Empson, William (Vol. 3)
Empson, William 1906–
Empson is an influential British poet best known for his major critical work, Seven Types of Ambiguity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
William Empson, having pondered with I. A. Richards the nature of meaning and the possibilities of non-referential ambiguities, produced his own kind of subtle patterns of meaning which turned out more often than might have been expected to be both teasing and haunting.
David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 53.
The most striking thing about Empson's earlier poems is their stylistic assurance and the sense of intellectual excitement they carry: the excitement is part of the whole intellectual atmosphere of Cambridge at that time. Using wide ranges of modern ideas, many of them taken from science, these poems work by argument and conceit with the control and relentlessness of metaphysical poetry at its best. This kind of poetry will often be difficult, not least where the ideas themselves are difficult; and Empson occasionally lets a poem develop through a mass of conflicting metaphors and clang-associations until the result cannot be read without continual reference to the Notes. This tendency is always present, but there are many poems where the obscurity comes a long way short of this….
In "To an Old Lady" or "Arachne" there is a fairly well pruned argument, whereas with "Sea Voyage", "High Dive" or "Bacchus" the poems ramify a great deal more. The difference is really one of degree though, and the essential method is the hyper-metaphysical one of bringing things into the poem and using only a glancing minimum of their meaning to build the argument. For the rest, the things relate only in the poet's mind; and this, as with a crossword puzzle, is not itself present, so that the effect in the end is very often of a kind of surrealism of the intellect. The poetry is centrifugal in tendency, erupting in individual strong lines; and since the connotations of things are over-ridden, no words are brought under pressure or re-created. The poems are festooned from various ideas and abstractions outside, and the greater part of the operative meaning of each thought has no resonance elsewhere in the poem: there is consequently no imaginative centre of any structure except one of argument….
The difference in Empson's later poems is that the moral awareness has undermined the whole earlier manner. As A. Alvarez has shown, the logical drive of the early poems gives way to a static quality and there is a general shift from metaphysical development towards single-line propositions and refrains…. It is as though Empson had now seen the bankruptcy of the metaphysical technique, but instead of allowing the intellect to collapse decided to shore it up, as another way of saying the same thing. We need beliefs to live, but in affirming this need the new style at the same time suggests a sharp fear of their emptiness. These bare propositions, shorn of metaphor, we feel, cannot really be meant to convince on the deepest level: like proverbs they fit everything, and their opposites are always available. And yet they remain somehow illuminating. It is this, I think, which gives some of these later poems their pathos, with the sense they convey of the whole rationalist intellect falling apart. Their appalling objectivity shows the search for propositions to handle experience with carried to some kind of stunned limit; and this is, of course, reinforced by the metrics and rhyming, which give some of the lines the numbed quality of statements beyond all feeling….
The early poems like the early criticism, seem directed at an ideally intelligent audience which existed nowhere in reality, but in his later writing the tone has changed. There is some way in which Empson is deeply English, despite the whole abstract cast of his work; and because of this Englishness his confrontations with other cultures and attempts to assimilate them are strangely impressive.
But this moral wisdom rests, I am suggesting, on a refusal of poetry, and it seems to me that we have to make our choice. Empson has more or less endorsed this himself by saying that all modern poetry seems to be in the Imagist tradition and that no one seems interested in conflict any more. For myself I wish this were more true, but what is clear is that Empson has reached the opposite conclusion and committed himself to a certain kind of poetry of moral statement…. Because Empson has rejected Imagism, I cannot in the end like what he has done. It seems to me that the Imagist ideals (essentially there in Coleridge for that matter) of concentration, clear imagery, live rhythms, natural language and a complete openness of subject-matter are absolute requirements for poetry today. In practice Empson has denied almost all of these, along with the further need for the modern poet to be in some way present at the centre of his poem. The Empsonian diction and metrics are a remarkable and unique solution to the form and content problem, but the solution is an authoritarian one: this way of allowing the poem's outward scheme to dictate its inner content leads to a rhetoric in the teeth of natural meaning which is at some kind of opposite pole from poetry. Which is not to say that general propositions are ruled out, but only to demand that they should be in some way concretely re-created: we cannot afford to be weary of the visible….
