William Empson Analysis

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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,...

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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...

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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...

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