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William Empson

William Empson

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Sir William Empson was an English
English people
The English are a nation and ethnic group native to England, who speak English. The English identity is of early mediaeval origin, when they were known in Old English as the Anglecynn. England is now a country of the United Kingdom, and the majority of English people in England are British Citizens...

 literary critic and poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

.He was known as "燕卜荪" in Chinese
Chinese language
The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...

.

He was widely influential for his practice of closely reading
Close reading
Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they...

 literary works, fundamental to the New Critics. Jonathan Bate
Jonathan Bate
Jonathan Bate CBE FBA FRSL is a British academic, biographer, critic, broadcaster, novelist and scholar of Shakespeare, Romanticism and Ecocriticism...

 has said that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest".

Empson has been styled a "critic of genius" by Sir Frank Kermode, who qualified his praise by identifying willfully perverse readings of certain authors; and Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is an American writer and literary critic, and is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is known for his defense of 19th-century Romantic poets, his unique and controversial theories of poetic influence, and his prodigious literary output, particularly for a literary...

 has stated that Empson is among a handful of critics who matter most to him, because of their force and eccentricity. Empson's bluntness led to controversy both during his life and after his death, and a reputation in part also as a "licensed buffoon" (Empson's own phrase).

His best-known work is almost certainly his first: Seven Types of Ambiguity
Seven Types of Ambiguity (Empson)
Seven Types of Ambiguity was first published in 1930 by William Empson. It was one of the most influential critical works of the 20th century and was a key foundation work in the formation of the New Criticism school. The book is organized around seven types of ambiguity that Empson finds in the...

, first published in 1930.

Education


Empson was the son of Arthur Reginald Empson of Yokefleet Hall, Yorkshire
Yorkshire
Yorkshire is a historic county of northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Because of its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been increasingly undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform...

. His mother was Laura, daughter of Richard Mickelthwait J.P., of Ardsley House, Yorkshire. He was a first cousin of the brothers John and Richard Atcherley
Richard Atcherley
Air Marshal Sir Richard Llewellyn Roger Atcherley KBE, CB, AFC & Bar was a senior commander in the RAF who also served as chief of Air Staff for the Royal Pakistan Air Force.-Early life:...



Empson first discovered his great skill and interest in mathematics at his preparatory school. He won an entrance scholarship to Winchester College
Winchester College
Winchester College is an independent school for boys in the British public school tradition, situated in Winchester, Hampshire, the former capital of England. It has existed in its present location for over 600 years and claims the longest unbroken history of any school in England...

, where he excelled as a student and received what he later described as "a ripping education" in spite of the rather rough and abusive milieu of the school: a long standing tradition of physical force, especially among the students, figured prominently in life at such schools.

In 1925, Empson won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge
Magdalene College, Cambridge
Magdalene College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, England.The college was founded in 1428 as a Benedictine hostel, in time coming to be known as Buckingham College, before being refounded in 1542 as the College of St Mary Magdalene...

, where he read Mathematics, gaining a First for his Part I but a disappointing 2.i for his Part II. He then went on to pursue a second degree in English, and at the end of the first year he was offered a Bye-Fellowship. His supervisor in Mathematics, the father of the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey
Frank P. Ramsey
Frank Plumpton Ramsey was a British mathematician who, in addition to mathematics, made significant and precocious contributions in philosophy and economics before his death at the age of 26...

, expressed regret at Empson's decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, since it was a discipline for which Empson showed great talent.

I.A. Richards
I. A. Richards
Ivor Armstrong Richards was an influential English literary critic and rhetorician....

, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson's first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity
Seven Types of Ambiguity (Empson)
Seven Types of Ambiguity was first published in 1930 by William Empson. It was one of the most influential critical works of the 20th century and was a key foundation work in the formation of the New Criticism school. The book is organized around seven types of ambiguity that Empson finds in the...

, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:

At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding
Laura Riding
Laura Jackson was an American poet, critic, novelist, essayist and short story writer.- Early life :...

 and Robert Graves
Robert Graves
Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...

 had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of 'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Sonnet 129
-Analysis:This Sonnet convinces the reader into disliking the pursuit of sex. The first twelve lines of the poem all add to the first: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. The second verse places a frame around the first “Is lust in action; and till action, lust”...

.' Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by 'You could do that with any poetry, couldn't you?' This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, 'You'd better go off and do it, hadn't you?'


But disaster struck when Empson was discovered in his rooms in flagrante delicto with a girl and a servant found prophylactics among his things. As a result, not only was Empson prevented from receiving his M.A. in 1934, but he had his name removed from the college records, lost his prospects of a comfortable fellowship and, astonishingly, was banished from the city which, while confirming him in his cheerful disregard for prevailing moral norms, upset him greatly at the time.

Professional career


After his banishment from Cambridge, Empson supported himself for a brief period as a freelance critic and journalist, living in Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury
-Places:* Bloomsbury is an area in central London.* Bloomsbury , related local government unit* Bloomsbury, New Jersey, New Jersey, USA* Bloomsbury , listed on the NRHP in Maryland...

 until 1930 when he signed a three-year contract to teach in Japan after his tutor Richards had failed to find him a post teaching in China.

He returned to England in the mid-1930s only to depart again after receiving a three-year contract to teach at Peking University
Peking University
Peking University , colloquially known in Chinese as Beida , is a major research university located in Beijing, China, and a member of the C9 League. It is the first established modern national university of China. It was founded as Imperial University of Peking in 1898 as a replacement of the...

. Upon his arrival, he discovered that due to the Japanese invasion of China, he no longer had a post. Empson joined the exodus, with little more than a typewriter and suitcase. He ended up in Kunming
Kunming
' is the capital and largest city of Yunnan Province in Southwest China. It was known as Yunnan-Fou until the 1920s. A prefecture-level city, it is the political, economic, communications and cultural centre of Yunnan, and is the seat of the provincial government...

, with Lianda
Lianda
Lianda is a fictional character in the Marvel Universe.-Publication history:Lianda first appeared in Dracula Lives! #1-2 .Lianda appeared as part of the "Vampires" entry in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition #20....

 (Southwest Associated University), the school created there from student and professor refugees from the war in the north.

He arrived in England in January 1939.

He worked for a year on the big daily Digest of foreign broadcasts and in 1941 met George Orwell
George Orwell
Eric Arthur Blair , better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English author and journalist...

, at that time the Indian Editor of the BBC Eastern Service, on a six-week course in what was called the Liars' School of the BBC. They remained friends but Empson recalled one clash: "At that time the Government had put into action a scheme for keeping up the birth-rate during the war by making it in various ways convenient to have babies, for mothers going out to work; government nurseries were available after the first month, I think, and there were extra eggs and other goodies on the rations. My wife and I took advantage of this plan to have two children. I was saying to George one evening after dinner what a pleasure it was to cooperate with so enlightened a plan when, to my horror, I saw the familiar look of settled loathing come over his face. Rich swine boasting over our privileges, that was what we had become..."

Empson went back to China soon after the war.

In 1953 he was professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London for a year. He later became head of the English department at the University of Sheffield
University of Sheffield
The University of Sheffield is a research university based in the city of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England. It is one of the original 'red brick' universities and is a member of the Russell Group of leading research intensive universities...

 until his retirement in 1972.

Critical focus


Empson's critical work focuses largely on early and pre-modern works in the English literary canon. He was a significant scholar of Milton (see below), Shakespeare (Essays on Shakespeare), and Elizabethan drama (Essays on Renaissance Literature, Volume 2: The Drama). He published a monograph, Faustus and the Censor, on the subject of censorship and the authoritative version of Marlowe
Marlowe
- People :Given name* Marlowe Gardiner-Heslin , Canadian actor* Marlowe Morris , American jazz musicianSurname* Andrew W...

's Doctor Faustus. He was also an important scholar of the metaphysical poets
Metaphysical poets
The metaphysical poets is a term coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, who shared an interest in metaphysical concerns and a common way of investigating them, and whose work was characterized by inventiveness of metaphor...

