How to analyze a poem through seventh type of ambiguity in Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity? How does the seventh type help us to understand the poem and in which way is it helpful? Please give me...

How to analyze a poem through seventh type of ambiguity in Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity? How does the seventh type help us to understand the poem and in which way is it helpful? Please give me an example.

Expert Answers
amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Empson describes the seventh type of ambiguity: 

. . . occurs when two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite values determined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer's mind. 

He uses a graphic to give this idea more clarity. He compares the ambiguity of a word that implies two opposing values with a gridiron. Think of this gridiron as a checkerboard of black and white. We don't know if the board was initially all white and then checkered with alternating black squares or if the board was initially black and then checkered with alternating white squares. It could easily be both. Empson also uses the example of to Sumerian fighters (as a drawing or painting); it is unclear which is the predator and which is the prey. Therefore, the ambiguity remains that either combination could be true. And this ambiguity is necessary in a sense because the predator must have a prey, in context, in order to show that it is a predator. And the reverse is true. This is similar to the notion that a value or meaning depends upon its opposite in order to be defined in the first place. And Empson recognizes this as an important aspect in poetry; in his case, this effect of ambiguous opposites is paradoxical - the opposites need each other to define each other but within a single word, the defining remains ambiguous. The trick is to determine whether the word can be reduced to one meaning or if it contains two opposite meanings. 

One of the things that this contradiction can resolve is that it shows the relationship between the two contradictory meanings. Thus, the meaning of who is predator and who is prey is ambiguous but what becomes clear is that a fight is occurring. 

This type of ambiguity also shows the existence of contradiction in poetry or in the context that is insinuated. Empson quotes from Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day" to show how soldiers are both terrified and heroic/brave. In fact, in order to be brave, one must first be terrified. If you are not scared, then you are not really brave because you are not overcoming some fear.

Empson also references Freud's "condensation" which occurs when one dreams of some desire that is prohibited. Here is another contradiction; the Id wants something it desires, but the superego forbids it. The mind thus forbids and wants it, so in the dream, the mind condenses the two contradictory values. In such a case, used in poetry, the poet can invoke a meaning by describing how it is forbidden; thus, forbidden implies desire. 

This seventh type is certainly the most complex of Empson's seven types. And therefore, it reveals the complexities of meaning (and experience) or it reveals the poetic devices that illustrate how opposites define each other, how one thing can reveal its opposite, how a contradiction is reconciled in the context, or how a reconciliation is never to come. 

Empson also talks about Keats' "Ode on Melancholy." This provides a good example of the seventh type. The poem is about melancholy/depression, but the speaker encourages the reader to embrace melancholy. When in a state of melancholy, a person might dwell on how fleeting life is; in this state, rather than trying to forget the melancholy or the fleeting nature of life, the person should acknowledge the beauty of life. In other words, in that state of depression, we are most sensitive to things and this includes joy. In the second stanza, the speaker says that when melancholy strikes, one should embrace it and that one should "glut thy sorrow on a morning rose." There is a pun on "morning" which can imply sadness (mourning, feelings of loss) but also morning as the beginning of life, of a new day. This pun underscores the combined opposites of melancholy and joy in the poem. Just as the soldier is terrified in order to be brave, the depressed person is now emotionally sensitive enough to appreciate the beauty, albeit fleeting, in life. 

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