William Empson

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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, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Richard Eberhart

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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; these found disorder who had not imagination enough to divine the niceties of a new order. Others held that when wit dominates to the extent it did in these poems, the sign was of a certain smallness; the great poets all had a nobility, a depth, a seriousness lacking in this work. And still others believed that a religious consciousness, traditionally based, in one mode or another, such as had given Eliot "Ash Wednesday," was necessary for the scale of importance which these poems did not touch.

For perfection of form, precision of statement, and delight of language, some of Empson's early poems will last as long as any of those of his contemporaries…. It is probable that the early poems constitute minor poetry of a high order. That in itself is very considerable achievement. Some are satisfied with a few poems of Marvell; some would be satisfied with one. Values notoriously change; a decade or two hence those now considered major may be considered minor, and vice versa. It is conceivable that a few of Empson's poems may be read ages hence. (pp. 202-03)

The poems in the second book [ The...

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Gathering Storm, 1940] take in a wider range of experience (China principally); they maintain his near-genius for precision; they bear the undeniable look and stamp of his other poems, are on the whole less ambiguous, become merrier and gayer in tone, and they achieve a break-down of his style, towards the end, into what seems to be a newer style, but this is not as masterful as the old. The density of sense is the same; the poet writes with authority and charm; yet the adverse criticisms heretofore mentioned stay, and the favorable notations are given again. There has been no profound change in the nature of his thinking; this volume is a continuance of the first, rather than a new departure. (pp. 206-07)

In the last poem, "Autumn on Nan-Yueh," Empson cuts loose from compression and lets his words fly with an ease and brilliancy unparalleled in his other work, although you may think the poem is not serious enough. He writes with the sheerest pleasure, making perfect strokes ("We do not fly when we are clay. / We hope to fly when we are dust." Or "And all styles can come down to noise") with rapid energy forming the most readable verse, seemingly informal and off-hand, yet composed in a strict but stately measure recalling the eighteenth century. If this is the stylistic way out of his formerly tortured verse, we can ask for more, even if we reproach him a bit for confiding his matter to the architecture of an old verse form rather than beating out something new to him and new to us. Although one line, "Excuses, consequences, signs" sounds of Pope, "the heat-mists" of his vision drive the words into strongly original ways, and the pleasure of reading is the pleasure of reading the best kind of light verse, a heady pleasure. (p. 207)

Richard Eberhart, "Empson's Poetry," in Accent (copyright, 1944, by Accent), Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1944, pp. 195-207.

Cleanth Brooks

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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 will probably use it to damn Empson. How does one distinguish between meanings that are merely "hurried on top of each other" and those which are "united"? And if the reader is to meet the poet half-way, how far is he to be allowed to go in providing meanings for the poem? Is this not another instance of Empson's lamentable habit of going much more than half-way? Shelley's own meanings, clearly to be discerned there in the poem, are all that either Shelley or the orthodox critic requires.

Yet the passages quoted from Empson do show that he is quite aware of the problem involved: namely, that one can make out a case for richness and complexity in almost any poem—in the poem that has not earned it as well as the poem that has; and that the mere process of spinning out a web of complexities and ambiguities is not sufficient to validate the poem. There must be a further criterion (cf. the chapter on "Good Sense" in [I.A.] Richards' Coleridge on Imagination).

Yet, to admit the fact that there must be a further criterion does not mean that the critic can abjure the responsibility of reading the poem as fully and completely as he can or that the personal associations of the critic must not be fully engaged, and more than that, even given a loose rein.

Empson certainly gives them a loose rein himself, but that is not to say that he often lets the reins fall out of his grasp. To me this seems rarely to occur. But the principle of control has to be a flexible one. It can hardly be reduced to a hard-and-fast rule. It can, however, be adumbrated, and I can see little to quarrel with in Empson's attempt to do so in the following passage: "In so far as an ambiguity sustains intricacy, delicacy, or compression of thought, or is an opportunism devoted to saying quickly what the reader already understands, it is to be respected…. It is not to be respected in so far as it is due to weakness or thinness of thought, obscures the matter in hand unnecessarily …, or, when the interest of the passage is not focussed upon it, so that it is merely an opportunism in the handling of the material, if the reader will not easily understand the ideas which are being shuffled, and will be given an impression of incoherence."

In other words, if an ambiguity is functional in developing the poet's total effect, it is justified: it is not justified if it is merely "decorative," a mere witty extravagance, a sleight of hand which calls attention to itself and resists fusion with the other elements of the poem in the total effect. It is true that Empson's statement is littered with subjective criteria, that it leaves room for many divergent judgments, that it provides no "objective" criterion. But to admit this need not commit us to mere impressionism or give criticism over to a complete relativism. We shall get into the relativistic imbroglio only if we let our desire for complete objectivity in criticism triumph over our common sense.

