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Good Voices Are Rare’

Most of the poetry of William Empson was written and published by 1940, but Empson had an interesting career and influence as a poet. While he was well known and liked in the Thirties, it was in the Fifties that he became a cult figure among writers, and it is in the Fifties that we can really feel his influence extending to other poets on both sides of the Atlantic. In England we find it among the poets and novelists known loosely as the Movement, especially in the work of John Wain. In America no doubt the criticism for which Empson was also famous became a vector for his poetic influence: Marianne Moore recommended Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity to Elizabeth Bishop in the Thirties; Richard Eberhart, who had studied at Cambridge with I.A. Richards and Empson, taught Robert Lowell at boarding school; Randall Jarrell was an admirer of Empson; and so the list could continue.

The way Empson saw it, he and Auden had been rivals. So he wrote to his mother in 1938 from Hong Kong that “the great Auden was here, who used to be a kind of rival poet to me and is now a prominent figure.” Whether Auden saw things that way I do not know, but perhaps we can detect a perceived rivalry (to put it no higher than that) in a review written by Louis MacNeice in 1935, in Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. The reviewer concedes that “there is no reason why poetry (some poetry) should not be clever, frigid, frivolous—even in the serious way that Cambridge intellectuals are frivolous.” But while acknowledging Empson’s ingenuity, MacNeice wrote that he

would not say that Mr. Empson is either a good poet or the kind of poet who is required at the moment…. There is not enough blood and sweat in him. Inhuman poetry has its place but today is not its day…. In poetry we want a spareness and clarity (whether Wordsworthian, Drydenic, or Freudian). The clever fellows must wait to show off some other day.1

Certainly Empson thought that his being a Cambridge poet would be held against him by Auden’s circle, that he would not be allowed into that circle. In a television tribute to Auden in 1975 he made the following observation:

It is very hard, you see, to write what years later people called pylon poetry—to write about how you ought to have the socialist state and how you’d like it—without sounding phoney. And Auden somehow made it sound perfectly sincere by making it sound as if he was jeering at you for not being more sensible, but you didn’t quite know what he was laughing at, but you could hear this, this mysterious tone of fun going on. It seemed to be immensely impressive. That was what was so striking about him. And he has moved away from it and so have all the pylon poets, who by the way were all Oxford when I was at Cambridge. That’s why as a poet myself I was never able to imitate it properly. You had to be in on the movement from the start.

This idea that there was an Oxford and a Cambridge kind of poetry, while it may seem improbable today, is reflected not only in the MacNeice review and in Empson’s remarks above, but also in the poem, “A Toast,” Auden wrote to celebrate Empson’s retirement:

Good voices are rare, still rarer singers with
perfect pitch: if Graves was right, if at Cambridge
the tuning’s a wee bit sharp, then at Oxford
it well may be flat.

The next line—“Our verbal games are separate, thank heaven”—seems to say there was no rivalry between the two poets, because they were doing different things. Nevertheless, Auden has not forgotten Empson’s poem “Just a Smack at Auden,” for he refers to it straight off. I once heard Auden say that he had never been very successfully parodied. Empson was mentioned, and Auden said that the poem in question is not a parody.

That is true. “Just a Smack at Auden” is a friendly satire on the Marxist apocalypse, but it does not resemble any particular poem of Auden’s:

What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend?
No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end.
Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,
Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.

John Haffenden, who in his entirely admirable edition of Empson’s complete poems glosses “treason of the clerks” to Julien Benda, might have thought it worth mentioning that “sparks” in this context probably means telegraph or wireless operators.

Empson’s great popularity as a poet, as a poet’s poet indeed, coincides with Auden’s comparative eclipse in England in the 1950s and 1960s, and it may well be that there was something of a misapprehension, that people thought of Empson as more of an opponent of Auden than he really was. If it was a misapprehension, Empson later went some way to clear it up in 1983, when he wrote to Andrew Motion:

I entirely agreed with Auden, though I could not express the opinion nearly so well, that War II was coming, and that backing the People’s Front was our only chance. I just thought that his hammering at it had become counter-productive, and by the time he read my joke he thought the hammering had become a boring duty.

Auden himself seems to have been inspired by Empson to produce one of his characteristic, virtuoso essays in rare form. Empson had written enthusiastically in Seven Types of Ambiguity of the “lovely sestines of Sidney, which are so curiously foreign to normal modes or later developments,” and he quotes one (a double sestina from Arcadia) in full. Here is one stanza:

Long since alas, my deadly Swannish musique
Hath made itself a crier of the morning,
And hath with wailing strength climbed highest mountaines:
Long since my thoughts more desert be than forrests:
Long since I see my joyes come to their evening,
And state throwen down to over-troden vallies.

