William Empson, poet, critic, professor, and lifelong mauvais sujet of English studies, was born in Yorkshire in 1906, studied with I. A. Richards in Cambridge, taught for longish spells in Japan and China, and from 1953 until his retirement in 1971 held the Chair of English Literature at Sheffield University. Roma Gill’s collection of essays, poems, and memories is about Empson, as its subtitle suggests; but it is also in honor of Empson, one of those gold watches of academe that are sometimes handed out at the end of a distinguished teaching career. It is odd to find Empson in such a situation; it doesn’t really suit the determined, unsubdued youth of his mind, what Karl Miller calls the velocity of his writing.
The first entry in Miss Gill’s book is a short poem by Auden, who wonders whether he might manage “just a smack at Empson,” but decides he can’t. The reference is to Empson’s “Just a Smack at Auden,” written in 1938 (“The fat is in the pyre, boys, waiting for the end”). A general failure to respond to Empson’s provocations in a witty, generous, or even belligerent way (“nothing occurred,” Auden says—all he could find fault with was Empson’s belief that Milton’s God had something to do with Christianity) is what is disappointing about this otherwise attractive volume. It is all a bit too amiable and soft on the edges.
Of course, if Auden couldn’t find the right note, probably no one could, and in any case Empson’s friends can hardly be expected to attack him as if they were his enemies, and it is true that Empson’s principal literary enemies (C. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard, and God) are all dead. But there is a streak of condescension in this book that diminishes Empson even as it means to treat him well. The book contains remarkable things, certainly—a wonderful, garrulous essay on Empson by George Fraser, a firm and intelligent piece on texts and intentions by Graham Hough, and an ingenious exploration of Empson’s poetry by Christopher Ricks—but its main effect is to suggest that Empson, like Citizen Kane, has a private form of greatness, something not quite visible to the public eye.
When Professor Bradbrook describes Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) as “one of the most influential works of modern criticism” she means to be complimentary, but the compliment has an aftertaste of depreciation, as if Empson’s influence were rather like that of a naughty schoolboy, always dragging virtuous scholars off to the lavatory for a smoke or, to drop the simile, for an unhealthy bout of New Criticism. It is this hint that Denis Donoghue was picking up last year when he said, in a review of Miss Gill’s book for the TLS, that it was “not Empson’s fault that the influence of Seven Types has been more bad than good.” Even George Fraser’s praise seems to turn against itself:
I read Seven Types of Ambiguity almost as soon as it came out, when I was about sixteen years old, and the sheer cleverness bowled me over, as I suppose it still bowls over most young readers.
I suppose it still bowls over readers of all ages, and not only on first reading, and not only because of its cleverness. Speaking for myself, I am bowled over every time I look at it. It is not just that Empson makes us realize, as I. A. Richards says in Miss Gill’s book, “how much we ordinary readers may be missing.” He makes us feel we have never read a book properly in our lives before, or more precisely that we don’t know anything at all about what happens when we read. This hits us all the harder if we think we are not “ordinary” readers but more than ordinarily careful ones. Here is Empson on Nashe’s line “Brightness falls from the air”:
Evidently there are a variety of things the line may be about. The sun and moon pass under the earth after their period of shining, and there are stars falling at odd times; Icarus and the prey of hawks, having soared upwards towards heaven, fall exhausted or dead; the glittering turning things the sixteenth century put on the top of a building may have fallen too often. In another sense, hawks, lightning, and meteorites fall flashing from heaven upon their prey. Taking brightness as abstract, not as meaning something bright, it is as a benefit that light falls, diffusely reflected, from the sky.
There is more. Empson is not so much interpreting the line as suggesting the sort of possibilities it has. Again, to take another famous example, when we come across Macbeth’s lines
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood
we certainly see the darkening scene, but would any of us, without Empson’s help, have thought of the “suggestion of witches’ broth, or curdling blood, about thickens“? Yet Empson is not inventing here. He is seeing clearly what most of us dimly feel about the word.