 John Donne
John Donne
John Donne 31 March 1631), English poet, satirist, lawyer, and priest, is now considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are notable for their strong and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs,...

 (Essays on Renaissance Literature, Volume 1: Donne and the New Philosophy) and Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell was an English metaphysical poet, Parliamentarian, and the son of a Church of England clergyman . As a metaphysical poet, he is associated with John Donne and George Herbert...

.

Occasionally, Empson brought his critical genius to bear on modern writers; Using Biography, for instance, contains papers on Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding was an English novelist and dramatist known for his rich earthy humour and satirical prowess, and as the author of the novel Tom Jones....

's Tom Jones
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, often known simply as Tom Jones, is a comic novel by the English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding. First published on 28 February 1749, Tom Jones is among the earliest English prose works describable as a novel...

as well as the poetry of William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms...

 and T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

, and Joyce's
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

 Ulysses
Ulysses (novel)
Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, and then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, in Paris. One of the most important works of Modernist literature,...

.

Style, method, and influence


Empson is today best known for his literary criticism, and in particular his analysis of the use of language in poetical works: his own poetry is arguably undervalued, although it was admired by and influenced English poets in the 1950s. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947...

 was an acquaintance at Cambridge, but Empson consistently denied any previous or direct influence on his work. Empson's best known work is the book Seven Types of Ambiguity
Seven Types of Ambiguity (Empson)
Seven Types of Ambiguity was first published in 1930 by William Empson. It was one of the most influential critical works of the 20th century and was a key foundation work in the formation of the New Criticism school. The book is organized around seven types of ambiguity that Empson finds in the...

which, together with Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words, mine the astonishing riches of linguistic ambiguity in English poetic literature. Empson's studies unearth layer upon layer of irony, suggestion, and argumentation in various literary works—a technique of textual criticism so influential that often Empson's contributions to certain domains of literary scholarship remain significant, though they may no longer be recognized as his. The universal recognition of the difficulty and complexity (indeed, ambiguity) of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 94" ("They that have power..."), for instance, is traceable to Empson's analysis in Some Versions of Pastoral—a virtuosic display of the riches a critic might unearth from a close reading of a poem. Empson's study of "Sonnet 94" goes some way towards explaining the high esteem in which the sonnet is now held (often being reckoned as among the finest sonnets), as well as the technique of criticism and interpretation that has thus reckoned it.

Empson's technique of teasing a rich variety of interpretations from poetic literature does not, however, exhaustively characterize his critical practice. He is much interested in the human or experiential reality to be discovered in great works of literature as is manifest, for instance, in his discussion of the fortunes of the notion of Proletarian literature in Some Versions of Pastoral. Indeed, it is this commitment to unravelling or articulating the experiential truth or reality in literature that aligns Empson so perfectly with Dr. Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

 and that permits him unusual avenues to explore sociopolitical ideas in literature in a vein very different from contemporary Marxist critics (e.g., Fredric Jameson
Fredric Jameson
Fredric Jameson is an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. He is best known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends—he once described postmodernism as the spatialization of culture under the pressure of organized capitalism...

) or scholars of New Historicism
New Historicism
New Historicism is a school of literary theory, grounded in critical theory, that developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s....

 (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is a literary critic, theorist and scholar.Greenblatt is regarded by many as one of the founders of New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics"; his works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term...

). Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that:

Gray's
Thomas Gray
Thomas Gray was a poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University.-Early life and education:...

 Elegy is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. ... By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. ... The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death.


Empson goes on to deliver his political verdict with a psychological suggestion:

Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the 'bourgeois' themselves do not like literature to have too much 'bourgeois ideology.'


Should one be in doubt of Empson's estimation and understanding of Gray's achievement, in the face of a tradition of canonization and study of the poem, Empson routs all political quibbles and ideological concerns with some remarks reminiscent of Dr. Johnson in their pained insistence:

And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way 'bourgeois', like this one; they suggest to readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree.


Despite the complexity of Empson's critical methods and attitude, his work, in particular, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had a significant impact on the New Criticism
New Criticism
New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic...

