Seven Types of Ambiguity

by William Empson

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Critical Context

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Empson did not initiate the method of close reading that he employs in Seven Types of Ambiguity, but he did establish a landmark with his controversial first book. More systematic than other analytic texts (even though its system was flawed), it was also the broadest and richest in imaginative sympathy. Even those who object to some, or many, of the readings find them difficult to refute. The book had a pronounced effect on the teaching of English, especially at Cambridge, and it modified the vocabulary of literary criticism in English.

With Seven Types of Ambiguity Empson initated a line of thought about complexity and simplicity in poetry that he continued in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), then further developed in The Structure of Complex Words (1951); these books continue to dwell on double meanings. In Milton’s God (1961), Empson argues against the kind of close reading done by what he called the neo-Christians, critics who insisted on the autonomy of the text and its deep or irrational content in order to fend off rational objections to, for example, the illogical and sadistic. In the decades after his first book, Empson became concerned that his kind of analysis was being turned into a rationale for pious zealots who wanted the poem to be seen as an inviolable artifact, a “verbal icon.” Both the man and his writings have resisted assimilation into any school or dogma; they do not tread the beaten path, nor do they oversimplify. Therein lies their integrity.

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