Seven Types of Ambiguity

by William Empson

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First and foremost, Seven Types of Ambiguity is an extended examination through logical analysis. In the opening chapter Empson reminds those who might object to a scientific approach to literary criticism that “the belief that Reason can be applied to the arts is as old as criticism, and fundamental to it.” In the preface to the second edition, he restates that “the method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of the book” but goes on to mention “two cross-currents” that found their way into his work. The first was Eliot’s reevaluation of the Metaphysical poets, which implicitly questioned the value of the nineteenth century poets. The second cross-current was “the impact of Freud,” or more generally the issue of unconscious conflict. One of the reasons the book gained such a reputation was that it did without the familiar historically based approaches.

Empson’s aim in his close analysis is not to identify the one “right” meaning, but to explore the expanding possibilities of alternate, multiple, and simultaneous meanings. He begins in chapter 1 with a single line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” The simplest type of ambiguity, as Empson defines it, occurs when “a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.” This is Empson’s breathtaking analysis:The comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallized out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind.

Thus, selecting brief passages and paraphrasing the meanings as he finds them in the New English Dictionary, Empson builds his case for the enriching power of ambiguity.

The second type of ambiguity involves two or more meanings which are resolved into one, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16, where “lines of life” conveys time’s wrinkles, lineage or descendants, lines drawn with a pen, the lines of a poem, and destiny. To show that poetical ambiguity was already underway in Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, Empson analyzes some lines from Troilus and Criseyde (1382), and as he proceeds he points out that a long poem accumulates imagery, thereby producing increasing reserves of associated meanings. As with this example, many of Empson’s analyses are both minute and sustained; some go on engagingly for pages.

Some readers find Empson’s wit tiresome upon rereading, and others find it more revealing of serious meaning than they like. He moves from “beating about the Chaucerian bushes,” for example, and turns to “the very sanctuary of rationality,” the eighteenth century English poets: They endeavored to be “honest, straightforward, sensible, grammatical and plain,” and Empson has made it his business “to outwit these poor wretches, and to applaud them for qualities in their writings which they would have been horrified...

(This entire section contains 1372 words.)

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to discover.” He looks at the idea of power in Samuel Johnson’sThe Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated (1749) and the vivacity of the ambiguous “charm” in Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Women.” It is also in chapter 2 that Empson includes one of the few selections from twentieth century poetry, The Waste Land (1922), where the word “poured” imbues with wavering fluidity the dressing table, its jewels, and cases in “A Game of Chess.” He pauses then for one of his characteristically personal touches before moving on to emendations of Shakespeare: “Some readers of this chapter, I should like to believe, will have shared the excitement with which it was written, will have felt that it casts a new light on the very nature of language.” Even if doubtful about his impudence and his breezy language, few readers are immune to Empson’s personal appeal; there is emotion there, as well as thought. He is constantly aware of the risks he is taking in insisting on so many alternatives. After examining and reexamining the word “dis-eate” from a speech in Macbeth (1606), he makes this apology: “I am sorry to appear so fantastic, but I can form no other working notion of what this unique mind [Shakespeare’s] must have been like when in action.” Re-creating the mind that made the poetic decisions is at the heart of Empson’s purpose.

In summarizing Empson’s work, it is easy to overemphasize his ingenuity, even though he makes a point of undercutting it. His readings make it clear that he possesses “an intuitive intimacy with nature” and “a conception of nature in terms of human politics,” just as he said of Pope when analyzing his lines foretelling the eventual destruction of the house of the Duke of Chandos. This example appears in chapter 3, where the ambiguity arises from two ideas, both relevant, being given in one word. He goes on to warn explicitly against too much ingenuity, especially in analyzing Shakespeare, and pronounces literary conundrums “tedious.” In a long examination of John Donne’s “A Valediction, of Weeping” in chapter 4, he at last reaches the limits of close scrutiny: “The machinery of interpretation is becoming too cumbrous here, in that I cannot see how these meanings come to convey tenderness rather than the passion of grief which has preceded them.” One more way in which Empson’s criticism surprises is in its frank uncertainty when feeling its way.

Types six and seven are the most complex and, indeed, are a mark of the best poetry. The alternative meanings in the first contradict one another, or are irrelevant or repetitious, so that the meaning is brought to nought. Here Empson takes up George Herbert, who in his lines “Affliction” says both that he was “betrayed” into the life of contemplation and “entangled” in the life of action, showing him “doubtful which he would have preferred,” even now. The following lines present the puzzling tautology: “Ah, my dear God, though I am clean forgot,/ Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.” Let me be consistent, Empson poses as one interpretation; let me love you not only in will and deed but also in calm assurance, is another; even if you do forget me, “damn me if I don’t stick to the parsonage,” is a determined third.

Herbert provides one of the better known examples for the seventh type, again expressing most poetically a fundamental conflict in religious faith. This last type is defined as opposites that “show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind.” In “The Sacrifice,” the unresolvable contraries in Christ, the “scapegoat and tragic hero; loved because hated,” produce the possibility of reading these lines, “Only let others say, when I am dead,/ Never was grief like mine,” to include the wish that there be retribution as well as the desire that there never again be a death like Christ’s. “I am not sure how far people would be willing to accept this double meaning,” Empson goes on; “I am only sure that after you have once apprehended it . . . you will never be able to read the poem without remembering that it is a possibility.” One other verse is particularly striking:

Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,The tree of life, to all but only me.Was ever grief like mine?

Empson uncovers suggestions of a Christ sinless, yet a criminal, and shows Herbert’s poem to be a masterpiece of simplicity in complexity.


Critical Context