, a school of criticism which directed particular attention to close reading
Close reading
Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they...

 of texts, among whose adherents may be numbered F.R. Leavis, although, as has been noted, Empson could scarcely be described as an adherent or exponent of such a school or, indeed, of any critical school at all. Indeed, Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy
Intentional fallacy
Intentional fallacy, in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a "fallacy", a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important. The term is an important...

 formulated by William K. Wimsatt, an influential New Critic. Indeed, Empson's distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in a distinctively dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism
New Criticism
New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic...

 (which he ironically labels "the new rigour") as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, p. 122). Similarly, both the title and the content of one of Empson's volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes
Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and...

 and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the Death of the Author, despite the fact that some scholars regard Empson as a progenitor of certain of these currents of criticism, which vexed Empson. As Frank Kermode stated:

Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre - Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction
Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting"... (Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon)

Milton's God


Empson's Milton's God is often described as a sustained attack on Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 and defence of Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

's attempt to 'justify God's ways to man' in Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton. It was originally published in 1667 in ten books, with a total of over ten thousand individual lines of verse...

. Empson argues that precisely the inconsistencies and complexities adduced by critics as evidence of the poem's badness, in fact, function in quite the opposite manner: what the poem brings out is the difficulty faced by anyone in encountering and submitting to the will of God and, indeed, the great clash between the authority of such a deity and the determinate desires and needs of human beings.

...the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec
Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

 or Benin
Benin
Benin , officially the Republic of Benin, is a country in West Africa. It borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. Its small southern coastline on the Bight of Benin is where a majority of the population is located...

 sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka
Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka was a culturally influential German-language author of short stories and novels. Contemporary critics and academics, including Vladimir Nabokov, regard Kafka as one of the best writers of the 20th century...

, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious.
(Milton's God (1965), p. 13)


Empson claims that it is precisely Milton's great sensitivity and faithfulness to the Scriptures, in spite of their apparent madness, that generates such a controversial picture of God: thus Empson reckons that it requires a mind of astonishing integrity to, in the words of Blake
William Blake
William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age...

, be of the Devil's party without knowing it.

[Milton] is struggling to make his God appear less wicked, as he tells us he will at the start (l. 25), and does succeed in making him noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one; though, after all, owing to his loyalty to the sacred text and the penetration with which he make its story real to us, his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy...
(Milton's God (1965), p. 11)


The tendency in surveys of Empson's achievement in Milton's God is, depending on one's politics, to marvel or bristle at the audacious perversity of his central thesis—though something of the same perversity was tidied-up and reinterpreted in Stanley Fish's
Stanley Fish
Stanley Eugene Fish is an American literary theorist and legal scholar. He was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island...

 much lauded work on Milton (e.g., Surprised by Sin). This eclipses some of Empson's insights and his intelligence, humanity and humour in reading the poem, and ignores the significance of the work as one of the few efforts to immunize the aesthetic achievements of the poem from its theological or more widely religious achievements (see also the work of Balachandra Rajan
Balachandra Rajan
Balachandra Rajan , a scholar of poetry and poetics, focusing particularly on the poetry of John Milton, was Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Western Ontario....

).

Although perhaps not as influential in academic circles as, for example, Fish's work, Milton's God remains of great significance to any critically minded reader of Paradise Lost as a presentation of some reasons for the centrality of the work in the English literary canon. Empson portrays the work as the product of a poet of astonishingly powerful and imaginative sensibilities and great intellect who had invested much of himself in the poem. Despite its lack of influence, certain critics view Milton's God as by far the best (that is to say, the most valuable) sustained work of criticism on the poem by a 20th century critic. Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is an American writer and literary critic, and is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is known for his defense of 19th-century Romantic poets, his unique and controversial theories of poetic influence, and his prodigious literary output, particularly for a literary...

 includes it as one of the few critical works worthy of canonical status in his The Western Canon (and the only critical work focusing solely on a single piece of literature).

