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The Genius of Ambiguity


William Empson was a prodigy. He arrived at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1925, with a scholarship in mathematics: his college supervisor regarded him as one of the best mathematicians he had ever had. In 1928, however, he switched to English, under the supervision of I.A. Richards, and within a year or two a paper that he wrote for Richards while he was still an undergraduate had evolved into one of the great works of modern criticism—Seven Types of Ambiguity.

By that time he had also made a name for himself with the poems he had begun publishing in Cambridge magazines. The best of them were not only promising, but fully achieved: dazzlingly clever, but with an imaginative boldness that went far beyond mere pyrotechnics. For a moment, before the emergence of Auden, it looked as though he might prove to be the most gifted English poet of the coming generation.

He lived on into the 1980s, and he went on writing—poetry (although only fitfully) until he was in his thirties; prose until near the end. But if he had died in 1930, when he was only twenty-three, his place among writers who count would still be secure.

John Haffenden’s two-volume biography, of which the first volume has now appeared, has been more than twenty years in the making. Haffenden has tracked down innumerable sources (many of them in China and Japan, where Empson once taught), and spoken to hundreds of surviving witnesses (some of them only just in time). He has also edited Empson’s poems—his notes are a major feat of illumination—and several volumes of Empson’s lesser writings.

The first installment of the biography is spirited and humane, with a fine sense of both Empson’s personal quirks and the social settings within which he lived and worked. The one obvious problem about the book is its length. Haffenden takes 570 pages (and that doesn’t include a hundred pages of copious notes) to get his man to the age of thirty-three. In comparison many major biographies of more important literary figures—Richard Ellmann’s Joyce, say—look like triumphs of compression. A case could no doubt be made for including virtually everything Haffenden has. The side issues are often engrossing; the incidental details tend to have a gossipy charm. But life is short. It is not so much that readers are likely to be bored as that potential readers are likely to be deterred.

Haffenden can fairly claim that Empson himself “dearly loved biographical enquiry.” He would have no truck with those critical schools (with at least one of which, the “New Criticism” of the 1940s and 1950s, he was often wrongly identified) which held that for the reader, an author’s personal history is irrelevant. As Haffenden points out,

It was in defiance of almost every modern critical theory—including New Criticism, Deconstruction, the death of the author, and the “privileging” of the reader—that he gave the final volume he was to put together…the knowingly provocative title Using Biography.

The connections between his work and his life were often closer than might have been supposed, given his reputation for being detached, analytic, primarily a man of ideas. One of Haffenden’s prize exhibits in this respect is “Legal Fiction,” a poem inspired by an ancient maxim which maintains that a landowner is the lawful proprietor of everything above his land and everything beneath it. In principle, that is, he owns a vast cone of space beginning at the center of the earth and widening out toward the stars—an idea that Empson proceeds to develop through a brilliant series of images and conceits:

Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men.
Your well fenced out real estate of mind
No high flat of the nomad citizen
Looks over, or train leaves behind.
Your rights extend under and above your claim
Without bound; your own land in Heaven and Hell;
Your part of earth’s surface and mass the same,
Of all cosmos’ volume, and all stars as well.
Your rights reach down where all owners meet, in Hell’s
Pointed exclusive conclave….

He was later to describe the poem, written in 1928, when he was only twenty-two, as political, and so it is, in its satire on acquisitiveness and socially licensed self-assertion. (How much land does a man need?) It could equally well be described as philosophical or metaphysical. (Man is the creature bounded in a nutshell who counts himself a king of infinite space.) But what would have been hard to guess is that it is also highly personal, that it was based on an exceptionally elaborate will left by Empson’s father, a Yorkshire squire who died when Empson (the youngest of four siblings) was nine, and aimed at securing his children and their descendants a share in his estate for the next two hundred years. He had also become obsessed with the possibility that a neighboring mining company might be tunneling under his land, and he was anxious to secure future mineral rights. The will was an eccentric piece of work, which created many problems for the family, but Empson deplored it mostly for the acquisitive spirit and conservative values it enshrined.

To an Old Lady,” of earlier the same year, can to some extent be seen as a companion piece. The lady in question was Empson’s mother, Laura.1 This has long been known; and difficult though the poem is, it is also clear that it embodies the double sense of distance and proximity between mother and son, conveyed in large part through the imagery of astronomy and space travel:

Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet
Revere; do not presume to think her wasted.
Project her no projectile, plan nor man it;
Gods cool in turn, by the sun long outlasted….