Empson goes on from thickens to make some rather elaborate play with the differences and similarities between rooks and crows (“Rooks live in a crowd and are mainly vegetarian; crow may be either another name for a rook, especially when seen alone, or it may mean the solitary Carrion crow”), which he later regretted. “Obviously,” he said, “the passage is still impressive if you have no opinions at all about the difference between crows and rooks.” The whole passage is still impressive, but those two lines do rely on the names of birds, on a puzzled sense that crows and rooks are both different and the same, that this bird making wing is both going home and not going home at all, which has the effect of losing Macbeth (who is speaking) somewhere between solitude and the tribe. What seems wrong about Empson’s original interpretation (Macbeth has to distinguish himself from his fellows by a difference of name, by being a crow among rooks, by getting himself called king instead of thane, and so on) is its insistence on very close and complicated parallels between Macbeth and the birds, where a general sense of baffling connection will do. But his recantation goes too far, and we ourselves remain somewhere between Empson’s old and new views.
But then this is exactly how Empson’s criticism seems to me to work. Sometimes one simply agrees, as with the word thickens: one hadn’t seen that, and now one has, and is grateful. The same is true, I think, of Empson’s later reading of Satan’s lines in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, as the fiend imagines the welcome he will lay out for Adam and Eve when they find their way down to Hell:
Hell shall unfold
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings.
Satan ought to be leering, enjoying a cruel joke, but the lines simply won’t read that way. There is, as Empson says, a royal, although ruined, generosity in them, which the fact that they are adapted from Isaiah (“Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming”) tends to reinforce rather than to play down: a sense of the grandeur of shipwreck. One hadn’t seen how difficult Milton wanted the situation (Satan’s and man’s) to seem.
But the more common case with Empson is that of the rooks and the crows. One has to argue with him, rather than merely assent or merely disagree; to take some of what he says, let some go, and rework the rest; to make up one’s own mind, in other words, and to do this in consultation with the poem or play in question. More than any other criticism I know, Empson’s throws us back upon the text. Eliot, say, tends to leave you feeling you ought to take another look at Dante when you next get the chance, and Leavis often creates the comfortable impression that you have already read everything worth reading. But Empson has you chasing off now to see whether what he says is in the poem can really be there. Again, a famous example: in George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice,” Christ says, “Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,” and Empson takes off at full speed:
He climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he was putting the apple back; but the phrase in itself implies rather that he is doing the stealing, that so far from sinless he is Prometheus and the criminal. Either he stole on behalf of man (it is he who appeared to be sinful, and was caught up the tree) or he is climbing upwards, like Jack on the Beanstalk, and taking his people with him back to Heaven. The phrase has an odd humility which makes us see him as the son of the house; possibly Herbert is drawing on the medieval tradition that the Cross was made of the wood of the forbidden trees. Jesus seems a child in this metaphor, because he is the Son of God, because he can take apples without actually stealing (though there is some doubt about this), because of the practical and domestic associations of such a necessity, and because he is evidently smaller than Man, or at any rate than Eve, who could pluck the fruit without climbing….
The point about Jesus’ size is trivial, the mention of Jack on the Beanstalk is frivolous, and I think Empson misses the main piece of wit in the line, which suggests not that Jesus is climbing a descendant of the forbidden tree to put the apple back, but that by means of a grimly humorous disposition of events, the stealing of fruit from one tree condemns Jesus to climb another tree and die: the reappearance of trees in the legend is a discreet, dark joke, a sort of pun. But of course Empson is right about the “odd humility” of the phrase, and about Jesus’ seeming to be a child, and about his somehow losing his innocence in this adventure: “Lo here I hang, charged with a world of sin …” The complete Christ, as Empson says:
scapegoat and tragic hero; loved because hated; hated because godlike; freeing from torture because tortured; torturing his torturers because all-merciful; source of all strength to men because by accepting he exaggerates their weakness; and, because outcast, creating the possibility of society.
There is a lot of ellipsis there, and it is a long way from Herbert’s actual words to this rich, dense interpretation. But the way leads through the poem, and even having rejected a good deal of what Empson says, we are left with immeasurably more than we had when he started talking. Answering objections to his reading here, Empson later said that he still could not “get away from feeling” that the lines “carry the usual homely quality of Herbert, and present the Christ in torment, with ghastly pathos, as an adventurous boy.” This seems to me exactly right, and just where we come out when we have dropped Jack and the Beanstalk and a few other distractions.