Poetry


Empson's poetry is clever, learned, dry, aethereal and technically virtuosic—not wholly dissimilar to his critical work. His high regard for the metaphysical poet John Donne
John Donne
John Donne 31 March 1631), English poet, satirist, lawyer, and priest, is now considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are notable for their strong and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs,...

 is to be seen in many places within his work, tempered with his appreciation of Buddhist thinking, an occasional tendency to satire
Satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

, and a larger awareness of intellectual trends. He wrote very few poems and stopped publishing poetry almost entirely after 1940. His Complete Poems [edited by John Haffenden
John Haffenden
Professor John Haffenden is an academic in the field of Literature at the University of Sheffield.-Education and positions held:He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin , where he edited Icarus, and Oxford University . He has spent periods as a Fellow of the Yaddo Foundation, New York; as a...

, his biographer] is 512 pages long, with over 300 pages of notes. In reviewing this work, Frank Kermode
Frank Kermode
Sir John Frank Kermode was a highly regarded British literary critic best known for his seminal critical work The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, published in 1967 ....

 commended him as a 'most noteworthy poet', and chose it as International Book of the Year at the TLS.

Person and character


Empson was a charismatic personality, variously described as gruff, scornful, brusque, cold, and of immoderate appetites (sex and alcohol being the most obvious), partly because he was also a roundly paradoxical figure. He was bisexual. He was critical of the Judeo-Christian God and attracted to Buddhist philosophy. His sophisticated and subtle intellectual refinement contrasted sharply with his rather lax attention to personal hygiene (the filthiness of his lodgings throughout his life is legendary) and grooming (in later years he affected a bizarre style of facial hair, shaving his chin, but allowing the hair around his neck to grow unimpeded, so that it resembled a shaggy, white cravat).
He was deeply sympathetic to the cause of Maoist
Maoism
Maoism, also known as the Mao Zedong Thought , is claimed by Maoists as an anti-Revisionist form of Marxist communist theory, derived from the teachings of the Chinese political leader Mao Zedong . Developed during the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely applied as the political and military guiding...

 revolutionaries in China, but was brought up in the cavernous luxury of a rural estate in Yorkshire
Yorkshire
Yorkshire is a historic county of northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Because of its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been increasingly undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform...

 with all the attendant prerogatives of a member of the landed gentry
Landed gentry
Landed gentry is a traditional British social class, consisting of land owners who could live entirely off rental income. Often they worked only in an administrative capacity looking after the management of their own lands....

. He was a scholar of imagination, erudition and insight specializing in the highly traditional domain of early and pre-modern English literature
English literature
English literature is the literature written in the English language, including literature composed in English by writers not necessarily from England; for example, Robert Burns was Scottish, James Joyce was Irish, Joseph Conrad was Polish, Dylan Thomas was Welsh, Edgar Allan Poe was American, J....

 at the heart of the canon (Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysical Poets), but his work is marked by great humour, the indulgence of an eloquent and cavalier dismissiveness (reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s...

 critical bon mots), and an astonishingly rich and varied erudition. He was esteemed the revolutionary forefather of modern literary criticism, but disavowed "theory" altogether and evinced a deep concern for distinctly psychological elements in literature: the emotions of desire and love, the sensibility and intentions of authors. He was an intellectual and scholar, yet, he spent a good portion of his early years living the life of an imperial adventurer (more a Richard Francis Burton
Richard Francis Burton
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS was a British geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia, Africa and the Americas as well as his...

 than a C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis , commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as "Jack", was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist from Belfast, Ireland...

). These paradoxes of character and approach partly help to explain the sense that many scholars have that, while imaginative, insightful and well-argued, his critical judgement sometimes partakes of the bizarre and, indeed, the downright perverse. Nevertheless, the importance of his early critical works to the history of literary criticism is widely acknowledged and Milton's God remains of considerable importance to Miltonic studies. Empson's critical legacy, despite occasional gaffes and less occasional idiosyncrasies, remains secure.

Quotes


From "Proletarian Literature" in Some Versions of Pastoral:

As for propaganda, some very good work has been that; most authors want their point of view to be convincing. Pope
Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson...

 said that even the Aeneid
Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...

was a 'political puff'; its dreamy, impersonal, universal melancholy was a calculated support for Augustus
Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

.