The strength of Empson's position can be shown most convincingly by considering the alternative to which the conventional critic is committed. Even the die-hard anti-Empsonian is forced to admit that the reader must help in imaginatively reconstructing the poem; that the reader must be alive to the associations of words; that poetry is in some sense "rich" and "thick" where prose is "thin." And if the same critic urges against Empson that Empson is engaged in forcing meanings on the poem whereas the conventional critic is reading out of the poem merely what the poet can be proved to have put into it, one need only ask to be allowed to examine his proof. What we can prove that the poet put into the poem is only that which is amenable to such proof. We shall always emerge with no more than the gaunt skeleton of the poem, for the poetry itself will have been removed in the process. We shall always come out with a theme or a logical "argument" or a plot.

The usual dodge which the conventional critic uses at this point (and I use the word "dodge" deliberately) is to say that the poetic flesh which adorns the bones of the argument is by definition beyond analysis; it can be experienced emotionally, it can be appreciated, but it cannot be discussed. In brief, the poem is defined as consisting of logic and emotion, the first subject to analysis, the second only to be "felt."

The critic, if pressed to the point, will usually appeal to magic: true poetry is invested with a magic which it is unprofitable to attempt to analyze and which analysis, indeed, may desecrate. (pp. 211-13)

What the conventional critic tends to take refuge in is a kind of black magic: it is secret, dark, and not to be peered into. But poetry, fortunately, is a white magic, and the more closely that we look into it the better. Its "magic" has nothing to fear from the closest inspection. And on this matter Empson's own comment is very much to the point: "… the view … that poetry cannot be safely analysed seems to me to remain ignoble; and in so far as people are sure that their pleasures will not bear thinking about, I am surprised that they have the patience not to submit them to so easy a destruction."

If the implications of Empson's criticism are profound for the aesthetic of poetry, they are quite as profound for literary history. (It ought to be axiomatic that you cannot change your conception of poetry without modifying to some extent your view of the poetry of the past.) Empson, though not undertaking to write literary history in either of his books, has not been able to refrain (or has wisely decided not to refrain) from comments which take him far into considerations of literary history….

Yet Empson's comments on the details of literary history, even in the admirable English Pastoral Poetry, are incidental speculations and asides. Empson has not attempted to systematize them. In spite of its title, English Pastoral Poetry remains a collection of stimulating samplings from the ironic mode rather than a history of the English pastoral. One can well imagine, by the bye, the sense of complete frustration which that book would probably induce in the well-trained American graduate student who looked into it expecting to find what he considered pastoral poetry. The Elizabethan double plot! A Shakespeare sonnet! These are not pastorals! (p. 214)

Granted his training, he has a right to be confounded. For him, unless he is an unusual student or has had training in an unusual graduate school, the pastoral is a "form" into which "material" is poured. Or to change the metaphor, it is a kind of costume which the poet assumes, like a pirate suit at a masquerade ball. The wearer may alter the details of the costume, but only within limits: he may omit the patch over the left eye or use a broad leather belt in lieu of the gaily colored sash. If one is to have a pastoral, there must be a recognizable shepherd's costume: the graduate student wants to see the shepherd's pipe and the sheep. He expects to see these things because his work in English literature has been a study conducted in the museum—a history of this and other costumes. He looks for something external, for he has been trained from the antiquarian's point of view.

Empson's pastoral, on the other hand, is a mode, a specialization of irony, an inner thing. It is a particular way of relating certain things to other things. It is not external and it is not dead. It is very much alive, for it sees the matter from the standpoint of the practising poet. Because it is very much alive it is capable of altering drastically some of the current generalizations about the history of English poetry. For literary history waits ultimately upon criticism. (p. 215)

Cleanth Brooks, "Empson's Criticism," in Accent (copyright, 1944, by Accent), Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1944, pp. 208-16.

A. Alvarez

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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 the significant reorientation of English poetry brought about by Eliot. So Empson was praised not just for his own achievement—which was qualified as "very small"—but because he had taken his bearings from Eliot and Eliot's Seventeenth Century. (p. 74)

In short, Empson first made his reputation as a poet as part of the movement to substantiate the important creative discoveries of the 'twenties. This is why he seems to have so little to do with the poets of the following decade, although his two volumes appeared in 1935 and 1940. His work is cool in tone, wry, controlled and unimpressed; it has no truck with the large political gestures and that fixed stare on the immediately contemporary which made up the most characteristic poetic posture before the Second World War.

