100 Poets: A Little Anthology

by John Carey
(Yale University Press, $32.50, 268 pages):

Oxford professor emeritus John Carey is the author of The Little History of Poetry and biographies of John Donne and Charles Dickens. His latest book is 100 Poets: A Little Anthology, a fun little collection of representative samples from important poets. The list runs roughly chronologically, beginning with Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid from ancient Greece and Rome through Dante and Chaucer in the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan greats Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spencer, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare before a lengthy examination of the the 19th century British and American greats such as Keats, Coleridge, Woodsworth, Browning, Whitman, and Dickinson, and finally ending in the 20th century (which seems over-represented). Carey provides very short introductions to a major poem from the poet and sometimes there are only excerpts provided because you cannot reproduce the book-length poems “The Faerie Queen” (Edmund Spenser) or “The Inferno” (Dante) in a collection such as this. Only a few poets have more than one poem (two from Horace’s Odes, several samples from John Donne, the pleasant surprise of a pair from Gerard Manley Hopkins. Most of the poems are shorter (T.S. Eliot’s La Figlia Che Piange rather than a sample of “The Waste Land”), with a notable exception being Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” Sometimes too much is lost in presenting mere excerpts, but Carey provides the context to appreciate notable lines from longer works. The last few poets are a let down but that has more to do with the quality of poetry in the late 20th century than Carey’s curation: poetry has been in steep decline since W.H Auden and Elizabeth Bishop (with perhaps the exception of Philip Larkin); frankly, we could do without Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Maya Angelou. Still, this book is an excellent introduction to a variety of poets and these morsels will whet the appetite for more. 100 Poets makes an excellent gift for students because schools today are utterly failing to introduce young minds to the important poets.