The note of reverence is by no means ironic. The poet remains separated from the old woman by age, outlook, and much else; at the same time he makes clear his affectionate admiration, and the deep sense of affinity with her which he still feels. Empson once wrote of the two of them, while discussing the poem, that “though isolated we shared a system closer than the great minds in books.”

You are left wondering what Laura Empson was actually like, and Haffenden rounds out the picture. Her family were long-established landowners, with substantial interests in quarrying and coal. She was forceful, good-looking, elegant in a tweedy way, a highly efficient fox-hunting, church-going lady of the manor. She had a quick temper, and to a sensitive child she must often have seemed intimidating. But Empson felt he could rely on her, and she later stood by him when he got into trouble in Cambridge. She had a sense of humor, too: after seeing his first attempt at a beard, while he was an undergraduate, she offered him £10 if he would get rid of it, and he complied. (It is a pity that she didn’t renew her offer later, when he grew one of the most unsatisfactory beards of his time, a straggling appendage which began below his jawline and looked like a false beard that had slipped.)

Empson spent his early childhood in a world only one remove away from that of Trollope. In all his later incarnations—bohemian, radical, pedagogic—he never quite lost the assurance of a true-born “gent.” Haffenden is excellent on the poet’s time at Winchester, the most intellectually demanding of English public schools. It emerges from his account as something like two-thirds civilized, one- third barbarous (corporal punishment and all that). Empson cherished the civilized parts, and in later life, long after he had put the public school’s class ethos behind him, he continued to express gratitude for the education he had received. His school nickname was “Owl Empson”; his cleverness was readily recognized, although he wasn’t the acknowledged star of his year.2

During Empson’s time at Winchester he appeared in a school production of Dr. Faustus, playing Robin the Clown. The subplot in which the clown appears has traditionally been seen as a variation on the play’s religious theme, a mocking counterpart to Faustus’s downhill progress. Some fifty years later Empson wrote a revisionist study of Marlowe’s play, in which Robin is presented as sympathetic, even heroic. Empson argues that the character of Robin is meant to reassure us that Faustus, the courageous Renaissance hero, doesn’t deserve damnation, any more than the clown does. Christopher Hawkes, who played Faustus in the Winchester production, helped to cast the play. This suggests that Empson’s being given the part of Robin was typecasting, since Hawkes also made it clear, when Haffenden interviewed him, that he had always thought of Empson in everyday life as a “character,” who “knew he was something of a clown, and acted up to it.”

Clowning, often reinforced by alcohol, is a recurrent motif in Haffenden’s book. Empson was jokey and unpredictable; his conversation went off at odd angles, and he had a way of getting into farcical scrapes. On his first night in Japan in 1931, for instance, he found himself locked out of his hotel, broke in through a window without realizing it was part of the railway station next door, and ended up in a bucket of water kept standing by for emergencies. He neglected common proprieties, too. He was capable of offering a guest tea in a mug which he had just used for shaving.

His literary gifts were not apparent until the end of his second year at Cambridge, when he first published a poem (heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein) in a college magazine. But within a few months of that he had come into his own—sensationally so—as both poet and critic. Haffenden’s Cambridge chapters give pride of place to the evolution of Seven Types of Ambiguity and to Empson’s relations with I.A. Richards, which were as close as legend suggests, both then and later, but more complicated. Where Richards thought of poetry as a means of attaining harmony, for instance, Empson saw it as an expression of conflict.

Empson’s years at Cambridge were a hopeful time; and in June 1929, he was elected to a research fellowship at Magdalene. Then, within a matter of weeks, disaster struck. While he was moving to new rooms, a college porter spotted some contraceptives among his luggage. The news spread fast, and soon reached the dons. (There was also talk of his having entertained a woman in his rooms late in the evening.) It seems incredible now, but a special meeting of the college’s governing body was convened to consider his fate, with dismal results. There might have been a different outcome if Richards, who was away in China, had been there to defend him. As it was, Empson was deprived of his fellowship, and his name was erased from the college books. He was even forbidden—colleges had that kind of power—to go on living in Cambridge.

  1. 1

    She herself, when she first read the poem—she was sixty-three at the time—rather charmingly assumed that it was about her mother: “that poem about your Granny, William, now that showed decent feeling.”

  2. 2

    That honor went to Richard Crossman, later to win fame as a political commentator and Labour cabinet minister.

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