The commonly assumed connection of Empson with the New Criticism is a curious affair. Certainly he is a great believer in what he calls “verbal analysis,” and the New Criticism owes him a great deal. But he is as concerned to engage history as his American followers were to elude it. He insists on the local, concrete situation of poet and poem, and he is an almost militant devotee of the intentional fallacy, always telling us what Milton or Shakespeare “must have” felt or thought. The general effect of this is no doubt not as historical as Empson wants it to be, but neither is it as fanciful as a rigorous opponent might suggest. What Shakespeare must have thought is not, with Empson, romantic speculation about Shakespeare’s psychology, but a form of metaphor for what Shakespeare actually wrote, a way of seeing words on the page as continuous with an individual human life.
Of course, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a mischievous book (it was published when Empson was twentyfour and a good part of it had been written as an undergraduate essay at Cambridge), which delights in multiplying complicated meanings. But then Empson tells us that this is what he is doing (“I have put down most of the meanings for fun,” he says of his discussion of a line in Chaucer, “the only ones I feel sure of are …”), and I don’t see how what seems to be a standard accusation against him (repeated in Miss Gill’s book by George Fraser) can possibly be supported. The accusation is that Empson thinks that a word does mean anything it may mean, which is plainly nonsense. But all Empson says, as I understand him, is that we had better look at some of the meanings a word might have before we decide which meaning or meanings it does have: “if one’s mind does not in some way run through the various meanings of a word, how can it arrive at the right one?”
I’m not sure the mind has to work in this way, and the practice of prospecting for meanings can obviously take you fairly far astray (Empson himself remarks that it could lead to a “shocking amount of nonsense,” and says he always warned his foreign students off the book), but oversubtlety is not, in my experience, a major failing of literary criticism. When a piece of work feels overwrought or too clever, it is usually because it is only clever—it is clever in relation to a distressing lack of other critical and human qualities, a dance on thin ice, and it is the thinness of the ice that should worry us, not the configurations of the dance.
However, there is a danger, not in Empson’s critical method, but in Empson’s continuing critical subject, which is always irony, in one form or another. But this is not now a question of the baleful influence of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Throughout his career, from first to last (although the last, one hopes, is not yet), whether he is writing about ambiguity in poetry, double plots in plays, Milton’s mixed feelings about God, Coleridge’s hesitations about Nature, or the rich, wavering meanings of what he calls complex words, Empson remains a student (and indeed a distinguished practitioner) of irony, experienced as a complicated response to a life seen as riddled with contradictions. “The notion is,” Empson says in a note on his poem “Bacchus,” “that life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.” Another poem, “Aubade,” which is about a man and a woman caught in an earthquake in Japan, turns a debilitating contradiction (I ought to get out of here but I can’t) into a source of new, if timid courage (there’s nowhere else I can go so I may as well stay). “The fundamental impulse of irony,” we read in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), “is to score off both the arguments that have been puzzling you, both sets of sympathies in your mind, both sorts of fool who will hear you.” And a disturbing passage in Seven Types of Ambiguity manages to sound complacent, edgy, and aggressive all at once:
The object of life, after all, is not to understand things, but to maintain one’s defences and equilibrium and live as well as one can; it is not only maiden aunts who are placed like this.
This is strikingly close to Fitzgerald’s note in The Crack-Up, saying that the sign of true intelligence is the ability to retain two opposing notions in the mind and still continue to function. There is a difficulty, as Empson’s sentence shows and as even Fitzgerald’s formulation suggests, in hanging on to the whole of the thought. We tend to lose the second half (live as well as one can, still continue to function), we forget what all this equilibrium is for, and the result is a very cosy variety of stasis. If you’re a critic, you discover that your poet has said a lot of perfectly opposed things about life, and therefore can’t have meant anything. The political expression of this position is a very relaxed form of sitting on the fence, and while Empson can scarcely be credited with the creation of modern irony (Fitzgerald called it the Holy Ghost of this later day), he certainly did give a powerful push to many of irony’s misuses.