It was precisely this cool, witty air which created the enthusiasm for his poetry around 1950. This time the poetry was used less to mark the way the current was running than as a reminder of the way it should run…. Empson's verse was read with an overwhelming sense of relief after the brash and embarrassed incoherence of wartime and post-war poetry. It is only fair to add that nearly all Empson's new followers were either still at the Universities or had only recently left them. They took an undergraduate delight in his tough, intellectual manner, and admired his emotional restraint because, themselves, they had slender emotional resources to draw on. Moreover, the obscurity of his verse flattered them: its allusions were either to areas they knew well already, or which were sufficiently academic to be easily mastered. (pp. 74-5)

Empson, of course, is not responsible for his disciples. Yet there is something in his work which encourages other writers to use it for their own ends. It has, I think, an essential objectivity. This is not to say that it hasn't an unmistakable, individual tone, or that a great deal of personal trouble may not have gone into its making. But in the later poems what goes in as strong personal feeling comes out as something more general; whilst in the earlier work all the personal energy goes into a particularly impersonal business.

For Empson's earlier poetry is, in a way, critical. By that I do not mean that it receives its impetus from other literature, still less that it is about purely literary values, or that it is written in a style worked out beforehand and then deliberately applied. None of this. It is, rather, that the poetry is an outcome of a peculiarly strong and sensitive feeling for the intellectual tone of the time. Empson seems to create less out of personal situations than out of an emotional response to something he has already known with his wits, intellectually. His work affects you, as he said of someone else, "like a taste in the head".

In this way, Empson is a parochial poet. He is, in his poetry as well as in his criticism, the product of a particular place—Cambridge—and a particular moment—the late 'twenties—and a particular training—in a sceptical, semi-scientific tough-mindedness. His work has about it the same air of intellectual excitement as marked almost everything of the period. The strict formal disciplines—philosophy, logic and physics—had been revolutionized or, at least, given new life; in The Sacred Wood Eliot had begun to do the same with criticism; the development of psychology encouraged the belief that coherent, valid statements about the mind were possible—Richards even suggested that poems might eventually be evaluated scientifically, by the appetencies they satisfied. Empson, who turned from mathematics to become a pupil of Richards, has in all his work the same effort to be in all events rational, coherent and unsentimental. Seven Types was, among other things, an attempt to show how the effects of poetry, "so straddling an emotion and so broad a calm", had their reasons which could be discussed precisely in terms of the meanings of the words, as they were, on the page. (pp. 76-7)

The effect of this on Empson's poetry was to give him a wonderful gusto with ideas and performance. It was they that carried the emotional charge. (p. 77)

[Empson's] is poetry, in fact, of the conceit; it depends on a strong feeling for ideas and a strong control over a large range of them.

In this, Empson is not as like Donne as he is usually said to be. He is far closer to the lesser Metaphysicals, to Carew or Lovelace, to Cowley or even Benlowes. That is, he is less interested in saying his own say than in the agility and skill and variety with which he juggles his ideas. So it is a personal poem only at a remove: the subject is impersonal; the involvement is all in his effort to make as much as he can out of the subject, and in the accomplishment with which he relates his manifold themes so elegantly together.

Empson's, in short, is a poetry of wit in the most traditional sense. It relies on a small audience, with much the same training and interests, who will pick up his allusions without any overemphasis on his part. And, like most wit, the pleasure it gives is largely in the immaculate performance; which is a rare pleasure but a limited one. Yeats, say, at his best demands a kind of "Ah yes" response. What is said seems so right, so naturally, economically and beautifully expressed that the poet appears not to have invented anything at all; he has merely put into its final shape some emotional truth which you already knew quite well but which had, until he reminded you of it, somehow escaped formulation. On the other hand, when Empson writes on the old theme of the Coy Mistress:

     What is conceivable can happen too,"
     Said Wittgenstein, who had not dreamt of you;

your assent is not that "Ah yes"; it is much more like Wilde's "I wish I'd said that". It is not total assent; it is admiration for the speed and the polish and the irony, for the great technical and intellectual virtuosity.