Empson's poetry, as one critic said of Wittgenstein's philosophy, is like an arrow which points so unerringly in the wrong direction that by following it the opposite way you nearly always arrive at some valuable truth.
Colin Falck, "This Deep Blankness," in Review, No. 6/7, June, 1963, pp. 49-61.
William Empson will be remembered for his Seven Types of Ambiguity. With this work of literary criticism, Empson modified the vocabulary of criticism and illustrated a method of close verbal analysis which, while not entirely original, was original in its extensive application and illustrative examples. No one having penetrated beyond the first few pages is likely to forget the astonishing demonstration of Empson analyzing one line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 ("Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang"). But Empson, the critic, is the author of more than one significant book. He is also a poet worth remembering. (p. 3)
Empson is characteristically exploratory and suggestive in his exposition, showing how the machine works. But if the more pontifical value judgments of many critics are absent, there is present in his writings a constant sense of pleasure and admiration. Less a mechanic than a jeweler, say, Empson reveals implicit value judgment as he goes about displaying the precision works of literary timepieces. He examines those passages which puzzle or delight him. While the analytical technique he employs may be wasted on trivia, Empson is never wasteful. At times, however, he may seem to avoid deciding on the relevance of definitions or alternative interpretations, and his procedures may become tedious or exhausting. He sometimes recognizes this difficulty, for, as he says on one occasion, "the machinery of interpretation is becoming too cumbrous here." (p. 13)
Empson's wit and lively intelligence make his readings of the text thoroughly engaging even when they seem most outrageous. There is always a sense of play in the midst of high seriousness, so that the celebrations and speculations are gay as well as provocative. (p. 21)
Empson's influence on modern literary criticism has been important, even if he is thought of, all too frequently, as the author of only one book. Influential he is, and yet he is too independent and individualistic to have fostered a "school" of criticism, or to have inspired protégés. His critical approach to literature, however, under the various labels of verbal analysis, formalistic, ontological, or contextual criticism, has been most frequently related to the American "new criticism." Whether "new" or not, it is characterized by the close reading of texts, with attention to paradoxical or ambiguous use of language. (p. 22)
There can be no doubt about Empson's conscious attempt to write poetry like John Donne, although his success in doing so may be questioned. Empson several times has confessed his direct indebtedness to the metaphysical poets. He amusingly admits to Christopher Ricks that, as an undergraduate, "I thought it would be very nice to write beautiful things like the poet Donne. I would sit by the fire trying to think of an interesting puzzle."… Empson's conceits, typically drawn from mathematics and science, help hold his world together. Because the mathematics and science he uses are frequently post-Newtonian, his analogies also communicate modern man's precarious existence in a non-Euclidean, Einsteinian universe. (pp. 24-5)
Throughout his poetry, Empson displays a continuing concern for style, for form, for the intricacies of manners and behavior which may allow one to survive in an Einsteinian world with a measure of grace. (pp. 34-5)
As a poet, if not as a prose writer, Empson is a stylist. The elegance and colloquialism, the careful control of language, the exploitation of ambiguity, irony, and wit through the metaphysical conceit, the use of traditional stanzaic patterns for untraditional purposes, all identify the early Empsonian style. The later style, where it is distinguishable from the earlier, has its own characteristics, emphasizing the prosaic, unrhetorical, and conversational line, usually end-stopped, which turns on negatives or colorless, unimportant little words … to give a strange sense of profundity…. He seldom resorts to satire, nor does he seek the vigorous self-help of the activists. Empson is distinguishable from the early, despairing Auden by his quiet avoidance of the more clamorous programs of social change. He also rejects the comforts of Christianity accepted by T. S. Eliot, or later by Auden, preferring the special loneliness of the atheistic rationalist who places no particular trust even in the mind. Perhaps what makes Empson's jaunty despair so impressive is the obvious strength, sanity, and balance of his mind which is able to surmount any trivial or temporary depression. Behind Empson's intelligent coping with despair is a moral integrity, a skepticism, a passionate commitment to an examination of possibilities which makes his painfully, tentatively achieved balance convincing proof of moral honesty. As in his prose, so in his poetry, Empson demands of his readers the same rigorous, yet spirited, exercise of the rational mind. (pp. 43-5)
J. H. Willis, Jr., in his William Empson (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1969.