William Empson: The Man and His Work
William Empson, poet, critic, professor, and lifelong mauvais sujet of English studies, was born in Yorkshire in 1906, studied with I. A. Richards in Cambridge, taught for longish spells in Japan and China, and from 1953 until his retirement in 1971 held the Chair of English Literature at Sheffield University. Roma Gill’s collection of essays, poems, and memories is about Empson, as its subtitle suggests; but it is also in honor of Empson, one of those gold watches of academe that are sometimes handed out at the end of a distinguished teaching career. It is odd to find Empson in such a situation; it doesn’t really suit the determined, unsubdued youth of his mind, what Karl Miller calls the velocity of his writing.
The first entry in Miss Gill’s book is a short poem by Auden, who wonders whether he might manage “just a smack at Empson,” but decides he can’t. The reference is to Empson’s “Just a Smack at Auden,” written in 1938 (“The fat is in the pyre, boys, waiting for the end”). A general failure to respond to Empson’s provocations in a witty, generous, or even belligerent way (“nothing occurred,” Auden says—all he could find fault with was Empson’s belief that Milton’s God had something to do with Christianity) is what is disappointing about this otherwise attractive volume. It is all a bit too amiable and soft on the edges.
Of course, if Auden couldn’t find the right note, probably no one could, and in any case Empson’s friends can hardly be expected to attack him as if they were his enemies, and it is true that Empson’s principal literary enemies (C. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard, and God) are all dead. But there is a streak of condescension in this book that diminishes Empson even as it means to treat him well. The book contains remarkable things, certainly—a wonderful, garrulous essay on Empson by George Fraser, a firm and intelligent piece on texts and intentions by Graham Hough, and an ingenious exploration of Empson’s poetry by Christopher Ricks—but its main effect is to suggest that Empson, like Citizen Kane, has a private form of greatness, something not quite visible to the public eye.
When Professor Bradbrook describes Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) as “one of the most influential works of modern criticism” she means to be complimentary, but the compliment has an aftertaste of depreciation, as if Empson’s influence were rather like that of a naughty schoolboy, always dragging virtuous scholars off to the lavatory for a smoke or, to drop the simile, for an unhealthy bout of New Criticism. It is this hint that Denis Donoghue was picking up last year when he said, in a review of Miss Gill’s book for the TLS, that it was “not Empson’s fault that the influence of Seven Types has been more bad than good.” Even George Fraser’s …
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