Of course to decide on an author's purpose, conscious or unconscious, is very difficult. Good writing is not done unless there are serious forces at work; and it is not permanent unless it works for readers with opinions different from the author's. On the other hand, the reason an English audience can enjoy Russian propagandist films is that the propaganda is too remote to be annoying; a Tory audience subjected to Tory propaganda of the same intensity would be extremely bored.


From "They That Have Power" in Some Versions of Pastoral:

(regarding Sonnet 94
Sonnet 94
Sonnet 94 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It's a member of the Fair Youth sequence, in which the poet expresses his love towards a young man.-Commentary:...

): If this was Shakespeare's only surviving work, it would still be clear, supposing one knew about the other Elizabethans, that it involves somehow their feelings about the Machiavellian
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic...

, the wicked plotter who is exciting and civilized and somehow right about life; which seems an important though rather secret element in the romance that Shakespeare extracted from his patron.


...poets, who tend to make in their lives a situation they have already written about.


...that curious trick of pastoral
Pastoral
The adjective pastoral refers to the lifestyle of pastoralists, such as shepherds herding livestock around open areas of land according to seasons and the changing availability of water and pasturage. It also refers to a genre in literature, art or music that depicts such shepherd life in an...

 which for extreme courtly flattery - perhaps to give self-respect to both poet and patron, to show that the poet is not ignorantly easy to impress, nor the patron to flatter - writes about the poorest people; and those jazz songs which give an intense effect of luxury and silk underwear by pretending to be about slaves naked in the fields.


The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so, is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral; in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone. The business of interpretation is obviously very complicated. Literary uses of the problem of free-will and necessity, for example, may be noticed to give curiously bad arguments and I should think get their strength from keeping you in doubt between the two methods. Thus Hardy
Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, OM was an English novelist and poet. While his works typically belong to the Naturalism movement, several poems display elements of the previous Romantic and Enlightenment periods of literature, such as his fascination with the supernatural.While he regarded himself primarily as a...

 is fond of showing us an unusually stupid person subjected to very unusually bad luck, and then a moral is drawn, not merely by inference but by solemn assertion, that we are all in the same boat as this person whose story is striking precisely because it is unusual. The effect may be very grand, but to make an otherwise logical reader accept the process must depend on giving him obscure reasons for wishing it so. It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, so reliable a bass note in the arts, needs to be counted as a possible territory of the pastoral.


From "Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

 and Bentley
Richard Bentley
Richard Bentley was an English classical scholar, critic, and theologian. He was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge....

" in Some Versions of Pastoral:

Surely Bentley was right to be surprised at finding Faunus haunting the bower [Paradise Lost ll. 705 - 707], a ghost crying in the cold of Paradise
Paradise
Paradise is a place in which existence is positive, harmonious and timeless. It is conceptually a counter-image of the miseries of human civilization, and in paradise there is only peace, prosperity, and happiness. Paradise is a place of contentment, but it is not necessarily a land of luxury and...

, and the lusts of Pan
Pan (mythology)
Pan , in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music, as well as the companion of the nymphs. His name originates within the Greek language, from the word paein , meaning "to pasture." He has the hindquarters, legs,...

 sacred even in comparison to Eden
Garden of Eden
The Garden of Eden is in the Bible's Book of Genesis as being the place where the first man, Adam, and his wife, Eve, lived after they were created by God. Literally, the Bible speaks about a garden in Eden...

. There is a Vergilian quality in the lines, haunting indeed, a pathos not mentioned because it is the whole of the story. I suppose that in Satan determining to destroy the innocent happiness of Eden, for the highest political motives, without hatred, not without tears, we may find some echo of the Elizabethan fulness of life that Milton as a poet abandoned, and as a Puritan helped to destroy.