None of this implies that essential impersonality which is the mark of academic verse, verse which is not so much impersonal as dessicated. Empson's early poems have the detachment of wit, but they also have its excitement and gusto. Yet the personal involvement of the poet is oblique. This is true even of his best poem, "To an Old Lady"…. Unlike most of Empson's earlier verse, this is not difficult—except for one or two minor niceties which the notes explain—and it manages to make its effect without any of those hectic intellectual contortions which provide what Empson himself called the "crossword puzzle interest" of the poems. Yet though it is a personal poem—addressed, he has said, to his mother—it succeeds not because of any particularly personal intensity. It relies, instead, on the manner in which the tone is so beautifully sustained. However much the poet seems with his subject and however large the technical equipment he brings to bear upon it, what is most striking about the poem is its tact. For essentially what he is praising in the old lady is her decorum, her sense of style…. It has that serious ironic admiration for style that is like Pope's…. Hence the old lady can be observed, meditated on, admired, but finally she is "inaccessible". The poem has reverence, but it is for a way of life that has become remote, for a style. In short, "To an Old Lady" derives its energy from a source which, however heightened and dignified it may be, is still that of his other work: a powerful feeling for the depths and intricacies of manners. His best early poems—"To an Old Lady", "This Last Pain", "Arachne", "The Ants", "Invitation to Juno", "Camping Out", "Note on Local Flora" and "Legal Fiction"—contrive to make up an extraordinary personal achievement without risking any properly personal statement. Instead, they are acts of the most subtle critical reverence to the whole concept, style. (pp. 79-82)

Empson's preoccupation with style, however, occasionally lapsed into a preoccupation with the tricks of meaning. He spoke of this, in a dissatisfied way, as his "clotted style", and in "Bacchus" he reduced it to its unreadable conclusion: the notes were about twice the length of the poem. The intellectual toughness had developed, to say the least, into a mannerism.

Since Empson had always avoided exaggerating his personal claims, it was appropriate that he should also avoid exaggerating his style. The tone of the second volume, The Gathering Storm, was a good deal clearer. But this was the result of a change of emphasis, not of heart. Instead of elaborate verbal contortions, the new manner reduced the poetry to bare statements which were forced into profundity by being juxtaposed one with the other…. The pieces have just enough emotional coherence to make the argument tantalizing and just too little to make it inevitable. So, despite the superficial clarity, the reader has to work quite as hard as with the earlier "puzzle" style.

It was typical of this new emphasis that in the most technically original of these poems, "The Teasers", Empson discovered a way of writing complex poetry almost without metaphor. He did it by a kind of grammatical stutter which fixed attention upon those thin, weightless little words which are normally hardly noticed:

      Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,
      Not but they die …

The poem was difficult although it had few of the usual puzzles of metaphor or argument or reference. It seemed to have transferred to the realm of personal poetry the kind of linguistic interest normally reserved for modern philosophers.

The new style, however, meant unequivocally that Empson no longer found his earlier elegance satisfying. The important thing was now to state his own personal conclusions. Earlier, the energy and conviction had gone into marshalling his ideas and into his superb intellectual rhetoric; now, by an effort of formidable technical concentration, the personal experience became generalized into ideas…. [For example, "Missing Dates"] is a famous and convincing poem, and doubtless the product of much suffering. But there is a curiously static quality about it. It has none of that swarming logical drive which did so much to keep the early poems in motion…. Then there is the heavy, flat rhythm, which is apt enough for the subject of the poem—the inevitability of defeat—but which works like a drug; it deadens you into accepting the resigned emptiness, but spares you the more personal difficulty of feeling the poet's conclusions out for yourself. There is no question of the tone being forced or false; but the real poem seems to have happened before the actual poem, as it is on the page, was written. That is, all the conflict and regret and resignation have gone into producing the two key lines of the villanelle:

     Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills….
     The waste remains, the waste remains and kills….

As the poem unwinds, these generalizations are clarified, but they are not intensified. They are transformed almost into abstractions, ideas to be proved, commented on, illustrated, but no longer to be felt out. For the feeling has happened before the poem started, and from it the poet had produced two working hypotheses as a kind of test for everything else that is said. Even the beautiful closing lines seem rather to clinch the generalizations Empson began with than to transform them into something new.

It is this static quality that distinguishes the later verse from the early. The poems in The Gathering Storm are less specialized than those of the first volume; they are, in a way, more applicable and more serious; but they lack that sense of potentiality and triumphant elegance. In the early poems the ideas were constantly expanding one into another controlled by a powerful and ironic logic; but it was a tentative control. The poems came to rest in a kind of temporary balance of their forces, as though in the teeth of all possible complexities the poet had managed to substantiate, at least, a style. In his sardonic way, Empson made his polish and inventiveness seem like a personal claim for sanity, as though he saw everything in a fourth and horrifying dimension but was too well-mannered to say so. Hence the wry despair and vigorous stylishness seemed not at all contradictory. On the other hand, the later poems seem to be less personal discoveries…. Yet what the poems have gained in general truth they have lost in stylish and enquiring originality. And it is as a stylist of poetry and ideas that, I think, Empson is most important. He took over all Eliot's hints about what was most significant in the English tradition, and he put them into practice without any of the techniques Eliot had derived from the French and Italians. And so his poetry shows powerfully and with great purity the perennial vitality of the English tradition; and in showing this it also expresses the vitality and excitement of the extraordinarily creative moment when Empson began writing. (pp. 82-6)

A. Alvarez, "William Empson: A Style From a Despair," in his Stewards of Excellence: Studies in Modern English and American Poets (abridged by permission of the author; in Canada by Chatto & Windus Ltd; copyright © 1958 A. Alvarez), Scribner's, 1958 (and published in Britain as The Shaping Spirit, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1958), pp. 73-86.


