First and foremost, Seven Types of Ambiguity is an extended examination through logical analysis. In the opening chapter Empson reminds those who might object to a scientific approach to literary criticism that “the belief that Reason can be applied to the arts is as old as criticism, and fundamental to it.” In the preface to the second edition, he restates that “the method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of the book” but goes on to mention “two cross-currents” that found their way into his work. The first was Eliot’s reevaluation of the Metaphysical poets, which implicitly questioned the value of the nineteenth century poets. The second cross-current was “the impact of Freud,” or more generally the issue of unconscious conflict. One of the reasons the book gained such a reputation was that it did without the familiar historically based approaches.
Empson’s aim in his close analysis is not to identify the one “right” meaning, but to explore the expanding possibilities of alternate, multiple, and simultaneous meanings. He begins in chapter 1 with a single line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” The simplest type of ambiguity, as Empson defines it, occurs when “a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.” This is Empson’s breathtaking analysis:The comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallized out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind.
Thus, selecting brief passages and paraphrasing the meanings as he finds them in the New English Dictionary, Empson builds his case for the enriching power of ambiguity.
The second type of ambiguity involves two or more meanings which are resolved into one, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16, where “lines of life” conveys time’s wrinkles, lineage or descendants, lines drawn with a pen, the lines of a poem, and destiny. To show that poetical ambiguity was already underway in Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, Empson analyzes some lines from Troilus and Criseyde (1382), and as he proceeds he points out that a long poem accumulates imagery, thereby producing increasing reserves of associated meanings. As with this example, many of Empson’s analyses are both minute and sustained; some go on engagingly for pages.
Some readers find Empson’s wit tiresome upon rereading, and others find it more revealing of serious meaning than they like. He moves from...
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Empson did not initiate the method of close reading that he employs in Seven Types of Ambiguity, but he did establish a landmark with his controversial first book. More systematic than other analytic texts (even though its system was flawed), it was also the broadest and richest in imaginative sympathy. Even those who object to some, or many, of the readings find them difficult to refute. The book had a pronounced effect on the teaching of English, especially at Cambridge, and it modified the vocabulary of literary criticism in English.
With Seven Types of Ambiguity Empson initated a line of thought about complexity and simplicity in poetry that he continued in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), then further developed in The Structure of Complex Words (1951); these books continue to dwell on double meanings. In Milton’s God (1961), Empson argues against the kind of close reading done by what he called the neo-Christians, critics who insisted on the autonomy of the text and its deep or irrational content in order to fend off rational objections to, for example, the illogical and sadistic. In the decades after his first book, Empson became concerned that his kind of analysis was being turned into a rationale for pious zealots who wanted the poem to be seen as an inviolable artifact, a “verbal icon.” Both the man and his writings have resisted assimilation into any school or dogma; they do not tread the beaten path, nor do they oversimplify. Therein lies their integrity.