William Empson

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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.

Early poems

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...

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“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 lake”), he realizes that only in his imagination can any amorous consummation occur.

Rhyme and meter

At this point it should be noted that despite his startling exploitation of a number of devices of Metaphysical poetry, in many ways Empson’s poetics are quite conservative. Criticizing vers libre, he declares in his poetic creed, “I am in favor of rhyme and metre”; and he particularly favors terza rima, a three-line stanza, usually in iambic pentameter, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on. An outstanding example of such an interlocked rhyme scheme is “Arachne,” one of Empson’s most critically acclaimed early poems. Here the ubiquitous muddling young man, as Empson put it, “being afraid of girl, as usual,” walks “Twixt devil and deep sea,” in precarious existential tension that illustrates Buddha’s extremes, “between void and void,” balancing like a spider on a filmy cobweb that “is at a breath destroyed.” Like Andrew Marvell’s lover arguing with his coy mistress, however, the man warns the reluctant threatening woman of the reciprocal dangers of imbalance, that “Male spiders must not be too early slain.”

“This Last Pain”

“This Last Pain” is invariably included in selections of Empson’s best poetry. The speaker appears to be working out a means to survive, a rational acceptance of limitations both as a person and as a poet. Here Empson’s total opposition to Victorian certitude and sophistry is set down without equivocation. If Robert Browning optimistically observed that “There’s many a crown for who can reach,” the characteristically pessimistic yet courageous Empson counters such a sanguine challenge with his belief that the damned “know the bliss with which they were not crowned.” Browning proclaimed that “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?” but Empson doggedly holds that only on earth “Is all, of heaven or hell.”

Even though humans might pry into the possible bliss of the soul, “may know her happiness by eye to hole,” yet they are eternally denied its enjoyment. As Empson stated in his notes to “This Last Pain,” “the idea of the poem is that human nature can conceive divine states which it cannot attain.” Knowing this, both humans and the poet must nevertheless preserve the ontological fiction of “those large dreams by which men long live well,” feigning belief and imagining that which “could not possibly be true,/ And learn a style from a despair.” In the final analysis, as Empson developed earlier in “Value Is in Activity” and “High Dive,” activity is better than passivity, and even self-deception and pretense are preferable to nothing, imagination being among the gods’ “ambiguous gifts.”


In the laconically entitled “Note on Local Flora,” Empson first alludes to Bacchus, that “laughing god” that would be the focus of his personal favorite and most ambitious and complex poem, “Bacchus,” a work begun in Japan in 1933 and not finished until 1939 in China. Published in various fragments and first appearing in completed form in 1946, the poem assumes that the reader is familiar with the mythological details of the god’s birth. Bacchus is the son of Zeus and Semele, who had asked that the supreme deity appear to her in all his glory. This was a foolish request, for as the god of lightning his presence was fatal, and she was consumed by fire and turned to ashes, an ambiguous emblem of the price one pays for fulfilling knowledge. Zeus, however, snatched their unborn child from the charred remains and carried it in his body until birth. Thus Bacchus, in the earlier brief poem, would “ripen only” as a result of fire, analogous to the cones of an exotic tree in Kew Gardens—“So Semele desired her deity” just as the tree craves fire. In the later poem, Empson characterizes the young god as “born of a startling answer” to the request of the rash Semele, who ultimately is apotheosized and borne away “robed in fire,” for “The god had lit up her despair.”

Notes to “Bacchus” fill almost six pages, and Empson informs the reader that “a mythological chemical operation to distil drink is going on for the first four verses.” Here, by means of chemical analogy, the poet reiterates his belief that one must find existence between contradictions and explains that he chose the metaphor of drink (and Bacchus, the god of wine, as his image) because of its power to make one “most outgoing and unself-critical,” and therefore better able to maintain the precarious fictions essential to emotional equilibrium and survival. This is a familiar Empson theme (he elsewhere observes that “It is not human to feel safely placed”), but here it is developed in complexity, surprising at a time when the poet was ostensibly committed to simplifying his knotted, recondite verse. In the conclusion of “Bacchus,” Empson also reaffirms his admiration for those who cope, for those who maintain optimistic fictions in the face of overpowering deterministic forces.


