Seven Types of Ambiguity

by William Empson

Start Free Trial

Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

One of the most remarkable books of literary criticism of the twentieth century, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse was composed in three weeks at the end of its author’s brilliant undergraduate career at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. While there were many influences at work upon William Empson during the composition process, nothing he learned from others can be said to account, really, for this remarkable production of a truly rare mind.

The organization of the book into seven chapters, each devoted to progressively more complex poetic ideas, is somewhat deceptive. Instead of the precise gradations of a coherent system, the seven chapters serve as a frame within which the poetic samples sometimes overlap, sometimes seem inconsistent, as Empson himself readily admitted. It is the close verbal analysis, ranging over a considerable variety of English literature, that remains the heart of the work, the work that introduced modern readers to the pleasures of poetry’s multiple meanings.

At the time Empson went up to Cambridge in October, 1925, the university was filled with the intellectual excitement of scientific discovery, particularly in the fields of physics and astronomy. In fact, Empson had won a scholarship in mathematics to Magdalene College and took a First in the subject in 1926. Then, in his third year, he changed to English under the lively influence of I.A. Richards, who had brought out Science and Poetry in 1926. For a mind as agile and innovative as Empson’s, Cambridge offered unusually exhilarating prospects in the 1920’s. That fertile atmosphere is re-created in Sir James Jeans’s The Universe Around Us (1929) and in Sir Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1928). At the very time that the horizons of science were broadening dramatically, literature was being subjected to new approaches and stimulating revision. Besides Richards’ influence, there were some distinguished visitors to Cambridge in 1926 who may have contributed to Empson’s change to English: Gertrude Stein, who gave a lecture titled “Composition as Explanation,” and T.S. Eliot, who gave the Clark Lectures at Trinity College on the Metaphysical poets. When Empson began publishing poetry in 1927, he did not abandon science; true to the interdisciplinary attitude that was so strong at Cambridge then, he incorporated it, particularly in his diction and metaphors. Having applied an analytic method to the reading of a wide range of English poetry, he was awarded the highly unusual distinction of a starred First in part 1 of the English Tripos.

As the story has been repeatedly told, Richards, who was Empson’s director of studies, was startled by the exceedingly well-read younger man’s deft interpretations of a Shakespearean sonnet, readings like those recorded by Robert Graves and Laura Riding in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). When Empson suggested offhandedly that this sort of analysis could be done with any sort of poetry, Richards took the opportunity of sending him away to make good on his claim. The next week the undergraduate was still typing his manuscript, and shortly thereafter he presented Richards with thirty thousand words of the soon-to-be-completed text. This extended analysis, which Empson submitted in part as his original composition for the English Tripos, became Seven Types of Ambiguity.

As for the book’s organization, the seven categories of ambiguous meanings, if not taken too rigidly, do stimulate and guide the imaginative reception of literature of the highest order. First, there are details of language that are effective in several ways at once. Second are alternative meanings that are completely resolved into the one meaning the author intended. The third type is...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the apparently unconnected meanings occurring in one word, as in puns. Fourth are the alternative meanings so combined as to convey the complicated state of mind of the author. The fifth, also called a fortunate confusion, is a simile that incompletely suggests two incompatible things so that the author is found to be “discovering his idea in the act of writing.” Sixth are the statements that are so patently contradictory or irrelevant that the reader is forced to create his own interpretation. Lastly, the seventh type is a statement so fundamentally contradictory as to reveal a division in the author’s mind.

As a second and then a third edition followed the first, Empson submitted his book to some revision in the interest of clearer articulation of the verbal analysis. In the first edition there was neither an index nor chapter summaries. In a preface to the second edition, Empson explained that he had “cut out a few bits,” not to suppress any “analysis that would be worth disagreeing over,” but to remove those that “seemed trivial and likely to distract the reader’s attention from the main point.” He was surprised, he said, at how little he wanted to change. Also included in this preface is a lengthy passage from a criticism of the book which Empson undertakes to answer, confirming his perceptions of sixteen years before. In 1953, another brief comment was added as a note for the third edition, on two interpretations that had attracted some dissent, the first concerning the “bare ruined choirs” of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and the second George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice.” Thus, the third edition offers more guidance and the benefit of second thoughts, while the first reflects the original expression of Empson’s mind in the process of discovering how his principle worked in practice.

It is the individual example, not the classification system, that made the book so influential. Neither the theoretical superstructure nor even the term “ambiguity” itself is fixed or final. The thrust of the study is discovery, the discovery of the richness of individual poems and of the minds of poets. As that quest proceeds, Empson readily modifies or questions his tools of discovery.

The selections themselves are drawn from English poetry and drama, largely from the sixteenth, early seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The influence of Eliot’s work on Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets is in strong evidence. Fewer in number but important are the examples from the twentieth century.

These individual analyses are memorable as much for their zest as for their literary acumen. Empson conveys a sensitivity, an admiration, an argumentative edge, and a wit, each in turn as the process of teasing out the meanings advances. It is true that the book originated as a senior thesis and is a thesis book—thus the youthful high spirits as well as the abundance of abstraction. Still, the personal style—casual, offhand, breezy—contributes an excitement and engagement that lives on the page.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bradbrook, M.C. “The Ambiguity of William Empson,” in William Empson: The Man and His Work, 1974. Edited by Roma Gill.

Gardner, Philip, and Averil Gardner. The God Approached: A Commentary on the Poems of William Empson, 1978.

Hardy, Barbara. “William Empson and Seven Types of Ambiguity,” in The Sewanee Review. XC (Summer, 1982), pp. 430-439.

Jensen, James. “The Construction of Seven Types of Ambiguity,” in Modern Language Quarterly. XXVII (September, 1966), pp. 243-259.

Norris, Christopher. “The Importance of Empson (II): The Criticism,” in Essays in Criticism. XXXV (January, 1985), pp. 25-44.

Sale, Roger. “The Achievement of William Empson,” in The Hudson Review. XIX (Autumn, 1966), pp. 369-390.

Sale, Roger. Modern Heroism: Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J.R.R. Tolkien, 1973.

Willis, J.R. William Empson, 1969.


Critical Essays