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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 poem is worth the trouble before you choose to go into it carefully, and you know more about it when you have done so.'

Such an assumption—that poetry which impresses also repays investigation—underlies the individual commentaries that follow. The discussion which gave rise to them has brought home to us the aptness to Empson's own work of his general statement that 'the process of getting to understand a poet is that of constructing his poems in one's own mind.' The process is apt because of the kind of poetry Empson's most often is: a poetry of ideas and argument, always interesting, and usually animated by (or experienced as) strong feeling. It is rarely a poetry of natural visual description: the view of man, in the earlier poems, is often microscopic or telescopic, his life seen in terms of the insect world or the 'finite but unbounded' universe; in the later poems he is seen in relation to the moral and political pressures of 'real' life in historical time; but his physical surroundings are not usually taken into account…. Empson said that 'a visual image is hardly ever essential, I think', and certainly observation of 'Nature' plays little part in his poetry. He describes, usually for non-visual purposes, the man-made—a building under construction, a wooden statuette of a Polynesian god, the Sphinx, the Beautiful Train; but the only natural objects that seize his attention for themselves are the magnolias of 'Doctrinal Point', and even then his admiration is used to emphasise man's difference, however regrettable, from them. (pp. 31-2)

Empson's habit of poetic arguing (which he once called, with typical self-deprecation, 'argufying') is related, by his own account, to his early response to Donne: 'I was imitating him more directly than the others were' and 'I really liked him because he argued'. The element of argument generates much of the excitement in reading an Empson poem; it becomes a voyage of discovery and, as in Donne, it is furthered by verbal wit, ingenuity of comparison, and specialised reference to contemporary science and thought. But saying that Empson is like Donne, as has become a routine critical gesture, is no more or less illuminating than striking a match in a cellar: one gets one's bearings, but the light doesn't last long. Any similarity between them as poets affected by the science of their day (and Empson's science feels more central to his outlook, more engrossing in its own right) is counteracted by their difference as love poets. Empson rarely has the large confidence of Donne ('Camping Out' comes nearest to it), and is more usually indirect and restrained, gaining his power from compression rather than the grand gesture: simply, he has as a love poet a more unhappy and self-doubting temperament. Whatever Empson learned from Donne he soon assimilated. Neither is Milton (though mentioned in 'Description of a View' and quoted in 'Letter III') a distracting phosphorescence playing on the surface of Empson's poetry; it is a matter not of imitation but of affinity, as if in Empson the cosmology of Milton had been re-imagined with the aid of post-Einstein astronomy, and with a divine creator left out. Yet the Christian God, denied as a source of belief, haunts Empson's poetry, a phantom kept warm by recurrent allusion to the Bible and to Christian myths which clearly still retain emotional force.

Despite there being some truth in the view that Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm differ in their frames of reference and in the nature and density of their ingredients (these differences being a function of Empson's changing experience and environments), it is more deeply true to say that Empson's poetry is an integral whole. Its underlying unity comes from two factors. One is Empson's rhythm, a characteristically grave yet immensely flexible iambic pentameter which gives his utterance an air both timeless and individual; the frequent compression of these pentameters within strictly-rhymed three- and four-line stanzas results in a laconic memorableness which is utterly unlike the work of anyone else. (pp. 33-4)

[The other unifying factor] is Empson's pervasive pessimism, variously despairing (with the intense conceptual despair of youth), dryly dignified, angry, existentially open, and stoically courageous…. Empson's concern in most of his poetry is the predicament of man, as species and as individual, in a universe and world which he must inhabit but which he neither controls nor can fully understand. Such a life 'involves maintaining oneself between contradictions which can't be solved by analysis'; yet, as Empson implied … when stating what was clearly the pressure behind his own poetry, man's intellectual pertinacity drives him to make the attempt: 'The first or only certain reason for writing verse is to clear your own mind and fix your own feelings'. Empson's efforts to do so, whether or not they succeeded as therapy, have produced poetry both invigorating and moving, which reverberates in the memory and is likely to last. (p. 34)

On the face of it, ['High Dive'] is one of Empson's most difficult [poems]: it bristles with off-putting technical terms ('irrotational', 'potential function', 'co-ordinates', 'phusis'); its syntax, particularly in lines 15-26, is convoluted and demanding; its cross-references and ambiguities are bewilderingly dense; and many of its phrases, those in brackets especially, have the blank-wall air of clues in The Times crossword. However,… it rewards the reader's application with a definite quasi-narrative into which most of the details fit. Its rhythmic vitality and variation reflects the changing directions and tensions of its theme, which is presented not as the general human condition but as a particular and momentous situation with an individual at its centre.

