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.
Empson’s theological interest is not that he has a religious faith—far from it—but that within literature, theology has been given mythical forms that people still need to explore mentally. As he stated in his study The Structure of Complex Words (1951), “myths are where incompatibles are joined.” The key phrase in the poem is thus “real estate of mind.” In Empson’s poem “Letter 1,” the cosmos becomes the typical image for inner space or being. The fear expressed in that poem is that both inner and outer space will merely be a void. In “Arachne” he writes similarly of “his gleaming bubble between void and void.” In “Legal Fiction,” that fear does not seem so urgent, and an allusion to a Jungian notion of a feared “shadow” self is not developed.
Throughout his life Empson conducted an argument with another intellectual poet whose imagination was cosmic, seventeenth century poet John Milton. Empson could quote Milton’s epic Paradise Lost by heart. In his scholarly work Milton’s God (1961), he takes issue with Milton’s adherence to the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell and of God as the just, perfect Creator. For Empson they are still needed, in revised forms, as literary fictions to help people come to terms with an otherwise amoral, purposeless, though magnificent cosmos. Lucifer becomes the central ambiguous figure, as he was for William Blake and other Romantic poets.
“Legal Fiction,” then, is part of Empson’s attempt to remap the cosmos now that God is not there. The “contradiction and conflict” that Christopher Ricks saw as “the foundation of his poems” here is that of the human condition, in touch with and capable of acting in dimensions of good and evil, yet uncertain how to find a true and fixed place in which to own such possibilities.