Empson’s “Aubade” is curiously conversational, unusually self-revealing, yet evasive in its details. Obviously about his Japanese experience in the 1930’s, it is his only original poem of his years there. When asked its subject, Empson responded enigmatically that it was “about a sexual situation.” Far less “clotted” than his previous verse, the poem describes an intensely personal relationship between “two aliens” parted by both the forces of nature (“Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake”) and the darkening political situation, from which the European flees homeward, only to encounter “the same war on a stronger toe.” As he sadly concludes, “It seemed the best thing to be up and go”; yet he is powerfully and angrily drawn to the opposite course of action. The poem, then, is another evocation of Empson’s recognition of the tension inherent in contradiction and ambiguity, a poetic antithesis.

The Gathering Storm

Continuing to reflect a change in both style and subject, Empson’s collection The Gathering Storm included among its twenty-one poems several that reflect the rising political tensions of the preceding decade: “Reflection from Rochester,” with its overt reference to “race of armament”; “Courage Means Running,” also in terza rima stanzas, restating Empson’s belief that “To take fear as the measure/ May be a measure of self-respect”; and the chatty “Autumn on Nan-Yueh,” Empson’s longest and least difficult poem, a description of his peripatetic adventures in China in 1937. Uncongenial critics saw this calmer despair in his later work as evidence of a loss of nerve, of “rot set in,” of hollowness, or as smoothly surfaced mannerist verse, without substance or depth of experience. Such opinions, however, may reflect more the critical taste of the times than the quality of Empson’s verse.

These later Empson poems appear to have been written with a real audience in mind, not that of the previously idealized intellectual university milieu. They are more centripetal in effect, infused with a deeper warmth, and reflect a moral awareness missing in his earlier, flashier work. The informing intelligence now seems to suggest the acceptance of the limits of the rational mind (“this deep blankness”), and the recognition that destructive personal chaos cannot be ordered by logical process (“talk would . . . go so far aslant”). Instead, a static heroism emerges; a more practical stance in facing life’s crises is offered.

Among these poems is “Missing Dates,” a villanelle, a complex and challenging nineteen-line French verse form aimed at the appearance of spontaneous simplicity. “Missing Dates” is often anthologized and recognized for its intense and sustained pessimistic mood, the refrain being “Slowly the poison the whole blood fills./ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.” As a poet sensing his atrophying powers, seeing himself “not to have fire,” Empson echoes the blight and despair of The Waste Land (1922), a sterile land of ambiguous “partial fires,” a failed situation when carpe diem should have been the prevailing philosophy.

In “Success,” as Empson draws toward his concluding poetic efforts (he felt “how right I was to stop writing”), he asserts that by his marriage “I have mislaid the torment and the fear,” and his wife “should be praised for taking them away.” If “verse likes despair,” and he no longer suffers, then in his new state “Lose is Find.” He recognizes that as an artist “I feed on flatness” and may have sacrificed by his new happiness his poetic voice: “All loss haunts us.”

A final brief poem, “Let it go,” almost casual in tone, is one of only three that he wrote during World War II. In two tercets, rhyming abc, abc, Empson recalls his pervasive concern with “blankness,” whether emptiness, disinterest, barrenness, lack of success, or whatever denotative or connotative meaning the word might suggest. In“Ignorance of Death,” he admitted that “I feel very blank upon this topic,” adding, however, that death “is one [topic] that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.” In “Aubade,” he “slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.” Empson’s comment that “Let it go” is “about stopping writing poetry” is not surprising. Each of the three lines in the second stanza is end-stopped; the effect is valedictory. Thus, Empson appears to offer here an alternative to continuing his dialectic of despair: a self-protective posture of blankness in the face of a personal and global “madhouse and the whole thing there.”

Empson’s memorable lines can be eminently savored, as Eberhart noted, “out of context with their grammatical relation to previous or succeeding lines.” Total understanding is both undesirable and impossible in poetry so freighted with ambiguous contradictions. Eliot observed that “True poetry can communicate before it is understood”; in Empson’s case, poetry often communicates meaning without comprehension.

Empson’s efforts to fuse thinking and feeling urge the reader to accept life for what it is, to maintain sustaining“fictions,” and in some way to “build an edifice of form/ For house where phantoms may keep warm” (“This Last Pain”). His forms—his poems as well as his critical essays—explore dialectically the possibilities of making limited connections, both personal and linguistic, and demonstrate by metaphysical means that reconciliation of antinomies in human existence is ultimately futile and that resolution is possible only in art, in the poems themselves.


Empson, William (Vol. 19)