Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

One of the most remarkable books of literary criticism of the twentieth century, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse was composed in three weeks at the end of its author’s brilliant undergraduate career at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. While there were many influences at work upon William Empson during the composition process, nothing he learned from others can be said to account, really, for this remarkable production of a truly rare mind.

The organization of the book into seven chapters, each devoted to progressively more complex poetic ideas, is somewhat deceptive. Instead of the precise gradations of a coherent system, the seven chapters serve as a frame within which the poetic samples sometimes overlap, sometimes seem inconsistent, as Empson himself readily admitted. It is the close verbal analysis, ranging over a considerable variety of English literature, that remains the heart of the work, the work that introduced modern readers to the pleasures of poetry’s multiple meanings.

At the time Empson went up to Cambridge in October, 1925, the university was filled with the intellectual excitement of scientific discovery, particularly in the fields of physics and astronomy. In fact, Empson had won a scholarship in mathematics to Magdalene College and took a First in the subject in 1926. Then, in his third year, he changed to English under the lively influence of I.A. Richards, who had brought out Science and Poetry in 1926. For a mind as agile and innovative as Empson’s, Cambridge offered unusually exhilarating prospects in the 1920’s. That fertile atmosphere is re-created in Sir James Jeans’s The Universe Around Us (1929) and in Sir Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1928). At the very time that the horizons of science were broadening dramatically, literature was being subjected to new approaches and stimulating revision. Besides Richards’ influence, there were some distinguished visitors to Cambridge in 1926 who may have contributed to Empson’s change to English: Gertrude Stein, who gave a lecture titled “Composition as Explanation,” and T.S. Eliot, who gave the Clark Lectures at Trinity College on the Metaphysical poets. When Empson began publishing poetry in 1927, he did not abandon science; true to the interdisciplinary attitude that was so strong at Cambridge then, he incorporated it, particularly in his diction and metaphors. Having applied an analytic method to the reading of a wide range of English poetry, he was awarded the highly unusual distinction of a starred First in part 1 of the English Tripos.

As the story has been...

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Seven Types of Ambiguity Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bradbrook, M.C. “The Ambiguity of William Empson,” in William Empson: The Man and His Work, 1974. Edited by Roma Gill.

Gardner, Philip, and Averil Gardner. The God Approached: A Commentary on the Poems of William Empson, 1978.

Hardy, Barbara. “William Empson and Seven Types of Ambiguity,” in The Sewanee Review. XC (Summer, 1982), pp. 430-439.

Jensen, James. “The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity,” in Modern Language Quarterly. XXVII (September, 1966), pp. 243-259.

Norris, Christopher. “The Importance of Empson (II): The Criticism,” in Essays in Criticism. XXXV (January, 1985), pp. 25-44.

Sale, Roger. “The Achievement of William Empson,” in The Hudson Review. XIX (Autumn, 1966), pp. 369-390.

Sale, Roger. Modern Heroism: Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J.R.R. Tolkien, 1973.

Willis, J.R. William Empson, 1969.