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, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Empson, whatever initially caused his poetry, was typically a Cambridge writer: the passion for meticulous truth, the scientific attitudes intruding on poetry to rule out anything "romantic," the care for minute perceptions communicated in a subtle way, the daring exercise of new grammatical possibilities of English, under the aegis of a master, these made for a poetry not in the old style of the humanities, but in a new, a sharper, a keener but also perhaps a less profound mode.
Some points in favor of the early poems [collected in Poems, 1935] follow. Not only did Empson load every rift with ore; he loaded them with more than one kind of substance. The compression of his images and the conscious ambiguity of his grammar, when he exercised both, were salutary in that they insured the reader against the ragged or the loose. A poem of his would not yield its meanings immediately, but one would be well paid in time: a sign of good poetry. It was a poetry of concealed riches. Another point was in the seemingly almost perfect control of the use of language. There was no excess in these poems. If they were bizarre, they did not offend; if witty, they did not degenerate into foolishness; if elaborate, they did not invite careless attention; if puzzling, they enchanted one with the answers. They expressed a certain aristocracy of intellect, but were not aloof from fundamental propositions. They constituted a microcosm of realities.
Against Empson's early poetry charges could be leveled and were indeed applied. This poetry was not "great" because it was not "universal." There was no world-view, no philosophic, inclusive view behind the poems. It was repeatedly said that they were too purely intellectual: the compliment was turned into an adverse criticism. His look was too rarified for human nature's daily food. On an old measuring rod of the simple, the sensuous, and the passionate, these poems could not rate high; they were not simple, they were not sensuous, and their passion was limited to the intellectual kind. Others held that the poems did not cohere;...
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[The] significance of Empson's criticism is this: his criticism is an attempt to deal with what the poem "means" in terms of its structure as a poem. To sense its importance, one must recall what the critic in the past has attempted to do: either he attempted to find the goodness of the poem (and its status as poetry) in terms of its prose argument—and in terms of the "truth" of what was being said—and thus made poetry compete with philosophy or science; or else he tried to find the poetry in the charm of the decorative elements—in the metrical pattern, in the sensuous imagery, etc. Often enough, of course, he tried to combine the two, usually in some formula which amounted to defining poetry as "truth appropriately embellished."
Empson fights throughout the [Seven Types of Ambiguity] against this crippling division by showing how poem after poem actually "works" as a complex of meanings. Metaphor becomes functional in this account—important not for its isolated sensuous beauty but as it plays a part in establishing or qualifying the total meaning of the poem; metrics in the same way becomes functional, valuable not for its absolute beauty but rather for its corroboration of the play of meaning through the poem. Connotations become vastly important, for they are now seen to be, not hints of mysterious beauty which decorate the poem, but active forces in the development of the manifold of meanings that is the poem. And the unity of the poem becomes not something relatively static, but dynamic and the product of a development, the fulfillment of a total process. (p. 209)
Seven Types of Ambiguity is a very difficult book. Part of the difficulty is simply a matter of style. The prose is often charming or striking but it is often elliptical and involved. As a matter of fact, it reads for the most part like uncommonly good talk, but talk which, having been transcribed to the page, suffers from the lack of gesture, of inflection of the voice, of change in tone which in the conversation would have made all clear and easy.
But the principal difficulty of the Seven Types springs from the fact that Empson was forced to fight a somewhat confused action against the romantic and magical conception of poetry in order to state his case at all. I say "somewhat confused," for the term "ambiguity" involves in itself a concession to the doctrine which Empson was attacking. The concept of ambiguity is derived from the point of view of prose where one logical meaning and only one is wanted. Moreover, the seven-fold classification of ambiguity partakes of the confusion, for it too involves certain concessions to the theories of poetry which Empson, wittingly and unwittingly, was committed to destroying. (p. 210)
Yet the defective framework—if it is defective—is not of any ultimate importance. The framework selected allowed Empson to write the book; it gave him an opportunity for the brilliant asides and, most important of all, for the analytical commentaries on one poem after another. To have these is the important thing: a satisfactory codification, if one is ever feasible or necessary, may well come later and at our leisure.
The attacks on Empson's work have, however, concerned themselves with other matters than his scheme of categories. Anyone who is committed to take the details of the poem as seriously as Empson is committed to take them is bound to run afoul of the textual scholars and the literary historians. They have picked him up from time to time for slips of one sort or another—he has misquoted a text or adopted a reading which textual criticism does not sanction as that of the poet. Geoffrey Tillotson in his recently issued essays has pointed out one or two such mistakes. And I notice in the Milton chapter of English Pastoral Poetry the curious howler that Adam and Eve's "children were the result of the fall"—an interpretation which Genesis may possibly suggest but never Paradise Lost, to which Empson is referring. But the slips are just that—not seriously important, and, considering Empson's tremendous range, they are astonishingly few.
The general charge leveled at Empson is far more serious. It amounts to this: that he forces upon the poem his own personal associations, idiosyncratic readings of which the poet must have been unconscious, strained analogies of which the poet was surely innocent. And this charge, if sustained, calls in question the value of his whole enterprise.
Empson is thoroughly conscious of the power of his critical instrument and that it is a power which may be misused. For example, in his Seven Types, after pointing out to T. S. Eliot what some passages of Shelley criticized by Eliot might be made to mean, Empson adds: "I do not say that I agree with all this [his own explication of Shelley's lines]: it seems an unwise extremity of sensibility." After treating another such passage from Shelley, he goes on to concur generally in Eliot's criticism of the passage: "I agree very heartily with what Mr. Eliot was saying at the time, and certainly these meanings [which he points out are to be found in the passage] are not so much united as hurried on top of each other, but it is, after all, a pun, almost a conceit; it seems rather a creditable thing to have happened to Shelley."
This passage, by the bye, with its praise of Shelley for having produced a pun, almost a conceit, is calculated to leave the orthodox critic fuming. He will scarcely be disposed to disentangle the left-handed compliment to Shelley from the critical principle involved; or if he does stop to disentangle it, he...
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[William Empson's] poetry has been used again and again for special purposes. I. A. Richards quoted his pupil's poems in his lectures since, among other reasons, they might have been written to prove his own theory of poetry; for example, they clearly and energetically took so many other disciplines in their stride. Then a poem like "High Dive" or "Part of Mandevil's Travels" makes me think that Empson himself used his own poetry; the puns, references and provocative, open syntax seem designed to prove the value and efficacy of the critical method he used in Seven Types. F. R. Leavis, too, used Empson's verse. His praise at the end of New Bearings is part of the argument of the book. Leavis's subject was...
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G. S. Fraser, in a recent version of Eliot's view about 'true poetry' and communication, applied to Empson's poetry as read aloud a sensible distinction: 'Empson's broad semantics in poetry (the planting and repetition of words with a strong emotive charge) enable a listener to stop worrying about the narrow semantics, and to be carried on by the authority of the tone and the wonderfully effective … rhythms' [William Empson: The Man and His Work]. But this should not cause the reader of the printed text, also carried and impressed by the 'broad semantics', to ignore the undulations above which he flies and which give his course its contour and direction: in Empson's own words, 'You think the...
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