Empson’s own ironies, for example, usually suggest a vigorous common sense doing what it can in the midst of a terrible muddle, or perhaps even, to quote Empson’s own phrase about Milton, “a powerful mind thrashing about in exasperation”; but they can also be read as rather bland invitations to give it all up and go home. He will balance, in Some Versions of Pastoral, the “nonsense-world of fantasy” against “the nonsense-world of fact”; tell us, in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), that “while Pope despises the English for breaking the rules he contrives still more firmly to despise the French for keeping them”; or mildly remark, in what I think is my favorite line in the whole of Empson and certainly is one that has saved my soul when many an argument was turning sour, “The belief that a man’s ideas are wholly the product of his economic setting is of course as fatuous as the belief that they are wholly independent of it.”
Taken dialectically, as it were, these sentences are a liberation, they are mines of further questions (where exactly did Pope stand, just what is the relation between a man’s ideas and his economic setting?); taken statically, they suggest an elegant intellectual hopelessness which many people find very reassuring (we can’t possibly know where Pope stood, or Pope stood precisely halfway between the French and the English, wherever that is; and now we don’t have to think about a man’s economic setting at all, thank God). “This Last Pain,” Empson’s most famous poem, which I gather he doesn’t much like now, can be seen as proposing a very stern act of faith, a form of heroism for skeptics:
Imagine, then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a de- spair.
Professor A. G. Stock writes in Miss Gill’s book that the poem “undermines historical necessity along with religion,” and no doubt this is what Empson meant: we have lost both Marx and God, and we have to believe something: “Imagine, then, by miracle, with me….” But I assume Christians see themselves as very much in the business of imagining what could not possibly be there, and Empson himself, in Some Versions of Pastoral, connects the White Queen in Alice (“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”) with Newman. Learning a style from a despair suggests to me not so much Empson’s own witty fencing with his blacker moods (“You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there,” a late poem says) as the fashionable gloom of the neo-Christians Empson hates so much.
My main feeling here is not that this much-admired poem is not as good as it used to seem (although I think that is true too), but that dealers in irony often find strange clients. There may be a great deal of courage and intelligence in a complex confession of fear and doubt, and Empson’s poems regularly make such confessions (“To take fear as the measure / May be a measure of self-respect,” “What are these things I do not face, / The reasons for entire despair”). But you can also have a fairly good time confessing fear and doubt instead of looking for whatever courage you can find, and at its lower levels irony is indistinguishable from apathy. Empson himself, I must insist, doesn’t sink to those levels; but he helped to make such regions more respectable than they ought to be.
Empson’s poems are generally, as he says of Shakespeare’s use of the word honest in Othello, “a very queer business.” He published verse steadily between 1928 and 1940, but since then, apart from a sonnet, a Chinese ballad, a lumpish masque for the Queen’s visit to Sheffield, and a couple of short pieces added to the Collected Poems in 1949, has published no verse at all. Everyone points out that most of the poems belong, in their preoccupations, to the universe of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), but given their dates, it is hard to see how they could belong anywhere else; and the most striking thing about the poems for me is their radical difference in tone and feeling from the criticism. They are cramped, clogged, and diffident where the criticism is reckless and easy. The reason for this may be simple enough: it’s exciting to discover fruitful complications in a great writer, but it’s no fun to face and articulate oppressive contradictions in your own life.
Still, the contrast is remarkable, and I wonder whether its real source is the contradictions being faced in the poetry or a certain hampered, mechanical approach to the actual writing of poetry. Empson speaks of “my clotted kind of poetry,” and it is clotted, thick with allusions and odd, mathematical-sounding words. Its rhythms literally slow the tongue (“No, by too much this station the air nears”), and its elliptical syntax (“It is Styx coerces and not Hell controls”) creates a sense of intense crowding. Empson has said that although most of his poems “turned out to be love poems about boy being too afraid of girl to tell her anything, the simple desire to think of something rather like Donne was the basic impulse”; and perhaps all I mean to say is that at this distance in time the manner seems very faded, a brittle ghost of the Twenties.
