William Empson, assessing the inherent relationship between theory and performance, observed in Seven Types of Ambiguity that “the methods I have been describing are very useful to critics, but certainly they leave a poet in a difficult position.” In his own case, the dilemma is compounded, as even the inexperienced reader naturally seeks to find in Empson’s poetic works exemplification of his personal critical doctrine. Without question, Empson’s ideas about ambiguity and the tensions generated by contradictions in poetry point directly to the core of what might be a meaning of his “specialized kind” of poetry.
One way to approach Empson’s canon might be to note varying degrees of complexity, exemplification of possible multiple meanings discoverable in the poetry. Indeed, his puzzling knotted lines and verses (“my clotted kind of poetry,” as Empson himself describes it) prompted the poet to furnish annotative notes with his published collections, admitting, however, that “the better poems tend to require fewer notes.” Such finely wrought poetic works reflect Empson’s recognition that he “grew up in the height of the vogue for the seventeenth century poet Donne,” and that when he started as a poet, he “thought it would be very nice to write beautiful things like the poet Donne,” recalling that he began composition by “trying to think of an interesting puzzle.”
This familiarity with the Metaphysical poets would seem to illuminate Empson’s work—sophisticated, scientific analyses of intensely personal and impassioned emotional states; fantastic, audacious, extremely extended conceits; intellectual, witty, and often unconventional diction—all exploited to unite feeling with thought, to attempt communication of restless, unreasonable expectation beyond reasonable limits. Such taut, controlled technique generally reflects a profound sense of life’s difficulties and contradictions, what Empson described as a “conflict which is raging in the mind of the writer but hasn’t been solved.”
Empson’s idea of poetry as the expression of an unresolved conflict (“Verse likes despair,” he observes in “Success”), opposing forces seeking some form of equilibrium, is reflected throughout his characteristically argumentative work. One of his most quoted beliefs is that “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.” Here his affinity with the American poet and New Critic John Crowe Ransom comes sharply into focus; a line in Ransom’s “The Equilibrists” (1927), “Leave me now, and never let us meet” describes the equally unresolved torture of the unfulfilled lovers also seeking a tentative balance in Empson’s “Aubade” (1937): “It seemed the best thing to be up and go.”
Empson’s attempt to reconcile opposing forces may have led to his fascination with Buddhism. Such a philosophical acceptance of human suffering as a way of apprehending reality so appealed to Empson that he put together “The Faces of Buddha,” a collection of articles written in Japan and China; the manuscript, however, is regrettably lost. In “Missing Dates” (1937), the despairing refrain of the poem laments that despite humanity’s efforts “the waste remains, the waste remains and kills.” Whether the ambiguous key word here denotes emptiness, exhaustion, loss, or prodigality, its reality is fatal; nirvana is unattainable. Furthermore, in his published collections of poetry, Empson chose for an epigraph Buddha’s “Fire Sermon,” recognizing, as did Eliot, that modern humanity shares a universal dilemma.
An awareness of contradictions, of ideas and emotions held in tension, characterizes Empson’s work from the beginning. An early poem that appeared in an undergraduate Cambridge literary journal, “Value Is in Activity,” is a recondite, sardonic statement of the ultimate futility of people’s attempt to determine their fate, revealing the poet’s sense of the relationship between the macroscopic and individual instance. Here man is a “juggler” endlessly tossing rotting apples, exhibited in a “circus” that is the world. Because of his unceasing activity, he cannot eat the Edenic fruit, which is, in any case, worthless, both maggot-filled and sterile (“Dwarf seeds unnavelled” by a blighting frost). However, man cannot be idle, though knowing full well the ultimate waste of his frenetic activities and the futility of his situation. Thus Empson challenges people to question what gives value to their actions; he does not, however, rationalize or philosophize.
Bafflement is also in the conclusion of “Plenum and Vacuum,” its title suggesting antithetical states of existence. In a particularly characteristic “clotted style,” the three stanzas have seven compound hyphenated words, which abound in ambiguities, and use typically Empsonian scientific imagery that reflects the teeming world of Cambridge. However, any exegetic effort ultimately rests on acceptance of the axiom in stanza 3 that “Matter includes what must matter enclose,” describing both the ontological statement and the poem itself.
Another important undergraduate poem is “High Dive,” in which the subject again recognizes “value in activity,” knows that he must “dive” into life (“the enclosed bathing-pool”) rather than spend his time in neurotic contemplation, must join those who “tear him down” into a society both “menacing” and “assuring.” Empson ominously and admonishingly cites the disastrous dives or falls of Lucifer and Jezebel, however, and the poem ends in desperate recognition that the pool’s water is ultimately a vortex that will destroy the diver.
In “To an Old Lady,” a tribute to his mother, Empson uses the classic Metaphysical image of the compass to praise her style and confidence; she is not to be pitied, for she is “certain of her pole,” not “wasted” as some might presume. Empson concludes the poem with an astronomical conceit pointing up the paradox of proximity and distance between a mother and her son: “Strange that she too should be inaccessible,/ Who shares my son.”
One of the most beautiful and Donne-like of Empson’s university poems is “Camping Out”; poet Richard Eberhart called it “a brain-tickler which exercised many hours of drawing-room discussion in Cambridge, and withheld its ultimate ambiguous secret for years.” Here as the man is watching a desired young woman go about her usual activities (the poem opens with “And now she cleans her teeth into the...
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