Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University when he wrote this poem, Empson’s poetic formulation and style were already remarkably well developed. The dense intellectualism of its style and its avoidance of direct emotional expression could easily render the poem an exercise in that mental puzzlement often devoted to crosswords. However, the sheer philosophic power behind it gives it movement and coherence. In fact, “Legal Fiction” is one of the easier poems to decipher in Empson’s first volume of poetry. In reading other poems in the volume, certain themes, motifs, and images emerge to help in the elucidation of any one poem.

For example, the excitement of space travel and the new theories of cosmology then current is evident, as in the poems “Camping Out” or “Dissatisfaction with Metaphysics,” in which Empson writes: “New safe straight lines are finite though unbounded.” As did the Metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century, whom he much admired, he seeks to unify cosmological and other scientific discovery with metaphysics and theology through the medium of poetry. The poet thus becomes the polymath. Good examples of such poems are “This Last Pain,” in which heaven and hell are featured frequently, and “The World’s End,” in which notions of the world’s circularity are viewed cosmologically and eschatologically—no end comes to mean no purpose; everyone has to define their own.


(The entire section is 536 words.)