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Empson: Argufying Against Mufflement

From the start of his career William Empson enjoyed a double reputation, as a poet and as a critic. It now seems clear that he has an additional claim to be remembered, as a letter-writer. The first volume of John Haffenden’s biography of him, which appeared two years ago, broke off in 1940, when he was thirty-three.1 The new volume takes the story up to his death in 1984, and at the same time Haffenden has brought out a volume of his correspondence—selected rather than collected, but still running to seven hundred pages. In some respects it can hardly avoid being seen as an adjunct of the biography, but it is much more. The letters are emphatically worth reading in their own right.

Most of them deal with literary themes. Empson worries away at Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, and the other big preoccupations of his published work, but he also strikes out in unexpected directions. Hitting back at a critic who had tried to put down Dylan Thomas by comparing him to the deeply unfashionable Victorian poet Francis Thompson (of “The Hound of Heaven”), Empson takes the opportunity to speak up for Thompson as well as for Thomas. He offers his views on whether D.H. Lawrence was advocating anal intercourse in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; a reading of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” prompts some subtle reflections on daydreams.

Many readers, coming to the correspondence for the first time, may be disappointed that so much of it seems to be professional rather than personal; but the distinction, in this case, is largely artificial. Almost every letter that Haffenden has chosen bears the full stamp of Empson’s personality. In almost every one of them you can hear his idiosyncratic tones.

That means that they are pungent, witty, and richly suggestive (and also, it must be said, that they contain leaps and elisions of thought that sometimes make them only semi-intelligible). But he didn’t achieve his happy effects simply by “being himself.” As Haffenden makes clear in his excellent introduction, the seeming spontaneity of the letters actually involved a good deal of deliberation. Empson quite often revised them before mailing them, and he worked hard to establish the right tone.

One obvious feature of his style, for instance, is his informality—less remarkable in a letter than it would be in a formal essay, but still very striking. A single paragraph, chosen almost at random, yields “this bit of hush-up,” “our old pal,” “well come now,” “knew the ropes,” and “warn him to shut up.” The subject under discussion was Allen Tate’s response to T.S. Eliot’s view of John Donne’s religious beliefs: it is hard to imagine many other writers treating Tate’s views in quite such a jaunty fashion. Yet in the same paragraph Empson can also pin down a piece of evasiveness on Tate’s part with the finely wrought phrase “elegant mufflement.” He is careful not to let his slanginess get out of hand: it is played off against more urbane and more elevated manners.

The prose of the letters affords many different pleasures. Empson is a master of the neatly handled metaphor, for instance, as in his comment on Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu: “It is true that he rather tiresomely refuses to go into deep water, but he had so much coastline to visit that his long book doesn’t become trivial.” At a humbler level, he comes up with some agreeable wisecracks, such as his comment on a scholar whom he liked but who had made the sad mistake (in his view) of accepting a post in New Haven: “Yaled for life.”

Not all the qualities that make the letters memorable are ones that necessarily command respect. In particular, Empson stands revealed in them as a much more aggressive figure than one would glean from his major published works (with the partial exception of the stridently anti-Christian Milton’s God). Again and again he crosses the boundary that divides vehemence from virulence. He is hardly the only writer to have had strong opinions, but few others can have relied quite so heavily on terms expressing simple disgust. “Horrible,” “nasty,” “filthy,” “beastly,” “loathsome,” “nauseating”—these are the adjectives he moves around like counters, along with a smaller group of words and phrases expressing even more direct physical revulsion (“greasy,” for example, or “smearing nastiness over everything”).

It is true that he mostly uses this language in connection with Christianity, but he is quick to reach for it on other occasions too. The underlying critical attitude of Ian Hamilton’s magazine The Review, he tells us, is “filthy.” The surrealist poetry of David Gascoyne is “nasty to touch, gluey on the outside.” And “what a disgusting poem Edward Thomas wrote to his wife,” he tells a friend. “I shall never forgive him for it.” (This last remark was no doubt half-jocular, but is unpleasant all the same. The poem to which it refers, “No one so much as you,” was written not long before Thomas met his death as a soldier in the First World War; it is painful in its refusal to accept or grant romantic consolations, but “disgusting” is about the last word I should apply to it.)

As comments on people or books that Empson is discussing with a third party, the “horribles” and “nauseatings” eventually lose much of their force: they are blunted by repetition. It is the letters in which he addresses his victims directly that are really spectacular. You can read them two or three times and still rub your eyes.