In conversation with Christopher Ricks, Empson described his early poems as being 'about the young man feeling frightened, frightened of women, frightened of jobs, frightened of everything, not knowing what he could possibly do'. That last phrase gives an ordinary meaning to the term 'potential function', and 'High Dive' is a poem concerned with the conflict between contemplation and action, the need to choose action, and the likely results of that choice…. [The] bathing pool image is an admirable one, both sharply realistic and widely metaphorical, standing for one's peer-group, society at large, even (as in Empson's note) the universe. Its combination of broad range and personal immediacy and urgency makes 'High Dive', its difficulties notwithstanding, one of Empson's most important early poems. (pp. 64-5)

All [of Empson's five verse 'letters'] are love poems of a sort, and three (the first two and the last) employ the letter convention not only to address the beloved but to discuss the question of communication itself…. [The] poems must be treated as diverse responses rather than as episodes in a continuing story.

'Letter I' is an interesting but unsatisfactory poem. It moves rather uneasily between epistolary casualness (the beginnings of the first two stanzas) and the intimations of bottled-up passion which conclude stanzas three and four, creating a sense of randomness rather than of tension; it illustrates its theme (essentially, the proper distance between two people in a relationship) by analogies, not entirely convincing, from astronomy and from Cornfordian primitive 'physics', but its most resonant lines (the last two of stanzas three and four) derive their force not from the arguments they complete but from the self-contained emotional commonplaces they express. The poem also displays irritating local obscurities …, some clumsiness (as when the aside on Mars in stanza two forces the poet-lecturer to repeat after it the phrase 'for messages' which precedes it), and two particularly drastic ellipses ('Hanged on the thread of radio advances' and 'your circumambient foreboding'), whose very necessary glossing by Empson's note only increases one's sense of their cross-word-clue arbitrariness. (pp. 81-2)

['Letter II'] does suggest some reasons for the 'concept of necessary distance' which is so puzzling in 'Letter I'. The sense of evanescence it conveys is depressing; but though its examination of human closeness may imply in the poet a temperament prone to boredom, the lack of strain in the poem's imagery, and the melancholy of its tone, help to build up a moving individual situation which has some degree of universality. Most relationships end; this one simply ends sooner.

The image that unifies the first four stanzas is that of the girl's face (or rather its various changing expressions) seen as a 'cave gallery' covered with primitive rock-paintings, through which the lover walks, picking out each one with a torch…. The comparison, striking and unusual, is also rather odd, as however the girl's expressions change her face remains stationary, whereas each painting is on a different part of the cave-wall and the observer moves past them in turn. But it works quite well, perhaps because the reader responds to the gallery's extension in space as the equivalent of a relationship's duration in time. This act of instinctive translation enables him to obey the poem's instruction to 'only walk on': time is irreversible, though in space one can go backwards; and though paintings co-exist whereas expressions follow each other, the latter is made plausible in terms of the metaphor because a moving torch can illuminate only one picture at a time. The poem's slow, inexorable progress through the 'gallery', allowing no second thoughts and little lingering ('the sands are shifting as you walk'), contrives to create an air of inevitability in the human situation it mediates. (pp. 86-7)

Empson's only poem of natural description ['Flighting for Duck'] gives the reader used to his complex intellectual manner an initial impression of flatness; but further acquaintance reveals it as skilful in structure, sensitive in feeling, and rich in suggestion. (p. 112)

The eighteenth-century flavour of the poem, most obvious in the splendid pastiche of heroic couplets in section three, is particularly appropriate in view of the two activities described—'flighting' (shooting wildfowl) and 'warping' (fertilising land with alluvial deposits)—since both present man as controlling his environment rather than just as observing it…. Though Empson's attitude to man's supremacy is not unequivocal, it is recurrent ideas of order which provide the poem with its thematic unity: the infertile thistle-specked marsh which is 'not yet mastered' by man's 'alluvial scheme'; the human eye which 'orders' the 'unreachable chaos' of the flying ducks; the 'proper homage' paid by the dead ducks to 'Reason's arm'. (The realisation that this last is a periphrasis for 'gun' gives a nice ironic sting).