But I am speaking of the collected poems as a whole, and half a dozen pieces remain amazingly good—as good as Auden at his best, say, which is very good indeed—and there are marvelous musical lines scattered about poems that themselves don’t come off. The lasting works are the obvious, recurring anthology items (“To an Old Lady,” “Homage to the British Museum,” “Notes on Local Flora,” “Aubade,” “Let it go”), but “Letter II” and “Autumn on Nan-Yueh” seem to me just as fine. There is tremendous poise and wit in these poems, there are all kinds of jokes and graces, and above all they are generous and moving. Whatever shallow impulses started them off, they found their way into profound life. The old lady visible only in darkness, lovable only at a distance, respected although she is so distant, is a kind of paradigm for Empson’s respect for the right of others to be themselves. And these closing verses from “Autumn on Nan-Yueh” move beautifully from Empson’s Yorkshire (“good for nowt”) to Frazer’s Cambridge and on to China, where Empson is as he writes (in 1937), camping out with the exiled universities of Peking; and they express with the utmost delicacy a sense of personal loss in the midst of losses all around which are considerably greater. “I hope the gaiety of the thing comes through,” Empson writes, “I felt I was in very good company.” It does; he must have been.
Besides, you aren’t quite good for nowt Or clinging wholly as a burr
Replacing men who must get out, Nor is it shameful to aver
A vague desire to be about Where the important things oc- cur…
And no desire at all to tout About how blood strokes down my fur—
We have a Pandarus school of trout
That hangs round battles just to purr—
The Golden Bough, you needn’t doubt,
“Are crucifixions what they were?”…
I said I wouldn’t fly again For quite a bit. I did not know.
Even in breathing tempest-tossed,
Scattering to winnow and to sow,
With convolutions for a brain,
Man moves, and we have got to go.
Claiming no heavy personal cost I feel the poem would be slow
Furtively finished on the plain.
We have had the autumn here. But oh
That lovely balcony is lost
Just as the mountains take the snow.
The soldiers will come here and train.
The streams will chatter as they flow.
The masterpiece is Some Versions of Pastoral,” Denis Donoghue wrote last year, and Roger Sale says the same thing in his excellent essay on Empson in Modern Heroism. I think this is true in the sense that that book contains the biggest doses of careless Empsonian wisdom about the larger structures of literature, like tragedy, pastoral, irony, plot, and so on, and also in the sense that it has an elegance and a flow and a sense of ongoing argument which are lacking or obscured in the other books; and the chapter on Alice is probably the most brilliant thing Empson has ever done. Yet Seven Types of Ambiguity is a more exciting, in many ways richer, work and provides me at least with more sheer pleasure; and there is nothing in either of those two early books that quite comes up to the essay on Lear in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), or even to the essay on Tom Jones published in The Kenyon Review in 1958.
These essays answer and defuse a suspicion which I think must lurk in the mind of anyone who has been reading Empson for a while: the suspicion that this wonderfully subtle and intelligent man has too much of a taste for the bushes and byways of culture, a taste not for minor works but for the back entrances to major works. A great deal of Some Versions of Pastoral is devoted to finding pastoral where no one else would think of looking for it, and the great, musical statements which appear now and then in the early books (“these shifts and blurred aggregates of thought by which men come to a practical decision,” “the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy,” “the feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so”) come across as something like slips of the tongue, moments of negligence in which Empson allowed himself to say something that sounded important.
But the essays on Lear and Tom Jones tackle major works in a direct, major way, present themselves calmly at the front door. Starting to write about Lear Empson says that he has just reread Bradley on the subject and finds Bradley’s treatment “much broader and more adequate to the play” than his own. Empson means what he says, but what speaks in that acknowledgment is hardly modesty: Empson knows he is playing in Bradley’s league. Following Orwell, he suggests that Lear’s renunciation of power is flawed (we can hear an exaggeration, a wrong note when Lear says he will “unburdened crawl toward death”—crawl goes a touch too far), and
the effect of the false renunciation is that Lear has made a fool of himself on the most cosmic and appalling scale possible; he has got on the wrong side of the next world as well as on the wrong side of this one.
In his madness a “mood of greatness arises in him as a sort of wild flower,” but Lear can’t keep it, and the play wears out to a tired and desolate peace:
The scapegoat who has collected all this wisdom for us is viewed at the end with a sort of hushed envy, not I think really because he has become wise but because the general human desire for experience has been so glutted in him; he has been through everything.
