Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099
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 the apparently...
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