Atmospheric unity is created by the poem's slow progress from twilight, against which the darker objects of pinetrees and barn show with mysterious clarity, to misty moonlight ('one whole pearl embrowned') in which the poet's black hatband is similarly visible, standing out with enigmatic significance and relating surrounding objects to itself. And the movement up to and away from the climactic third section, with its sharp report and clipped couplets, is managed with unobtrusive ease: first the scene-setting, in blank verse which is given an effect of rhyme by its equal, though not always alternating, masculine and feminine endings (ten of each); then the arrival of the ducks, announced in staccato phrases and nervous, accidental-sounding rhymes; and their diverging movements in the sky, paralleled by the widely-varying gaps between the different rhyme-sounds. In the last four lines of section two the sentence structure and the two close rhymes 'amuse' and 'Ouse' combine to create a quatrain from which the poem's modulation into (mock) heroic couplets is credible and smooth. After their parody of Augustan balance and inversion, which conveys good-humoured dissent from the complacent convictions of sportsmen,… the last six lines form a complete contrast, in their slow-paced movement and rhyme-scheme and their mood of detachment and reflection.

To describe the poem's general effect thus, in terms of motifs, sound and mood, is to suggest its unusual place in Empson's work. (pp. 112-13)

['Letter III'], which shares with 'Letter II' the use of 'heaven' as an image for the loved girl's face and qualities, also vies with it in being the best of the five letters. With dense language, intricacy of cross-reference, and literary allusion (all these elements highly functional) it combines neatness and economy of structure and a strong main line of emotional argument throughout. Its more positive attitude to the love relationship is in refreshing contrast to the gloom of 'Letter II': while the poem belongs partly to the tradition of metaphysical compliment (like Donne's, Empson's mistress is 'more than moone'), there is a distinctly personal note in its grateful celebration of love as a bringer of sanity and courage. (p. 116)

George Every singled out 'This Last Pain' as 'probably Empson's important contribution to English poetry'; subsequent critics have nearly all endorsed his judgement, at least to the extent of thinking the poem among Empson's best. It is easy to see why: the poem has the air of saying something important, appears to present it in logical sequence and with relative clarity, depending little on ambiguities of wording and syntax, and employs a crisp, elegant quatrain … whose alternation of pentameter statement and octosyllabic comment has the effect of continuous epigram. There is, however, a considerable difference in clarity between the first five stanzas, with their witty but confusing analogies and their jerky, stop-start movement, and the last four, which form a smooth, if repetitious, train of thought, all too detachable from what precedes it. It is these later stanzas, and particularly the last two, which critics have been disposed to comment on and quote, finding in phrases like 'an edifice of form' and 'a style from a despair' ready-made aphoristic summaries of Empson's 'philosophy'. Yet the general feeling of the poem is cleverly serious, rather than profoundly so; it advances a set of provisional assertions ('let me foretell') rather than a watertight proof, and the words 'pain' and 'despair', which begin and end it, carry intellectual meaning but no great emotional weight. (pp. 120-21)

[In an essay Empson remarked that the intellectual dilemma of his time] is 'that true beliefs may make it possible to act rightly; that we cannot think without verbal fictions; that they must not be taken for true beliefs, and yet must be taken seriously; that it is essential to analyse beauty; essential to accept it unanalysed; essential to believe that the universe is deterministic; essential to act as if it were not.'

This, of course, is a pretty accurate description of Empson's poem, walking its narrow line between total intellectual disbelief in God and 'all those large dreams' and total emotional belief in them (or enslavement to them), and thus in the process preserving both the poet's intellectual self-respect and his emotional health. Structurally, the poem can roughly be divided into the first four stanzas, which deny any 'real' basis to beliefs in God, eternity and the soul, and the last four, which present the human need to create such beliefs….

The poem takes off from the Patristic idea … that the sinner's worst punishment in hell was to be able to imagine the heavenly delights he was deprived of, and applies this to man's state on Earth: heaven is non-existent, and its pleasures are known only here. (p. 122)

['Letter IV' is] obscure and problematic, the point of even the explicable references often not apparent. Dressed in the heavy brocade of its elaborate verse-form—a Spenserian stanza lacking the seventh line—the poem moves stiffly, its archaic manner ill-suited to its modern scientific analogies and hampering their clear expression and argumentative effect.

