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The Miraculous Mandarin

William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume One, Donne and the New Philosophy

edited by John Haffenden
Cambridge University Press, 296 pp., $49.95

William Empson: Argufying, Essays on Literature and Culture

edited by John Haffenden
London: Chatto and Windus, 657 (out of print) pp.


William Empson was the finest critic in our century of English literature, but each of his books sparked a vigorous protest and even expressions of outrage. The first and still most famous of his writings is Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), written when he was a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge University, and the story goes that he produced this very substantial book in only two weeks. He never got his degree at Cambridge because his bedmaker discovered contraceptives in his room. (When charged with this offense, Empson explained that he was sleeping with a lady don, and suggested to the disciplinary committee that they would surely prefer that he did not get her pregnant.) For the next decade, he taught English in Japan and China. Returning to England at the beginning of the Second World War, he worked for the BBC as China editor from 1942 to 1946, and then went back to Peking.

Not until 1953 did he find a post teaching literature in England: it took a certain amount of courage, Empson realized, for the University of Sheffield to make the appointment. In an informal speech that Empson gave three years after retiring, on an occasion when he received an honorary degree from Sheffield, he said:

Listening to that splendid praise given me by the Orator, it struck me that the University also deserved some praise for making the appointment. It was what is called bold; when I was made Professor here, I had actually never done any teaching in England at all.1

Empson was knighted in 1979 and died in 1984. Since his death, an attempt has been made not only to keep his books in print but to collect the numerous essays that were scattered throughout the years in many different publications. A volume of Essays on Shakespeare came out in 1986 and has been followed this year after a long delay by the first of two books of Essays on Renaissance Literature, this one subtitled Donne and the New Philosophy. Between these two volumes, both of which he had planned himself but did not finish, there appeared his study of Marlowe’s Faustus and also a collection of shorter reviews and articles called Argufying, a word that Empson used and may have liked for its provocative inelegance (he preferred the kind of poetry that said something, that argued, and that one could talk back to).

The last two volumes have been edited by his colleague and authorized biographer-to-be, John Haffenden, with prefaces that assume the heavy task of defending every aspect of Empson’s thought. This is a friendly thing to do, and Haffenden does it about as well as one could want. I do not think that he realizes, however, that Empson’s greatness does not depend so much on his having been right. In fact, even when wrong, which was often enough, he was generally a better critic than his opponents.

The remarkable innovation of the early work of Empson (developed after the first youthful volume in two succeeding books, Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words) was a close and detailed examination of the different nuances of meaning that a word could assume, and the way these related meanings acted upon each other: the intensity of the analysis recalled the way that seventeenth-century preachers would torture a text from the Bible in an effort to extract the last drop of significance—this close likeness may appear ironic in view of Empson’s bitter hostility to Christianity. It was, in fact, seventeenth-century style that inspired him. A fine if minor poet whose poems will continue to appear in anthologies for years to come, Empson modeled his verse on that of John Donne, and he remained faithful to his love for Donne till the end of his life.

Empson’s analytic technique was created for poetry, and he defended it near the opening of Seven Types of Ambiguity:

A first-rate wine-taster may only taste small amounts of wine, for fear of disturbing his palate, and I dare say it would really be unwise for an appreciative critic to use his intelligence too freely…. Specialists usually have a strong Trades Union sense, and critics have been too willing to insist that the operation of poetry is something magical, to which only their own method of incantation can be applied, or like the growth of a flower, which it would be folly to allow analysis to destroy by digging up the roots and crushing out the juices into the light of day. Critics, as “barking dogs,” on this view, are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.2

A brief illustration of the way Empson considered words may perhaps be given most effectively from prose rather than poetry. I use an example that he discussed in the most systematic of his books, The Structure of Complex Words, the word “delicate” in a phrase spoken by a Victorian matron:

You can’t take Amelia for long walks, Mr. Jones; she’s delicate.” The word has two senses…and I suppose the lady to assert a connection between them. “Refined girls are sickly” is the assertion, and this gnomic way of putting it is a way of implying “as you ought to know.” I choose this case partly to point out that a stock equation may be quite temporary; this combination of meanings in the word seems to be a Victorian one only. You might think that the expectation that young ladies will be unfit to walk was enough to produce it, and that the expectation merely followed from tight-lacing: but the eighteenth-century young ladies also had waists, and would agree that long walks were rather vulgar, and yet this use of the word would be “out of period” if you were writing a pastiche. The reason seems to be that in the eighteenth century the older meaning “fastidious” was still knocking about, and even the meaning “luxurious, self-indulgent” was not yet sufficiently forgotten…. Now it is clear that refined and sickly must be given different logical positions in the Victorian use; all refined girls are sickly, but not all sickly girls are refined…. it is by a tone of moral grandeur that the Victorian matron has to put the meaning “refined” here into her use of delicate.3

