Hero of the Word

Using Biography

by William Empson
Harvard University Press, 265 pp., $17.50

Collected Poems

by William Empson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 119 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Sir William Empson: An Annotated Bibliography

by Frank Day
Garland, 229 pp., $45.00

It was more than fifty years ago that William Empson, then a fresh graduate of Cambridge University, popped up over the critical horizon with Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Reading it over again now, a few months after his death, one thinks at once what a thoroughly agreeable book it is. Tough, funny, intelligent, audacious, and deprecatory by turns, it’s very much a young man’s book—excited and nervy throughout. I find the margins of my old copy scrawled over in about equal quantities with indignant protests and delighted exclamation points. Needless to say, if I were annotating the book today in this informal fashion. I’d reverse the position of some of these pluses and minuses. The fact remains that Empson’s first book was, and still is, a wonderfully stimulating study. There are, to be sure, passages that work through a logical problem after the manner of a mathematics professor solving an extended string of equations under his breath at high speed; but they are balanced by others where his insights flare into instant conviction.

For example, Empson determined fairly early in his career that “all” was a pet word of Milton’s, and he pursued this notion through various formulas; but what was special about Milton’s use of “all”—common to all the dramatic contexts in which he used the word, and different from the way in which other poets used it—never came clear. One notes, by the way, that Donne in “Lovers’ Infiniteness” uses the word ten times in thirty-three lines, each time giving it a strong emphasis. If Milton did give the word some special inflection of thought or feeling, it might have been brought out in close comparison with such a poem.

On the other hand, when Empson called attention to Donne’s fondness for the idea of another world, another sphere, a fresh spiritual dispensation, it’s an insight that needs no elaboration; it changes instantly the emphasis with which one reads not only passages like the one on his mistress going to bed (“Oh my America, my new found land!”) but a crux like that in the last stanza of “The Relic”:

   Our hands ne’er touched the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.

Seven Types of Ambiguity is never altogether safe to read; one is constantly being carried off into speculations of one’s own, sometimes on the basis of a passage misquoted from Empson’s teeming memory, or in response to some other critic whose position has been seen only in part and askance. Empson wasn’t much interested in the plebeian sort of accuracy; but his mind worked at very high tension on the problems that concerned it—graduate students can, and doubtless will, clean up the details. I have heard that at least one highly respected physicist used to admit cheerfully that his mathematics wasn’t all that good; his gift was for insights, and he was glad to let other …

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