the implication being that the English may well be onto something. He is himself anything but soppy or sloppy: indeed, he exemplifies all the contrary virtues – stringency, application, tough-mindedness, generosity and good jokes. He has crafted a wholly distinctive voice for more than fifty years, ‘watchful and critical’, and everything he has written is worth reading.

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