William Empson is not nearly as famous at the turn of the twenty-first century as he was one generation previously. In the era of New Criticism, which extended from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, his was one of the best-known names, and his books of criticism such as Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930, rev. 1947) and Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) were frequently cited. This was so even though Empson decisively differed from New Critical dogma on two major issues. Whereas the standard New Critical line, espoused by men such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, discouraged using authors’ biographies to explain their work, Empson was a great enthusiast of drawing links between the author’s life and writing, and his last essay collection to be published in his lifetime was called Using Biography (1984). Also, whereas most of the other New Critics were believing Christians who wanted to reinject Christianity into the common currency of the academy, Empson was strongly, even stridently anti-Christian, and referred many times to what he saw as the cruelty of God the Father permitting the crucifixion of his own Son.
Empson’s poetry, produced exclusively during the first thirty-three years of his life, has received far less attention. This lavishly designed and profusely annotated edition aims to redress this imbalance. John Haffenden has done an outstandingly scrupulous and dedicated job of editing. Indeed, the poems themselves only take up about one-fifth of the book. The rest is a long biographical introduction on Empson as poet, accompanied by extensive primary and secondary bibliographies, as well as a series of brief appendices, including an interview with noted literary critic Christopher Ricks and several other brief and heuristic items. A set of interpretive and textual annotations succeeds the poems and extends over 250 pages. Some of the notes are those supplied by Empson himself for the immediate needs of the reader; the majority, though, are written by Haffenden and are designed to explicate the poems’ many mysteries.
Empson’s poems require explication. They appear dauntingly cerebral and methodical; this is poetry as a mode of thinking, not as a vehicle for sensuous expression. Empson’s closest immediate affinities are with Modernist contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, as well as with seventeenth century metaphysical poets such as John Donne. Like these poets, Empson employs complicated, sometimes contorted imagery in order to express meanings that at first seem primarily intellectual. Upon further examination, however, Empson emerges as a radically personal poet, who writes the way he does because it is the only mode adequate to the complexities of feeling, as well as of thought, that he desires to express.
Despite the relatively low profile of Empson’s poetry, a few of his poems are always included in standard anthologies and are well known to the avid peruser of the poetic canon. Perhaps the most compelling of these is “To an Old Lady,” a poem which uses astronomical and metaphysical imagery to illuminate a profoundly personal situation. The poem begins, “Ripeness is all,” which evokes not only the line containing those works from William Shakespeare’s King Lear but the line “Readiness is all, ” from act 5 of the same author’s Hamlet. The atmosphere is one of fruition that verges upon being past peak; a completion that is but the augury of decline. The next line, “Her in her cooling planet revere,” sets up the prevailing conceit of the poem. The old lady of the poem’s title is being likened to a planet, once molten with the heat of its initial formation, now gradually cooling in orbit. The old lady, who is revealed in Empson’s notes to be his mother (with the proviso that he showed the poem to her, and she thought it was about her mother, the poet’s grandmother) is totally master of her domain, even though it is one gradually contracting with age: “She reads a compass certain of her pole;/ Confident, finds no confines on her sphere,/ Whose failing crops are in her sole control.” The combination of internal authority and external vulnerability is one that must be rigorously maintained, yet the poet’s skill is up to it. The pathos of “To an Old Lady” comes from the powerlessness of the son either to arrest the mother’s decline or even to make her conscious of it. To descry phenomena on other stars is easier than to intervene in his mother’s life: “Our earth alone given no name of god./ Gives, too, no such leap for a plan to aid her.” Earth (unlike other planets, not named after a Greek god, therefore apparently more ordinary), despite the proximity of its inhabitants to the poet, can yield to no formula to bridge the vast silences between people, even, and especially, in such a close relationship as the poet has to his mother. This is one of the great poems about a mother-son relationship in the English language, and its emotional pitch is perfect. Indeed, for all its daunting intellectuality, the reader feels that the language is but a code in which the poet represents...
(The entire section is 2085 words.)