The form demands that the last words of each line be repeated, in a given changing order, stanza after stanza. Empson comments eloquently:

The poem beats, however rich its orchestration, with a wailing and immovable monotony, for ever upon the same doors in vain. Mountaines, vallies, forrests; musique, evening, morning; it is at these words only that Klaius and Strephon [the participants in the poem’s dialogue] pause in their cries; these words circumscribe their world; these are the bones of their situation; and in the tracing of their lovelorn pastoral tedium through thirteen repetitions, with something of the aimless multitudinousness of the sea on a rock, we seem to extract all the meanings possible from these notions; we are at last, therefore, in possession of all that might have been implied by them (if we had understood them) in a single sentence; of all, in fact, that is implied by them, in the last sentence of the poem.

He goes on to elucidate the meanings and associations of each of the six key words, before concluding that “limited as this form may be, the capacity to accept a limitation so unflinchingly, the capacity even to conceive so large a form as a unit of sustained feeling, is one that has been lost since that age.” In other words, the “sestine” is dead.

Seven Types of Ambiguity was published in 1930. In the same year, we learn from John Fuller’s W.H. Auden: A Commentary,2 Auden wrote an unpublished sestina, “Renewal of traditional anger in peace”; in 1931, he wrote The Orators, including the sestina “We have brought you, they said, a map of the country,” and another two years after that, “Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys.” In this last, Auden uses two of Sidney’s six key words, for his lines end on valleys, mountains, water, islands, cities, and sorrow. Fuller convincingly suggests that a phrase of Empson’s, “enlisting into sorrow,” was suggestive to Auden. For here again is Empson on Sidney’s double sestina:

The form takes its effect by concentrating on these [end] words and slowly building up our interest in them; all their latent implications are brought out by the repetitions; and each in turn is used to build up some simple conceit. So that when the static conception of the complaint has been finally brought into light (I do not mean by this to depreciate the sustained magnificence of its crescendo, but to praise the sustained magnificence of its idea), a whole succession of feelings about the local scenery, the whole way in which it is taken for granted, has been enlisted into sorrow and beats as a single passion of the mind.

Of course, Auden did not reinvent the sestina single-handed; nor did Empson and nor did Ezra Pound. Such rare early French, Provençal, and Italian poetic forms had been dabbled in by many nineteenth-century poets, both English and American. I have a book called Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, etc. edited by a certain Gleeson White,3 which makes a feature of its American contributors, who have names like Clinton Scollard, Arlo Bates, and Brander Matthews. The English poets include W.E. Henley, Swinburne, Edmund Gosse, and Arthur Symons.

The sestinas they write tend to follow Swinburne in a disastrous attempt to add rhyme to the form. None of them—and the same holds true for Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte”—displays Empson’s and Auden’s sense that the end-words of the sestina should gain in meaning through each repetition, that their “latent significances” should be developed. You may remember Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina “A Miracle for Breakfast,” in which the six end-words—coffee, crumb, balcony, miracle, sun, and river—are shuffled in such a way as to produce a kind of story. The nineteenth-century sestina-mongers wouldn’t have thought of that.

It is true also that when it comes to the villanelle, Empson brings a higher standard to bear than any of his English-language predecessors did. James Joyce is Empson’s model here, but the Joyce poem which is given to Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is really not much better than the essays of Clinton Scollard in the form. It begins:

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.
Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And so on. This is, as Haffenden points out, Joyce’s own poem, written years before the novel in which it appears. Whether Joyce intended it to be seen as ludicrous, and whether Empson understood it to be placed in an ironic framework, is not clear. Empson says:

James Joyce described himself in A Portrait of the Artist writing a villanelle, and this I think made all the poets of my generation try to write villanelles. It seemed a kind of test…. It’s a very rigid form, invented by the Italians, who apparently just thought it was musical: I don’t think you’ll find them struggling with the form—nor of course do the poets of the nineties like Dowson. They just regard the repetitions as musical. We felt that every time the line is repeated it has to mean something different; and treated like that, it becomes very hard to write. Anybody can push together the repetitions, only it’s dead. Making it come to life is, I do think, hard.

This passage explains very clearly the standard Empson himself set with his villanelles, especially “Missing Dates,” and the standard Auden had to live up to. Empson says that Auden “wiped the eye of everybody who tries to revive the villanelle.” He is referring in particular to Miranda’s villanelle in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror:

My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely,
As the poor and sad are real to the good king,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.
Up jumped the Black Man behind the elder tree,
Turned a somersault and ran away waving;
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely.
The Witch gave a squawk; her venomous body
Melted into light as water leaves a spring,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.
At his crossroads, too, the Ancient prayed for me;
Down his wasted cheeks tears of joy were running:
My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely….

Empson says that

Miranda comes out panting, completely astonished by the world—she has never seen a man before, except a monster and her father—and what she talks is a perfect villanelle, and this is an astounding piece of technical skill. I do think Auden is a wonderful technician. I remember pointing this out to Louis MacNeice when it first appeared, and he was rather cross and said, “Of course it isn’t a villanelle; it may remind you of villanelles, but it couldn’t be one.”

