How the canon of literature (or art) is established, how it continues, and what critics do with it: a trio of remarkably cogent and stylish essays (originally the Wellek Library Lectures at the U. of California, Irvine). Kermode begins with a look at the 19th century's rediscovery of Botticelli, "in which, roughly speaking, one sees learning come belatedly to the maintenance of values established by ignorance." "Learning" refers to the work of two very different scholars, Herbert Home and Aby Warburg. "Ignorance" was the amateurish enthusiasm of people like Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and most notably Pater, who rhapsodized over Botticelli for silly reasons (The Birth of Venus reminded Pater of Ingres) or confused him with other painters. Thus not scholarship but chance or unenlightened opinion brought Botticelli into the canon. In his second piece, Kermode does a virtuoso survey of doubling in Hamlet through character (Hamlet-Laertes, Rosencrantz-Guildenstern, Cornelius-Voltemand), action (plays within the play), and diction (constant use of puns, echoes, hendiadys, etc.). The point of this catalogue is that it never occurred to and would probably have seemed trivial to earlier commentators, which only shows how canonical works live by giving rise to an endless and constantly changing "conversation." In the final essay, Kermode concludes that Dr. Johnson's ideal of forming a canon by distinguishing between what "is established because it is right" from what "is right only because it is established" is a forlorn hope, that we can never transcend our own historical standpoint (as Home and Warburg thought they could). Interpretation, as Paul de Man said, is only the possibility of error, and all interpretations are useful if they foster "certain necessary forms of attention." Effortlessly learned, brilliantly allusive, a model of critical self-reflection.

Pub Date: May 1, 1985

ISBN: 0226431754

Page Count: 110

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1985

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.


A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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An extraordinary true tale of torment, retribution, and loyalty that's irresistibly readable in spite of its intrusively melodramatic prose. Starting out with calculated, movie-ready anecdotes about his boyhood gang, Carcaterra's memoir takes a hairpin turn into horror and then changes tack once more to relate grippingly what must be one of the most outrageous confidence schemes ever perpetrated. Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, former New York Daily News reporter Carcaterra (A Safe Place, 1993) had three close friends with whom he played stickball, bedeviled nuns, and ran errands for the neighborhood Mob boss. All this is recalled through a dripping mist of nostalgia; the streetcorner banter is as stilted and coy as a late Bowery Boys film. But a third of the way in, the story suddenly takes off: In 1967 the four friends seriously injured a man when they more or less unintentionally rolled a hot-dog cart down the steps of a subway entrance. The boys, aged 11 to 14, were packed off to an upstate New York reformatory so brutal it makes Sing Sing sound like Sunnybrook Farm. The guards continually raped and beat them, at one point tossing all of them into solitary confinement, where rats gnawed at their wounds and the menu consisted of oatmeal soaked in urine. Two of Carcaterra's friends were dehumanized by their year upstate, eventually becoming prominent gangsters. In 1980, they happened upon the former guard who had been their principal torturer and shot him dead. The book's stunning denouement concerns the successful plot devised by the author and his third friend, now a Manhattan assistant DA, to free the two killers and to exact revenge against the remaining ex-guards who had scarred their lives so irrevocably. Carcaterra has run a moral and emotional gauntlet, and the resulting book, despite its flaws, is disturbing and hard to forget. (Film rights to Propaganda; author tour)

Pub Date: July 10, 1995

ISBN: 0-345-39606-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1995

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