William Empson

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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, however, he defines ambiguity as that which“gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” He feels that such categories as his are justified because they provide a “useful set of distinctions” for the critical reader of poetry by both heightening his consciousness of nuance and involving him actively in the process of careful exegesis to determine what the poem means. One may be convinced by Empson’s argument for such painstaking explication du texte, or may heatedly oppose it, but one cannot ignore it.

Thus Empson takes his place, along with T. S. Eliot and his mentor Richards, as an English exponent of what would come to be known as the New Criticism, that formal and objective position that limits itself to the autonomous context of the work itself, rejecting any historical or biographical concern with either the poem or its creator. Though more open-minded in practice, especially in the glosses and notes that he appended to his own poetry, Empson still stressed the “disassociation of sensibility.” He thus aligned himself with the New Critics in opposition to the Romantics and his contemporary neo-Romantics.

Five years after the appearance of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson continued to extend his concept of essential linguistic complexity, publishing Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), a somewhat misleading title for a more mature development of his critical method of verbal analysis. In this series of difficult yet controlled essays (entitled English Pastoral Poetry when it was published in the United States in 1938), Empson illustrates his theories with entire works rather than with excerpts, approaching a sophisticated Gestaltic position. Seeing the pastoral as the artificial cult of simplicity (“the process of putting the complex into the simple”),...

(This entire section contains 900 words.)

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rather than as a conventional genre of poems about rustic life, he demonstrates a sociological bias in choosing his examples, claiming that he is trying to demonstrate how “the social ideas” resulting from such a literary inversion “have been used in English literature.”

Empson’s third major critical work is The Structure of Complex Words (1951), another collection of essays in which he moves away from the traditional aesthetic values of literature, seeing instead expressions of cultural and societal interest—no doubt a reaction to shifts in attitudes around him. Though still concerned with a creative artist’s particular brand of linguistic complexity, the publication of this ambitious and learned work seemed to coincide with Empson’s ceasing to write poetry, provoking speculation that he had found the satisfaction in criticism that he was unable to achieve in his verse. Ten years later, in 1961, another major work of criticism appeared, Milton’s God, and a revision followed in 1965. Nothing innovative or brilliantly perceptive is evident here. His best later criticism continued to appear in the form of individual journal essays. Posthumous collections of his critical essays include Essays on Shakespeare (1986) and Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture (1987).

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Empson not only formulated his theory of poetic ambiguity but also edited and contributed to several literary publications, writing poetry and reviews of books, films, and theater productions. He even wrote a play, Three Stories (pr. 1927), now lost, in which he acted in a campus production. His lively talents have also been demonstrated in recordings of his poems. It is on Seven Types of Ambiguity, however, that Empson’s critical reputation rests. Its intellectual gusto, engaging wit, jauntiness of tone, and provocative thesis all reflect the brilliant Cambridge undergraduate who would subsequently influence contemporary poetry and its appreciation to a remarkable degree.


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To many, William Empson will always be the author of one book and recognized as the legendary “ambiguity man”; indeed, his poetry is often completely overlooked when he is identified only as “a British literary critic.” However, he wrote far more than the four critical volumes that established and expanded his analytical theory of linguistic complexity.

After publishing early poems in Cambridge undergraduate magazines, in 1935, he collected what he had written into his first slim annotated volume, Poems, all but ten of which were from his Cambridge days. Among the young poets breaking new ground in England in the 1930’s, Empson would prove less successful than his contemporaries, for his style revealed that his work was so “difficult,” so eccentrically brilliant, that general acclaim beyond academic circles was improbable. Certainly Empson himself knew that his verses would not suit popular taste.

In 1940, after returning to England from teaching positions in the Far East, Empson published his second collection of twenty-one poems, the ostensibly topical The Gathering Storm, including only ten poems that were previously unpublished. In his view, the work “is all about politics, saying we’re going to have this second world war and we mustn’t get too frightened about it,” when in fact all the poems do not reflect the threatening world crisis then provoking contemporary public anxiety. Demonstrating a static clarity not evident in the first volume of verse, the new poems revealed not so much the elegance of a clever and precocious undergraduate as a less-concentrated profundity growing out of personal pain and conviction, and the volume drew public attention. Winston Churchill, in fact, appropriated the title for a volume of his history of World War II.

