William Empson

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Empson, William (Vol. 8)

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Empson, William 1906–

An English poet and critic, Empson is best known for his seminal contribution to the formalist school of New Criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity. As a poet he is noted for his concern with style and form, as well as his wry wit. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

[William Empson] writes poetry demanding a great deal of miscellaneous and sometimes abstruse information, such as the domestic arrangements of ants and beetles, the incidence of chairs in Chinese art, some implications of the theory of relativity. His literary references are as unexpected as they are various. A poem dealing with the absurdities and cruelties at work in a society that calls itself Christian is entitled "Reflection from Anita Loos": to the effect that "A girl can't go on laughing all the time." Naturally, the man who explored Seven Types of Ambiguity through their most labyrinthine passages writes what he calls a "clotted kind of poetry", thick with multiple meanings. He has, however, composed a "Poem About a Ball in the Nineteenth Century" that moves as airily and chimes as gaily as the event it describes. Learned, witty, and ironical, Empson is not incapable of directness. A difficult poem on some of the uses of the imagination ends on the memorably plain admonition to "learn a style from a despair." (pp. 232-33)

Admiring the restrictions of Empson's forms, notably the villanelle, the quietness of his tone, the lack of extravagance in his diction, [younger poets] have produced wryly melancholy, witty poems, wanting in the intensity of which this complex poet is capable. (p. 233)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright © 1963 by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.

Trained as a mathematician … Empson was responsible for introducing relativity into poems. Previously they had seemed, like space and time, to have solid, respectable internal structures. But Empson showed that, especially if you discounted their punctuation, they could be made rich and runny inside like jam, or like dissolving toothpaste which, as he observes in 'Camping Out', is itself like a constellation approached at a speed greater than the speed of light. Seven Types of Ambiguity, the work that reshaped English literature, he wrote in a fortnight as an undergraduate. A mighty gaggle of ambiguity-hunters has waddled in its wake since then, and from that angle it might seem to have a lot to answer for. But what Empson's imitators have consistently failed to match up to, apart from his genius, is his tone, which is intricately bound up with his insights. (p. 926)

His alertness to multiple points of view deepens his humanity, as well as making his critical procedures endlessly subtle.

The Structures of Complex Words, their subtlest outcome, represents, in a sense, a lifetime's work—Empson has said that he felt Nunc dimittis when he'd finished it—and the reaction can't be rare that it would take more than a life-time to understand. (pp. 926-27)

John Carey, "Kippering," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 28, 1974, pp. 926-27.

More than any other criticism I know, Empson's throws us back upon the text. Eliot, say, tends to leave you feeling you ought to take another look at Dante when you next get the chance, and Leavis often creates the comfortable impression that you have already read everything worth reading. But Empson has you chasing off now to see whether what he says is in the poem...

(This entire section contains 2175 words.)

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can really be there….

The commonly assumed connection of Empson with the New Criticism is a curious affair. Certainly he is a great believer in what he calls "verbal analysis," and the New Criticism owes him a great deal. But he is as concerned to engage history as his American followers were to elude it. He insists on the local, concrete situation of poet and poem, and he is an almost militant devotee of the intentional fallacy, always telling us what Milton or Shakespeare "must have" felt or thought. The general effect of this is no doubt not as historical as Empson wants it to be, but neither is it as fanciful as a rigorous opponent might suggest. What Shakespeare must have thought is not, with Empson, romantic speculation about Shakespeare's psychology, but a form of metaphor for what Shakespeare actually wrote, a way of seeing words on the page as continuous with an individual human life.

Of course, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a mischievous book…, which delights in multiplying complicated meanings. But then Empson tells us that this is what he is doing ("I have put down most of the meanings for fun," he says of his discussion of a line in Chaucer, "the only ones I feel sure of are …"), and I don't see how what seems to be a standard accusation against him … can possibly be supported. The accusation is that Empson thinks that a word does mean anything it may mean, which is plainly nonsense. But all Empson says, as I understand him, is that we had better look at some of the meanings a word might have before we decide which meaning or meanings it does have. (p. 31)

[There] is a danger, not in Empson's critical method, but in Empson's continuing critical subject, which is always irony, in one form or another. But this is not now a question of the baleful influence of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Throughout his career,… Empson remains a student (and indeed a distinguished practitioner) of irony, experienced as a complicated response to a life seen as riddled with contradictions. "The notion is," Empson says in a note on his poem "Bacchus," "that life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis."… There is a difficulty…. We tend to … forget what all this equilibrium is for, and the result is a very cosy variety of stasis. If you're a critic, you discover that your poet has said a lot of perfectly opposed things about life, and therefore can't have meant anything. The political expression of this position is a very relaxed form of sitting on the fence….

Empson's own ironies, for example, usually suggest a vigorous common sense doing what it can in the midst of a terrible muddle, or perhaps even, to quote Empson's own phrase about Milton, "a powerful mind thrashing about in exasperation"; but they can also be read as rather bland invitations to give it all up and go home….