A prize specimen is the onslaught on the critic and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, who had been thinking of turning the Ph.D. dissertation which he had written under Empson’s direction into a book. Hobsbaum’s crime was that he subscribed to what was then the widely held belief that a writer’s intentions are no part of a critic’s concern, and the letter in which Empson set out to put him right is a very long one. It is full of plums (Hobsbaum is informed that he has been “boastfully and farcically ignorant,” and so on), but the best is reserved for last—a postscript in which he is warned that “you are unusually bad at estimating other people’s intentions, below normal there in fact, so that nursing a sheer theory you needn’t even try at it is shockingly bad for you.”

The point is not whether Empson was right on the issue of the “intentional fallacy.” Many of us will feel that he was. But if a case is argued with sufficient violence, it’s the violence you are left thinking about, not the argument. You can’t help wondering why Empson felt it necessary to pile into Hobsbaum quite so heavily—just as you ask yourself why, when a Canadian academic sent him an article on a Jacobean play, he couldn’t have found a more effective way of getting her to change her mind than telling her that her approach was “merely sordid.” He was valiant for truth, no doubt, but it is hard not to conclude that he didn’t also get a great deal of pleasure from delivering insults.

He sometimes softened up opponents with his gentlemanly tone. After some mild opening paragraphs, A.L. Rowse suddenly found himself confronted with a snarl about “the obvious nastiness of lying Rouse.” (The misspelling of his name was almost certainly deliberate.) And the same technique crops up in the exchange Empson had with F.T. Prince—a scholar as well as a fine poet—about Milton and Shelley. Prince, who was a Catholic, was polite and conciliatory. Empson began his reply by thanking him for his courtesy. But that should have set alarm bells ringing, and by the end of the letter Empson had duly boiled over: “I sit here hesitating what to type down,” he wrote, “because it would be too rude to say I don’t believe you and it is impossible to invent any convolution of your mind which would make your behaviour anything else except dirty twopenny cheating.”

What Prince made of that is not recorded. But in a number of cases—those of Laura Riding and Geoffrey Grigson, for instance—Haffenden’s editorial notes allow us to see correspondents who were at odds with Empson hitting back. The most curious exchange was with T.S. Eliot. In 1948 Empson wrote to the older man complaining that Faber and Faber, where Eliot was a director, had been sitting on the American rights of his poems for years and failed to sell them. (His exact words were “I am extremely annoyed with you for mucking up the chance of an American edition of my verse.”) Haffenden calls the charge “ill-judged”; on the other hand Eliot’s reaction seems disproportionate by anyone’s standards.

Replying to Empson, he told him, in tones better suited to Lady Bracknell, that his letter was the most insulting he had ever received, and he went on in the same vein: “I shall be obliged… if you will in future address all your communications to Mr. du Sautoy [another Faber director] instead of to myself.” Empson ignored the request, and wrote back to him. He could only assume, he said, that when Eliot received his first letter he must have supposed he was being accused of some “underhand trick,” which would have been “nauseating.” All that he—Empson—had meant to imply was that there had been a muddle.

The feelings at work on both sides of this dispute remain hard to determine. In retrospect, the episode marks a significant step in Empson’s estrangement from Eliot (which was moral and intellectual rather than personal); but for a fuller sense of the relationship between the two men, one must naturally turn to the biography.

Haffenden’s first volume was rightly praised for its thoroughness, its liveliness, its sense of drama, and its skill in delineating both Empson’s personality and the social settings in which he lived and worked. The same qualities are equally in evidence in his second volume, and it is hardly Haffenden’s fault if the older Empson emerges from it as a less sympathetic figure than the young one. He is simply following the facts—and, indeed, trying to present them in as sympathetic a light as he can.

Empson’s later career fell into three fairly clearly demarcated phases. Between 1940 and 1947 he worked for the BBC, organizing talks broadcast to China for its overseas service and propaganda programs for its domestic service. Between 1947 and 1952 he taught at the National Peking University, observing both the siege of the city and the Communist takeover at first hand. In 1952 he returned to England to take up the chair of English at the University of Sheffield, a position he held until his retirement.

He was a man who lived the life of ideas, and the gossip in which Haffenden’s book abounds seldom remains mere chit-chat for long. If Empson was drawn into the jungle of office politics at the BBC, it was usually because real political issues were at stake, issues affecting the content of programs. If he was caught up in an academic spat, it almost always involved strongly held views as well as personalities. Nonetheless the book is far more enjoyable than most literary biographies. Empson’s vagaries lend it constant color, and there is an impressive supporting cast—just about everyone from Dylan Thomas to Hugh Kenner.

  1. 1

    William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins (Oxford University Press, 2005). See my review in these pages, March 23, 2006.

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