Later Empson observes:4

It seems fair to say that our two senses of delicate, “refined” and “sickly,”… proceed from the two equations “persons devoted to pleasure improve their taste but lose their health.” The Victorian matron…would fiercely deny this connection with sensuality; her equation of the surviving pair [of senses] was meant to imply that the best people ignore the body and its pleasures, preferring chastity and the consequences of tight stays.

What interests Empson is not so much the poetic resonances of meaning but rather the possibility of saying something covertly that could not be put into more direct expression without disclosing aspects of experience which society was unwilling to face head-on. The ambiguity of language reveals our unacknowledged desires and prejudices. For Empson, the role of the poet or the novelist was to uncover these unrecognized tensions and contradictions, to provide his readers with the knowledge of themselves and their culture they did not know they needed.

It is clear from the protests inspired by parts of these early volumes that even Empson’s admirers felt that his ingenuity at winkling out possible meanings sometimes went too far: time has not softened the irritation created by his overzealous intelli-gence.5 He was accused, not without some justice, of treating the lines of poetry that interested him by simply looking up one of the key words in the large Oxford English Dictionary, noting which senses existed at the time the poem had been written, and attempting to read all of these meanings into the poem without regard to their relevance to the central meaning of the passage or of the poem as a whole, and without sufficiently considering which senses of the word were primary and which secondary.

As a matter of fact, however, The Structure of Complex Words is perhaps the first systematic attempt to deal with the way primary meaning and secondary associations combine to inflect and even determine the significance of propositions. (In the example quoted above, “sickly” is the primary meaning of “delicate,” but the context pushes a secondary meaning to the fore.) The book even maps out a very elaborate machinery for describing the interaction of the different senses. Nevertheless, many of Empson’s analyses of poetry were of individual lines or passages ripped from their contexts, and he seemed to take a virtuoso’s delight in bringing up the most far-fetched considerations, many of them at least at first sight very remote from the text he is looking at. The virtuosity is all the more impressive, of course, when it pays off, as in his remarks on the influence of Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species on Alice in Wonderland.

An accusation even easier to demonstrate against Empson was his habit of misquoting. It is true that he mostly quoted from memory—he was famous for being able to reel off enormous quantities of verse without referring to the texts, something he found not only useful but necessary when he was teaching in the Far East without access to a library with any English literature. Unfortunately his memory tended to be creative. In a note introducing his selection of Empson’s articles Argufying, Haffenden writes that “his publisher reported 900 cases of incorrect quotation in the typescript of The Structure of Complex Words; that is, 80 percent of all the quotations in the book needed to be corrected before publication.” That is a hefty percentage, but the assertion that he deliberately distorted his quotations in order to prove the point he wished to make about them will not stick. (He himself said in answer to this charge that almost any other form of human frailty would have appealed to him more.) No important aspect of his interpretations ever depended on a misquotation.

It may appear surprising that a critic should excite such admiration when so much of his work seems irrelevant, immensely self-indulgent, or just plain wrong. Perhaps we should remember that Samuel Johnson, often considered the greatest literary critic of the eighteenth century, by his own admission never finished a book, but just browsed over some of the pages, and that his judgments of literary value were absurdly prejudiced by his politics. It is manifestly unfair that critics whose work is openly vitiated by the most evident irresponsibility should reach such eminence with ease, while the conscientious worker who does not shirk his professional drudgery must be content with a more lowly rank, his virtue largely unrewarded.

  1. 1

    Argufying, p. 641.

  2. 2

    Third edition, Meridian, 1955, pp. 12–13.

  3. 3

    The Structure of Complex Words (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), pp. 44–45.

  4. 4

    The Structure of Complex Words, p. 77.

  5. 5

    Some of the irritation must have been engendered by Empson’s friendly but unrepentant way of dealing with criticism of his work. A footnote in the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity begins with a typical offhand impudence: “Critics have disliked the meanness and fussiness of this passage [on Wordsworth], and I wish that I had something wise and reconciling to say after all these years.”

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