Empson's poems are generally, as he says of Shakespeare's use of the word honest in Othello, "a very queer business." He published verse steadily between 1928 and 1940, but since then, apart from a sonnet, a Chinese ballad, a lumpish masque for the Queen's visit to Sheffield, and a couple of short pieces added to the Collected Poems in 1949, has published no verse at all. Everyone points out that most of the poems belong, in their preoccupations, to the universe of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), but given their dates, it is hard to see how they could belong anywhere else; and the most striking thing about the poems for me is their radical difference in tone and feeling from the criticism. They are cramped, clogged, and diffident where the criticism is reckless and easy. The reason for this may be simple enough: it's exciting to discover fruitful complications in a great writer, but it's no fun to face and articulate oppressive contradictions in your own life.

Still, the contrast is remarkable, and I wonder whether its real source is the contradictions being faced in the poetry or a certain hampered, mechanical approach to the actual writing of poetry. Empson speaks of "my clotted kind of poetry," and it is clotted, thick with allusions and odd, mathematical-sounding words. Its rhythms literally slow the tongue ("No, by too much this station the air nears"), and its elliptical syntax ("It is Styx coerces and not Hell controls") creates a sense of intense crowding. Empson has said that although most of his poems "turned out to be love poems about boy being too afraid of girl to tell her anything, the simple desire to think of something rather like Donne was the basic impulse"; and perhaps all I mean to say is that at this distance in time the manner seems very faded, a brittle ghost of the Twenties.

But I am speaking of the collected poems as a whole, and half a dozen pieces remain amazingly good—as good as Auden at his best, say, which is very good indeed—and there are marvelous musical lines scattered about poems that themselves don't come off. The lasting works are the obvious, recurring anthology items ("To an Old Lady," "Homage to the British Museum," "Notes on Local Flora," "Aubade," "Let it go"), but "Letter II" and "Autumn on Nan-Yueh" seem to me just as fine. There is tremendous poise and wit in these poems, there are all kinds of jokes and graces, and above all they are generous and moving. Whatever shallow impulses started them off, they found their way into profound life. The old lady visible only in darkness, lovable only at a distance, respected although she is so distant, is a kind of paradigm for Empson's respect for the right of others to be themselves. And [the] closing verses from "Autumn on Nan-Yueh" … express with the utmost delicacy a sense of personal loss in the midst of losses all around which are considerably greater. (p. 32)

"The masterpiece is Some Versions of Pastoral," Denis Donoghue wrote…, and Roger Sale says the same thing in his excellent essay on Empson in Modern Heroism. I think this is true in the sense that the book contains the biggest doses of careless Empsonian wisdom about the larger structures of literature, like tragedy, pastoral, irony, plot, and so on, and also in the sense that it has an elegance and a flow and a sense of ongoing argument which are lacking or obscured in the other books; and the chapter on Alice is probably the most brilliant thing Empson has ever done. Yet Seven Types of Ambiguity is a more exciting, in many ways richer, work and provides me at least with more sheer pleasure; and there is nothing in either of those two early books that quite comes up to the essay on Lear in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), or even to the essay on Tom Jones. (pp. 32-3)

These essays answer and defuse a suspicion which I think must lurk in the mind of anyone who has been reading Empson for a while: the suspicion that this wonderfully subtle and intelligent man has too much of a taste for the bushes and byways of culture, a taste not for minor works but for the back entrances to major works. A great deal of Some Versions of Pastoral is devoted to finding pastoral where no one else would think of looking for it, and the great, musical statements which appear now and then in the early books … come across as something like slips of the tongue, moments of negligence in which Empson allowed himself to say something that sounded important.

But the essays on Lear and Tom Jones tackle major works in a direct, major way, present themselves calmly at the front door….

The Structure of Complex Words … shifts attention from the ambiguities of literature to the ambiguities of language. Empson is interested in usages which suggest that the whole language is behind a speaker, not that the speaker can do wonderful things with language, and these are the terms on which he distinguishes this book from his earlier ones. It is a question now not of showing what Shakespeare could do with English, but of showing the riches of English on display in Shakespeare….

[Milton's God is a] brilliant business, right about God, often right about Milton, full of good jokes, it has a feverish, strident note not heard before in Empson. The Christian God, Empson says, "is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man," and I would want to demur only at the tone of that judgment and its exaggeration (the Indian Kali and the Mexican Tezcatlipoca were not exactly a bundle of smiles). What seems wrong is not Empson's view of Christianity, but his strained insistence that we have to have a view of Christianity….

We are wrong to look to Empson for dignity or doctrines, and probably wrong to look to him for complete, satisfying books, for masterpieces…. What Empson gives us are repeated instances of an incomparable mind at play. He enhances for us, even restores if we feel we are losing it, the pure, dizzying exhilaration of reading, and anyone who thinks this is not important doesn't care about the life of the imagination in any of its forms. (p. 33)

Michael Wood, "Incomparable Empson," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), January 23, 1975, pp. 30-3.


Empson, William (Vol. 3)