A Yorkshireman of the landed gentry by birth, William Empson, separated from his four older brothers and sisters by four years, spent his early childhood at Yokefleet, a remote village. He began his education at Folkestone Preparatory School, then entered Winchester College as a scholar in 1920, where he was an active debater. He went up in 1925 to Magdalene College, Cambridge, on a mathematics scholarship. After passing several levels of degree examinations in mathematics, he shifted his interest to literature and read under the tutelage of the renowned professor I. A. Richards. Before taking his degree with highest honors in English in 1929, Empson was caught up in the interdisciplinary intellectual fervor then at high pitch in Cambridge and made a name for himself in this heady atmosphere. Excitement grew from individual involvement in widely diverse disciplines, and C. P. Snow, the physicist who would later explore the status of the “two cultures,” was then actively involved in the Cambridge life, where at that time the gap between literature and science was slight.
Obviously there was much for Empson to ponder and discuss after both Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot lectured at Cambridge in 1926, the latter on the Metaphysical poets, a universally recognized influence on Empson’s poetry. In 1927, the undergraduate’s first poem was published, and those that followed in his annus mirabilis of 1928 reflected the “difficult” mode of the...
(The entire section is 568 words.)