Other literary forms
William Empson, better known for his criticism than for his poetry, is both famous and notorious for his doctrine of poetic ambiguity. Empson has argued that all good poetry is characterized by ambiguity, by uncertainties and tensions that are sometimes planned, sometimes fortuitous, frequently demanding variant interpretations. As a Cambridge undergraduate, Empson worked with I. A. Richards, whose pioneering “scientific” approach to literature, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), inspired his protégé to judge poetry by its success in exploiting linguistic and semantic possibilities, rather than by concentrating on its affective powers. Indeed, Empson sees “tension” or unresolved conflict as the formative principle of poetry.
Growing out of his work at Cambridge with Richards, as well as his familiarity with A Survey of Modernist Poetry by Robert Graves and Laura Riding (1922), Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse (1930, 1947) is a systematic and elaborate argument for close textual analysis of the semantic indeterminacy that is inherent in language. This remarkable study, which has remained Empson’s most influential and celebrated work, demonstrates how various shifting and equivocal denotative and connotative meanings both illuminate and complicate the experience of a poem. Empson conceded, however, that there is a good deal to be said for avoiding ambiguity. Observing that unequivocal, straightforward, prosaic, expository expression certainly leads “to results more direct, more communicable,” he warns poets never to be ambiguous “without proper occasion,” especially never to exploit plurisignification merely for decorative effect.
Such a brilliant critical work as Seven Types of Ambiguity appears even more impressive when one considers that it was an effort by an undergraduate not yet twenty-four years old. Accused of pedantry for his doctrinaire insistence on “scientific” classifications, Empson appears to have anticipated this response, for he explains first that ambiguity in his “extended sense” means whatever he wants it to mean. For the less flexible reader,...
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