William Empson

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A professor of English literature at Sheffield University in England from 1953 to 1971, William Empson was a distinguished poet and critic who is remembered mostly for his poetry and his first book of literary criticism, the widely influential Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse. Empson was educated at Winchester College and Magdalene College, Cambridge, and he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1929. Discovering literature to be his main interest, Empson also studied with the well-known critic I. A. Richards at the University of Cambridge in 1928. His thesis he revised and published in 1930 as Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse. Empson was Richards’s most gifted and influential student, and together they explored the nature of meaning and the self-referential ambiguities of language.

After receiving his degree in mathematics, Empson began writing poetry, privately publishing both the slim Letter IV and Poems. When his third collection, also titled Poems, appeared in 1935 it made a decisive impression on the British literary scene such as rarely occurs. Five years later his collection The Gathering Storm was eagerly received, and the complete collection of poetry became a classic. Empson’s poems, of which there are fifty-six, represent a style developed through a sense of despair: “Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves”; “Re-edify me, moon, give me again/ My undetailed order”; “Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills,/ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”

Before his career at Sheffield University, Empson taught at Tokyo University from 1931 to 1934, at Peking National University before and after World War II, and at Kenyon College in Ohio in 1948, 1950, and 1954. He worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1940 and became Chinese editor of the Far Eastern section from 1941 to 1946. He retired from Sheffield University as an emeritus professor, and he was knighted in 1979.

Some critics believe that Empson would have achieved a lasting reputation even if he had stopped writing in his early twenties. In Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse, he developed a theory of the possibilities of ambiguity that looks back to the practical criticism of I. A. Richards and forward to the close reading of American New Criticism. The book is a brilliant assembly of ingenious interpretations of passages from thirty-nine poets, five dramatists, and five prose writers. Empson analyzes these texts through a process of loose association reminiscent of the Freudian technique of psychoanalysis, though he often bases his readings on research in the Oxford English Dictionary. When interpreting a passage, such as the line “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” from a William Shakespeare sonnet, he indulges in the free play of fancy and critical ingenuity to such a degree that some critics have attacked his approach as irresponsible. Empson’s analysis often leads him into probing the author’s psyche for conflicting attitudes, and he insists on the critic’s duty to ascertain a writer’s psychological motives. Like T. S. Eliot, he saw literary history as culminating in the metaphysical complexities of John Donne, George Herbert, and the late works of Shakespeare, and from there declining to the mere wit of Alexander Pope and the confused emotions of William Wordsworth.

Empson’s second book of criticism, Some Versions of Pastoral , which has more unity than the first, is a sociopolitical study of the pastoral relation between the poor shepherd and the wealthy master. Empson compares the old pastoral, which describes the harmony...

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between rich and poor, and the mock pastoral, which describes the artist’s relation to the worker and emphasizes the fact that the artist and the public can never be at one. Most of the seven essays in the book use the mode of analysis developed inSeven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse. The final essay, in which Empson discusses the fall through a deep hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) as symbolizing the birth trauma, is a classic example of Freudian interpretation.

Empson’s third book of criticism, The Structure of Complex Words, is considered by some critics to be his clearest. It is really two books in one: The first is devoted to the study of words and makes suggestions on constructing a dictionary, and the second consists of literary criticism on the key words in specific texts by Shakespeare, Pope, and John Milton. Empson takes issue with Richards’s emphasis on the emotional meaning of words. He argues that referential meaning is equally important, and that language and feeling are both ambiguous. Even while analyzing a poem for its key word, Empson continues to regard elements such as situation, plot, and theme as essential ingredients to the close reading of a text.

Milton’s God, his controversial fourth book of criticism, attacks the Christian idea of eternal damnation. In addition to criticizing the personal theology of John Milton, Empson believed that Milton’s poem Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) was based on a religious doctrine so flawed as to verge on being a symbolic revival of human sacrifice. He also considered God in the poem to be despotic and Satan to be a hero of human conscience.

Although Milton’s God was the last book published during his lifetime, Empson continued to publish essays for many years. Some of these were posthumously collected and published under the title Using Biography, in which Empson argues against William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and the new critical law that the reader can never know what an author intended. His defense of biography, however, was criticized for misinterpreting Wimsatt’s idea of “intentional fallacy.” Wimsatt never meant to exclude the consideration of biography and history; indeed he used them in his own criticism. One of Empson’s main themes is that the world contains a variety of moral codes and that a central purpose of reading literature is to develop the flexibility of mind to accept this fact.

The critic Frank Kermode asserts that William Empson is one of England’s most important critics of the twentieth century. Empson’s major achievement has been in developing and propagating the idea of ambiguity, especially as found in complex, metaphysical poetry. He did not develop his own theory; he remained a practical critic whose readings have been unsurpassed in their ingenuity. Empson’s notion of seven or eight types of ambiguity has been supplanted by the more radical idea of ambiguity known as undecidability, or the complete indeterminacy of meaning.


Critical Essays