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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 people work out the details. So, in many ways, William Empson, even as a young man.

The key to Seven Types, and to a good deal of Empson’s later writing as well, seems to me a sentence, half flip, half serious, in the preface to the second edition: “My attitude in writing [the book] was that an honest man erected the ignoring of ‘tact’ into a point of honor.” The single quotes around the word “tact” in this sentence enclose a large expanse of critical real estate. Before he has proceeded much further into the argument, Empson is found saying, “It is the essential discipline of the language that our elaborate reactions to a word are called out only by the word itself, or what is guessed to be the word itself; they are trained to be very completely inhibited by anything near the word but not quite right.” Whether this inhibition (which could also be called tact, without any quotation marks at all) is good or bad, he leaves ambiguous; but all the zest of his work goes into stripping it off and seeing what wonderful possibilities open up then. The fourth line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” is unlikely ever again to read as sparsely as it did before Empson parsed out the elements of the imagery. The metaphor holds, he says, because:

ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest and colored with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls colored like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions.

Such possibilities are wonderful, no doubt about it; but it’s not hard to think of others that are less so. The suggestion that when George Herbert wrote in “The Sacrifice,”

Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,
The tree of life to all but only me.
Was ever grief like mine?

he intended to imply that Christ in mounting the cross was stealing the apple and symbolically committing incest—that suggestion ought not to be accepted without seeing what Rosemond Tuve had to say against it.

The aesthetic implications of his work were something about which Empson had, from the first, to be a little dodgy. He wrote mostly about pieces of poetry he particularly admired, and his aim (correct to the point of being commonplace) was to say what made it admirable. (The analogy he makes to the dealings of a dog with a flower is one of the funniest passages in a book distinguished among critical books by being a lot of fun: “Critics, as ‘barking dogs,’…are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up.”) But ambiguity as a concept had a dynamic of its own, which could not be reduced to serve a merely aesthetic point. Going far beyond and outside William Empson, it has now expanded to the point of declaring—rather comically, some think—that nobody can communicate with anybody, no text can possibly be so explicit as to be univocal.

Useless to tell such enthusiasts that they themselves are perfectly comprehensible, indeed, tiresome; if confusion is cultivated for its own sake, language can indeed become a winding stair to terminal solipsism. But this cul-de-sac is far from what Empson intended when he opened the topic of ambiguity; he was and for the most part remained a literary analyst with a social bias. He did not try to give the linguistic implications of his insights a philosophical footing, did not try to work out a full theory of literary value, did not use his considerable and early prestige as a platform for launching an orthodox academic career. All these refusals of the anticipated and readily available paths led to a career of isolation, broken by occasional forays in directions which, however distinctive of the man, could scarcely be predicted, and earned for him the reputation of a brilliant amateur.

His first step was to take jobs teaching English, first in Japan, then in China. During the Second World War these assignments, especially that on the mainland, were, to say the least, adventurous; his university was forced to move across a thousand miles of war-torn back country, so that occasionally he had no books for himself or his students, and had to chalk out the texts for discussion, from memory, on a blackboard. Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) feels in many ways like overflow from Seven Types, for it deals with a systematized duplicity of language and feeling; but it differs in dealing mostly with large and complete works, and with the ironic overtones of discussing one class in terms of another. Thus the “gentlemen of the road” in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera cast continual satiric glances at the gentlemanly politicians whom they imitate, and who reciprocally imitate them, and the sanity of the heroine in Alice in Wonderland provides an unclouded mirror for seeing the distortions and eccentricities of the grown-ups surrounding her.

That same year, 1935, in the course of a brief return to England, Empson published a small collection of poems, annotated by himself and since slightly expanded. Like his prose, his poems are dry, witty, and gnomic; like his other books, they have earned respect but few imitators. His last critical work before returning to England after the war was The Structure of Complex Words (1951), a volume which suffered from having undergone, owing to wartime stress, a double genesis. I.A. Richards called it a “palimpsest,” and (whether because of overwriting or not) much of it makes very heavy going.

In this book Empson combined close analysis of the components of certain English words with a discussion of the social circumstances under which those components came to be readjusted and given new emphases. “Fool,” for example, meant both a clown who might be rather clever, and a lunatic, who was definitely not; it also came to mean a privileged truth-speaker, an affected or mannered person, and occasionally something close to a saint—cf., Paul’s “fool in Christ” and Dostoevski’s “Idiot.” There are contexts in which “dog” can mean a scavenger, a degraded person, a cynic, a flatterer, or a jolly good fellow. On a more complex level, Empson analyzes the concept of “candor” and the complex of words clustering around “sense,” “sensible,” and “sensibility”; and his approach could readily invite us in 1985 to consider the word “intelligence” as used by William Casey, or “defense” as used by Caspar Weinberger.

By positing linguistic changes within the microcosm of the word itself—new emphases and applications, new meanings (perhaps boldly metaphorical at first but then gradually silted over)—Empson undertook to make of ambiguity a less corrosive mode of analysis. He reintroduced into linguistic analysis the crucial element of time. Very likely, had the book itself been less allusive and cryptic in its prose, and had the important thesis of controlled consensual change been stated at the beginning rather than in an appendix, it would have been better received. As it was, the analyses of individual words and modes of usage were (as often in the judgments made of Empson) better appreciated than the book’s larger argument.

Returning to permanent residence in England in 1953 seems to have caused considerable culture shock for Empson. This was not a matter of material deprivation, for he settled readily into teaching at Sheffield University. (Whether he didn’t want or couldn’t get an appointment at one of the more prestigious universities I don’t know. Teaching at Sheffield left him within easy reach of the extensive family holdings at Yokefleet in Yorkshire, where he was born.) Spiritually, however, return to postwar Britain was a more troubling matter. For twenty years and more, Empson had been largely out of touch with the academic establishment. Meeting a new generation of English literature students made him aware of the extent to which their minds had been pressured into accepting a Christian tradition, diluted and largely de-theologized but so firmly established as a literary code, among right-thinking people, that criticism of it could only appear jejune and naive.

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