William Empson Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

A Yorkshireman of the landed gentry by birth, William Empson, separated from his four older brothers and sisters by four years, spent his early childhood at Yokefleet, a remote village. He began his education at Folkestone Preparatory School, then entered Winchester College as a scholar in 1920, where he was an active debater. He went up in 1925 to Magdalene College, Cambridge, on a mathematics scholarship. After passing several levels of degree examinations in mathematics, he shifted his interest to literature and read under the tutelage of the renowned professor I. A. Richards. Before taking his degree with highest honors in English in 1929, Empson was caught up in the interdisciplinary intellectual fervor then at high pitch in Cambridge and made a name for himself in this heady atmosphere. Excitement grew from individual involvement in widely diverse disciplines, and C. P. Snow, the physicist who would later explore the status of the “two cultures,” was then actively involved in the Cambridge life, where at that time the gap between literature and science was slight.

Obviously there was much for Empson to ponder and discuss after both Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot lectured at Cambridge in 1926, the latter on the Metaphysical poets, a universally recognized influence on Empson’s poetry. In 1927, the undergraduate’s first poem was published, and those that followed in his annus mirabilis of 1928 reflected the “difficult” mode of the...

(The entire section is 568 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)