The late William Empson is probably still best known for one of his early books, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse (1930), a classic of literary criticism. Empson was a self-described practitioner of verbal analysis. As another of his titles, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), suggests, what mattered to him most was the meanings of words and the contexts in which words are interpreted. He has sometimes been accused of being too ingenious in his interpretations of words, of finding too much significance in a writer’s word selection. He was a feisty, argumentative critic who gave little ground to his adversaries.
A title such as Seven Types of Ambiguity suggests that there is a very clear way of demarcating different uses of ambiguity. In practice, however, Empson is not quite as systematic as the title may suggest. Indeed, he is chary of enunciating a literary theory that would provide an authoritative approach to each literary work. On the contrary, by choosing the term “ambiguity” he stresses how the complex meanings of works of literature subtly shift in significance. Language is fluid and changeable, and the critic, in his view, has to be supple enough to follow the poet’s inventive, unstable use of language.
John Haffenden, Empson’s authorized biographer, has brought together a very wide-ranging group of essays, articles, and reviews, written between 1928 and 1980. Empson’s favorite subjects are the moderns (T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas) and the English Renaissance poets (Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell). The bulk of Empson’s writing is about poetry, although there are also sections titled “Fiction and Narrative,” “Cultural Perspectives,” “Literary Interpretation,” and “I. A. Richards and Basic English.” Empson is at home in all English literature, so it is not surprising to find essays on Romantic poets and on Victorian novelists as well. He seems to have had little interest in American literature.
I. A. Richards was Empson’s teacher and mentor, whose own Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and other writings helped to shape the foundations of modern criticism. Richards argued that in modern life poetry may very well play the role that religion had in earlier ages—that is, to foster, in Haffenden’s words, “mental and moral health.” Poetry has to do with the creation of values. As such, it is to be taken with the utmost seriousness and to be appreciated for its fullness and richness.
Given this “theory of value” dictum that Richards applied to modern poetry, it is no wonder that Empson believed that he had to do battle with literary critics who wanted to separate literary works from their sources. For example, one of his favorite targets was the so-called New Criticism, whose proponents in the 1930’s and afterward contended that a work of literature should be interpreted only in its own terms, with no reference to the writer’s biography, to what the writer may have said about the work, or to the writer’s cultural background. Empson seems to have taken special pleasure in attacking W. K. Wimsatt, who argues that a work of literature should never be interpreted in terms of the writer’s intentions. How can one recover intentionality? Wimsatt asks. It is impossible to get into the mind of the writer, and all subsequent expressions of intention are thus suspect. Better to treat the work of literature itself as an autonomous object. To counter Wimsatt, Empson points out that the determination of intention has been practiced in courts of law for generations. Scholarly editors frequently examine multiple drafts of literary works in order to ascertain a writer’s intentions. Granting that no writer’s intentions can ever be proved beyond all doubt, Empson still thinks that it is foolish to demand that the concept of intentionality be thrown out altogether.
What is striking about Empson is not only his arguments...
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