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 early Andrew Marvell and John Donne as well as that of Eliot. Empson, then, owed much of his success as an undergraduate not only to his natural intellectual gifts but also to the stimulating and congenial atmosphere of Cambridge in the late 1920’s.
After the publication in 1930 of his undergraduate thesis as Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson accepted a teaching position from 1931 to 1934 as professor of English literature at Buneika Daigaku University in Tokyo, having been recommended for the post by his tutor Richards. In 1937, after a return to England, he accepted another position in Asia; by this time, he had published his first collection of poetry and his second volume of criticism. His new teaching assignment was on the English faculty of the Beijing National University, but those were the uneasy years of the Sino-Japanese War, and for two years Empson followed academic refugees on the Great March across China in retreat from the invading Japanese forces, teaching from memory, constantly in peril, yet still writing poetry. Forced to return to London on “indefinite wartime leave” during the years of World War II, he served as a writer of propaganda and as Chinese broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1941 to 1946 and published his second collection of poems, many of them the result of his Far East experiences.
During this period in his native country, he married and assumed responsibility for a family. In 1947, he took his wife and two sons to Beijing where he returned to his teaching post, again, however, facing unsettling conditions in China, now under the regime of Mao Zedong. By 1953, he felt the need to settle his family in England and accepted a post as professor of English literature at Sheffield University, where he remained until his retirement in 1971. His involvement with advocates of the New Criticism brought him to the United States on several occasions during his active teaching career, for he always enjoyed traveling. He lived in active retirement in the London suburb of Hampstead until his death on April 15, 1984.
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...
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