On Celine's Journey to the End of the Night
Journey to the End of the Night
Journey to the End of Night is the first novel of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This semi-autobiographical work describes antihero Ferdinand Bardamu....

from Some Versions of Pastoral:

Voyage au Bout de la Nuit...is not to be placed quickly either as pastoral or proletarian; it is partly the 'underdog' theme and partly social criticism. The two main characters have no voice or trust in their society and no sympathy with those who have; it is this, not cowardice or poverty or low class, which the war drives home to them, and from then on they have a straightforward inferiority complex; the theme becomes their struggle with it as private individuals. ... Life may be black and mad in the second half but Bardamu is not, and he gets to the real end of the night as critic and spectator. This change is masked by unity of style and by a humility which will not allow that one can claim to be sane while living as part of such a world, but it is in the second half that we get Bardamu speaking as Celine in criticism of it. What is attacked may perhaps be summed up as the death-wishes generated by the herds of a machine society, and he is not speaking as 'spokesman of the proletariat' or with any sympathy for a communist one. ...before claiming the book as proletarian literature you have to separate off the author (in the phrase that Radek
Radek
Radek is a name, used as a surname and given name.As a surname, it may refer to:* Karl Radek , Bolshevik and international Communist leader* General Ivan Radek, communist terrorist leader of Kazakhstan in the Air Force One movie...

 used) as a man ripe for fascism
.
(Note this was written 2 years before Celine's first anti-semitic pamphlet and 9 years before he fled to Germany
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

.)


From "The Variants for the Byzantium Poems" in Using Biography:

...she appears to end her penultimate chapter 'Was Yeats
Yeats
W. B. Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright.Yeats may also refer to:* Yeats ,* Yeats , an impact crater on Mercury* Yeats , an Irish thoroughbred racehorse-See also:...

 a Christian
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

?' with the sentiment that he must have been pretty Christian
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 if he could stay friends with Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was an American expatriate poet and critic and a major figure in the early modernist movement in poetry...

.


From "Ulysses
Ulysses (novel)
Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, and then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, in Paris. One of the most important works of Modernist literature,...

: Joyce's
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

 Intentions" in Using Biography:

When I was young, literary critics often rejoiced that the hypocrisy of the Victorians had been discredited, or expressed confidence that the operation would soon be complete. So far from that, it has returned in a peculiarly stifling form to take possession of critics of Eng. Lit.; Mr. Pecksniff
Martin Chuzzlewit
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit is a novel by Charles Dickens, considered the last of his picaresque novels. It was originally serialized between 1843-1844. Dickens himself proclaimed Martin Chuzzlewit to be his best work, but it was one of his least popular novels...

 has become the patron saint of many of my colleagues. As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good. The study of English authors of the past is now centred in the universities, and yet there must be no censorship - no work of admitted literary merit may be hidden from the learners. Somehow we must save poor Teacher's face, and protect him from the indignant or jeering students, local authorities or parents. It thus came to be tacitly agreed that a dead author usually hated what he described, hated it as much as we do, even, and wanted his book to shame everybody out of being so nasty ever again. This is often called fearless or unflinching criticism, and one of its ill effects is to make the young people regard all literature as a terrific nag or scold. Independently of this, a strong drive has been going on to recover the children for orthodox or traditional religious beliefs; ... and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

 as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion
Crucifixion
Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead...

. The concordat was reached over his dead body.

Select books on Empson

  • Haffenden
    John Haffenden
    Professor John Haffenden is an academic in the field of Literature at the University of Sheffield.-Education and positions held:He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin , where he edited Icarus, and Oxford University . He has spent periods as a Fellow of the Yaddo Foundation, New York; as a...

    , John. William Empson, Vol. 1: Among the Mandarins
  • Haffenden
    John Haffenden
    Professor John Haffenden is an academic in the field of Literature at the University of Sheffield.-Education and positions held:He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin , where he edited Icarus, and Oxford University . He has spent periods as a Fellow of the Yaddo Foundation, New York; as a...

    , John. William Empson, Vol. 2: Against the Christians
  • Norris, Christopher and Mapp, Nigel (eds.). William Empson: The Critical Achievement. Cambridge: CUP, 1993
  • Frank Day. Sir William Empson: An Annotated Bibliography. London: Garland, 1984
  • Gardner, Philip and Averil. The God approached : a commentary on the poems of William Empson. London: Chatto & Windus, 1978

External links