This was rather a rash thing for MacNeice to say to Empson, who had written both villanelles and poems that remind you of villanelles.

What could be behind such a remark as MacNeice’s? A feeling, one presumes, that nothing serious could be expressed in a form so willed as that of the villanelle. Auden didn’t think this, but Auden was very careful, when it came to questions of form, not to push things too far. For instance, in the “Letter to Lord Byron” one might expect the ottava rima of Don Juan, the poem he is imitating. Instead he drops a line, and therefore a rhyme, from the stanza. If Empson inspires him to write those sestinas, the inspiration does not stretch as far as a double sestina. Auden reckoned he had tried his hand at most things, but he balked at the triolet, a form he thought too trivial. (A triolet being a poem of eight lines, in which there are two rhymes, with the first line repeated as the fourth and seventh, and the second as the eighth.) Empson, when he takes on the villanelle, makes it possible for Dylan Thomas to address his dying father in the most famous villanelle of the period, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” because Empson thinks the form is only worth using seriously—whereas these revived forms, in the nineteenth century, led poets typically in the direction of light verse.

The child is father to the man.”
How can he be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can:
“The child is father to the man.”
No; what the poet did write ran,
“The man is father to the child.”
“The child is father to the man!”

How can he be? The words are wild.4

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem deflating a famous paradox of Wordsworth is as good as the triolet gets. But the villanelles by Empson, Auden, and Dylan Thomas are of a different order. Here are the first three stanzas of Empson’s “Missing Dates,” first published as “Villanelle” in 1937:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

Haffenden has been at pains to find the source for the experiment described in these last three lines, and has come up with a near, but not exact, match from the Rockefeller Institute. His notes are full of such information—indeed they are more of a commentary than what we would normally understand by the term “notes.”

That the poems benefit from annotation was acknowledged by Empson himself: he did a lot of explaining, over the years, as well he might. Who could begin to understand the opening of “The Beautiful Train,”

Argentina in one swing of the bell skirt,
Without visible steps, shivering in her power,
Could shunt a call passing from wing to wing

unless told that La Argentina was the name of a once-famous dancer? And even then there remains line three to deal with. But the notes help us further with a previous draft of the poem—which is, after all, a description of a Japanese train in Manchuria in the 1930s, so the reader is bound to be confused—first by the thought that we are talking about Argentina, the country, and next by the appearance of the “prime exponent of the Neoclassical style of Spanish dance,” “shunting a call.” Here is that earlier version, written after lying awake on the train:

So firm, so burdened, on such light gay feet
A magic train, just made of a cucumber
As Argentina in one swing of the bell skirt
Without visible steps, shivering with her power,
Would take a call shunting from wing to wing.
Courting the last art to syncopate
Or counterpoint all dances in their turns
Within one lope for home.
Arbours and balconies and room and shade.

Although this is not clear either, we get the vivid picture of the dancer moving across the stage. We are also treated to a glimpse of some unpublished travel writing of Empson’s. All in all, we find ourselves in a position at least to ask the question whether the author made the poem more obscure as he went along, and whether the revision ended up helping or hindering his purpose.

If you are a student of twentieth-century poetry, it will be part of your job to read Empson’s poems, and to read them in this edition, since it would be perverse to turn away the help offered both by Haffenden and of course by Empson in the rich documentation provided. If you are primarily interested in writing poetry, your task is to invent your own syllabus: nobody can dictate to you what may or may not be of value. You can take Empson or leave him, and remain perfectly within your rights. Thom Gunn, for instance, wrote a review in 1956 in which he deplored the then prevalent influence of two minor poets, Empson and Dylan Thomas.5 You can see, in the review, a poet shaking off another poet as being too eccentric a master, too unclear in both his meaning and his method of expression.

To me, Empson was never more than a heroic but distant figure. I feared, and fear, no harm from him. I had friends who could imitate his reading style, and we listened to his recordings in awed amusement. I am always interested in what he does with a poetic line, from a metrical point of view, since he is prepared to introduce irregularities at any point in the line and, as Gunn felt, without there being any pressing need to do so. At the same time, he could sound like Tennyson, and famously did indeed do so, in the line quoted above: “The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.” People would recite such lines to each other, in Empson’s manner. He was hilarious to us.

I could imagine this edition, for the kind of writer-reader I am thinking of, becoming an object of great and fruitful obsession. It is full of things to think about. And I could equally imagine a Gunn-like moment of saying: Enough of that—that path seems to lead nowhere. Either way one would think one had learned something, whether one admitted his strange genius to a private pantheon, or said: There, I have done that, now I can cross him off the list.

  1. 1

    Critical Essays on William Empson, edited by John Constable (Scolar Press, 1993), p. 58.

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 155.

  3. 3

    London: Walter Scott, 1887.

  4. 4

    First printed in 1883; see also Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Catherine Phillips (Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 157–158.

  5. 5

    See Constable, Critical Essays on William Empson, pp. 327–331.

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