Its omission from Poems (1935) was retrospectively explained by Empson himself on the grounds that 'it seemed sententious' (with which view it is easy to agree), and that 'the basic feelings seemed to have nothing to do with the moral, arrived at by allegorising Eddington.' Here one can only envy Empson, who is troubled by the disjunction between two components of the poem; for the reader, the problem is to be sure what the two components are. The 'moral' lacks sharp definition, and the 'feelings' are almost lost in the proliferation of metaphoric detail, though they may involve a sense of cold isolation which gives way to a gratitude for warmth imparted by the girl addressed. What tenuously holds the poem together is a gradual upward movement perceptible throughout: the 'long climb' of the cicada through the earth, the ascent of vapour from sea to sky, the conclusion of 'stars' and 'rounded universe'. Yet this continuity of direction is confused by changes of material along the way, as the poem passes from entomology through meteorology to modern astronomy. There are hints of a possible secondary pattern in the various motifs of voiding …, but it is hard to be certain that deliberate cross-referencing is involved, or what it might be meant to signify. (pp. 136-37)

Though 'Letter IV' is full of suggestive possibilities (and, in stanza 2, demonstrates a witty buoyancy), there are too many of them for even Empson's dexterity to profit from. One suspects, in fact, that he was basically undecided about what he wanted his letter to convey. (p. 142)

The conclusion of 'Letter V' is a curious amalgam. 'Painless arrows' conveys both gentlemanly reassurance and erotic suggestion; a comic quality in 'joints' (particularly as the word is so near 'grazing') vies with voyeuristic sadism, the picture of the apparently helpless girl recalling paintings of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian; and there is a degree of pleasure in sheer cleverness, as if the poet were a skilful knife-thrower in a circus outlining the spreadeagled limbs of his attractive girl 'assistant'. Yet all the poem's intellectuality boils down to very little. Distinctions are made only to be discarded, metaphors confuse, whether unfurled or not, and the girl of the poem, and of reality, escapes the bloodless approximations of her suitor. (p. 151)

A curious and powerful mixture of circumstantial detail and cryptic evasiveness (as though habitual reticence struggled with an intense wish to preserve something of special value), 'Aubade' relates its personal experience—the truncated relationship of 'two aliens'—to the larger uncertainties of the 1930s which provide a context and, in a sense, an explanation for its failure. The initial incident of the earthquake—an ironic, premature and unwelcome 'dawn song'—occasions a hurried parting which seems only temporary but is revealed obliquely to have become permanent (so the earthquake is both literal and a metaphor for the unsteady ground beneath this particular love affair); the angry regret and questioning which ensue are accompanied by a feeling, partly genuine and partly self-justificatory, that there was little hope for two lovers of different races in a decade marked by natural calamity, economic collapse and the spread of war. As the poem progresses and its individual story merges into the historical situation, the alternating refrains come to stand for the unsatisfactory choice by which man is constantly confronted: between the wish 'to be up and go', which may be an act of sensible determination or convenient cowardice, and the need to stay, which may be courageous defiance or submission to the unavoidable. (pp. 163-64)

[Despite a moving conclusion, the] poem, though of considerable poignancy and, for Empson, self-revealing in an unusual way, is not entirely satisfying. There is a tendency not only for the refrains, but for many of the individual lines (so often end-stopped) to echo impressively in isolation, to suggest as generalisations more than they convey in their contexts. (p. 168)

At once Empson's longest and most relaxed poem—'a flow / Of personal chat', as he calls it in stanza 8—'Autumn on Nan-Yueh' has been unaccountably neglected by his critics. Richard Eberhart, a notable exception, justly spoke of it … as displaying 'an ease and brilliancy unparalleled in his other work' [see excerpt above]…. The relaxation of manner does not preclude an increasing seriousness as the poem proceeds, nor is it accompanied by looseness of versification; it is typical of Empson's enjoyment of rigorous technical challenge that the poem's conversational octosyllabics are poured into alternating twelve- and fourteen-line stanzas whose rhyme-scheme—abcb abcb abcb (ab)—demands the utmost verbal dexterity…. Despite occasional awkwardness … Empson handles his strict form with masterly ease: the rhymes provide satisfying echoes while the argument, often compressed and allusive but rarely obscure, ranges at will over the immediate situation and the broader reflections—personal, literary and political—which it stimulates. Empson's Chinese experience … was particularly valuable in that it led to poems which combine liveliness of thought with a vivid sense of place and person. 'Nan-Yueh', with its many different tones of voice (the bracketed passage in stanza 4 is delightfully dry), is the best of them, and one of its most likeable elements is its direct presentation of the poet himself, courageous and modest, fair-minded and wry. (pp. 212-13)

Philip Gardner and Averil Gardner, in their The God Approached: A Commentary on the Poems of William Empson (© Philip and Averil Gardner 1978), Rowman and Littlefield, 1978, 226 p.




Empson, William (Vol. 3)