In the 1950’s, Empson found himself the somewhat surprised paragon of what was then seen by some as the goal of poetic expression, a curious and ironic position for one who had given up writing poetry almost a decade earlier. Those who now venerated him, calling themselves collectively the Movement, were part of a loosely organized highbrow English reactionary group opposing both the apocalyptic, extreme neo-Romantic work best exemplified by the spectacularly sensual Dylan Thomas and that of the Symbolist tradition and of the Imagists. Members of the Movement were attracted by Empson’s urbane wit and control, his penchant not for emotional excess but for “argufying in poetry.” In an illuminating article appearing in 1963, Empson declares that without recognizing the fact, he must have had “strong feelings” about John Donne for a long time, not for his being Metaphysical but because of his “argufying,” a desirable and dynamic process that Empson saw as both mental and muscular and also as a revolt against Symbolism.

John Wain, one of the best-known members of the Movement, seeing Empson as the heir to Eliot, called attention to Empson’s poetic work, which exemplified this rhetorical stance, in his 1950 essay “Ambiguous Gifts,” which would have a profound formative impact in fashionable academic circles. Empson’s functional and concrete imagery, especially that suggesting scientific ideas, as Wain saw it, is most effective when it forms a series of intellectually ingeniousconceits, much in the manner employed by the Metaphysical poet John Donne, and in this characteristic, Empson’s work found its greatest strength. In deprecating current “romantic scribblers” and their adverse influence on literary taste, Wain wondered if Empson could be appreciated by the general public, his cerebral gifts being beyond their scope. Nevertheless, just as the shrine is not liable for the acts of the pilgrims, Empson could not be held responsible for his vocal and encomiastic disciples who, incidentally, soon generally repudiated him and moved elsewhere for stylistic inspiration.

Perhaps as a result of interest in Empson stirred up by enthusiastic Movement members forced to use the 1949 American edition of the Collected Poems, an English edition appeared in 1955, but by that time much of the fervid excitement for his work had died down. This volume brought together all but a few of those poems that Empson chose to publish, including the three poems he wrote during World War II. Again he provided extensive notes at the end and even included an explanatory “Note on Notes.” He published no new poems since this volume appeared. In fact, his poems total only sixty-three.


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Constable, John, ed. Critical Essays on William Empson. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. A collection of reviews, articles, and excerpts on the work of the poet and critic. Includes bibliographic references.

Fry, Paul H. William Empson: Prophet Against Sacrifice. New York: Routledge, 1991. Provides an account of this versatile critic’s career and discredits the appropriation of his name by the conflicting parties of deconstruction and politicized cultural criticism. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Gill, Roma, ed. William Empson: The Man and His Work. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. This Empson celebration features contributions by such luminaries as W. H. Auden and I. A. Richards. Some of the pieces specifically take up Empson’s poetry. A hefty bibliography is provided.

Haffenden, John. William Empson: Against the Christians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. The second volume in Haffenden’s biography of Empson begins during World War II and looks at Empson’s work with the British Broadcasting Corporation, his time in China and the United States, and his life in England. Analyzes Milton’s God.

_______. William Empson: Among the Mandarins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. The first volume in a biography of Empson, focusing on his studies in 1930’s war-torn China and the impact that Eastern culture had on his own writing.

_______, ed. The Complete Poems of William Empson. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Not merely a collection of all the poetry, including some discovered after Empson’s death, this four-hundred-page book draws on unpublished papers, interviews, readings, and broadcasts to add copious appendices along with a detailed introduction by editor Haffenden. Also includes Empson’s own notes, which complement the poems, and an interview with Christopher Ricks.

Leader, Zachary, ed. The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie, and Their Contemporaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. This collection of essays on members of the Movement includes one on Empson, as well as on Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and Donald Davie.

Norris, Christopher. William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. London: Athlone Press, 1978. Empson was known more for his literary criticism than he was for his poetry. Norris describes how Empson developed and applied his doctrine of poetic ambiguity. Contains bibliographical references and an index.

Sale, Roger. Modern Heroism: Essays on D. H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Sale analyzes these three twentieth century writers in terms of the way they used the theme of courage. Technological changes in the twentieth century shifted the meaning of heroism in literature, and these writers have helped shape a new definition. For advanced students.

Willis, John H. William Empson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. A brief (forty-five-page) review of the poetry and criticism. Calls attention to Empson’s debt to T. S. Eliot and the Metaphysical poets and to his use of images and analogies from mathematics and science. Provides brief explications of many of Empson’s significant poems. Contains a bibliography.


Critical Essays