We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live
Of course, this directness corresponds to the central concern of The Structure of Complex Words itself, which shifts attention from the ambiguities of literature to the ambiguities of language. Empson is interested in usages which suggest that the whole language is behind a speaker, not that the speaker can do wonderful things with language, and these are the terms on which he distinguishes this book from his earlier ones. It is a question now not of showing what Shakespeare could do with English, but of showing the riches of English on display in Shakespeare. A decent, democratic task, an investigation of what de Saussure had called langue rather than parole, although there is no sign that Empson had (or has) read de Saussure, and although Empson’s best work, even here, is done on the slippery ground between langue and parole, in the area defined by Roland Barthes as écriture (Le Degré zéro de l’écriture was published in 1953). Certainly Empson’s study of the behavior of particular words (“delicate,” meaning sickly and refined, refined because sickly) and of large historical movements of thought and sensibility epitomized in small pieces of language (the associations of “honest” or “nice”) anticipates the work of Barthes and of Michel Foucault; except that Empson is slightly hindered by his rejection of large theories where Barthes and Foucault are always on the edge (and sometimes over the edge) of theoretical excess.
We get a glimpse of a very large cultural gap here: that Empson’s own profession of “lack of intellectual grasp” can, in this context, seem almost convincing, that even Empson can seem downright cautious and plodding in comparison with his flighty French contemporaries, says a great deal about the uses of the mind in France and England. Depending on where you stand, it underlines either the dullness of the English or the silliness of the French.
Milton’s God (1961) is another story. A brilliant business, right about God, often right about Milton, full of good jokes, it has a feverish, strident note not heard before in Empson. The Christian God, Empson says, “is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man,” and I would want to demur only at the tone of that judgment and its exaggeration (the Indian Kali and the Mexican Tezcatlipoca were not exactly a bundle of smiles). What seems wrong is not Empson’s view of Christianity, but his strained insistence that we have to have a view of Christianity. The fever is very clear in the following passage, where Empson is arguing against C. S. Lewis, who found Milton’s Satan ridiculous for believing that God had not created him:
[Lewis] treats creation by a personal God as the only theory of origin which is not mere jabberwocky, whereas the audience [that is, Lewis’s audience] presumably accept the Darwinian account of the emergence of mankind. I too find that more numinous, more imaginatively stirring than to say, “God just made us; and the earth stands on an elephant, and the elephant stands on a tortoise”; especially as, in the past, the argument has tended to continue, “if you ask me what the tortoise stands on I’ll burn you alive”…. As for myself, when I was a little boy I was very afraid I might not have the courage which I knew life to demand of me; my life has turned out pretty easy so far, but, if some bully said he would burn me alive unless I pretended to believe he created me, I hope I would have enough honour to tell him that the evidence did not seem to me conclusive.
The understatement of the last line is very fine, but the juxtaposition of the schoolyard scene (“some bully”) with the reiterated, too eager, too colloquial references to the Inquisition leaves a bad taste. The whole passage corresponds to that moment in an argument when you want so much to win that you suddenly raise the stakes and accuse your antagonist of quite new, monstrous failings (Empson knew perfectly well that Lewis was not going to burn anyone alive)—you feel queasy even as you do this, because you know you’re cheating, and you know the argument doesn’t really call for this kind of escalation. Well, perhaps Empson feels his argument does call for it, and perhaps I’m just feeling queasy on his behalf. But then I wonder what the argument is actually about, since Christianity is plainly not the current cause of the torture and sadism which are what seem to bother Empson about the contemporary world—the Inquisition, horrible as it was, was a long time ago, and there are a number of modern atheists who have very impressive records of evil. Still, this is a question for Empson himself; for us, his book just seems freighted with a load of cares and emotions which probably belong in another kind of book altogether.
Empson said of The Structure of Complex Words that there was “a certain amount of noisy taxiing round the field at the start …, and the landing at the end is bumpy though I think without causing damage; but the power of the thing and the view during its flight I consider magnificent.” This is certainly true of the flight over Shakespeare; and the analogy suggests another one. Empson says that the experience of metaphor itself feels like going into higher gear, and that, it seems to me, is exactly what reading Empson feels like: one changes gears all the time, and the car more often than not appears to be without a clutch—or better still has only some kind of home invention of Empson’s in place of a clutch. There is a lot of jolting, but the jolts are part of the performance. When you read (on the subject of Keats’s “Grecian Urn”) of the “sudden exertion of muscle by which Keats skids round the corner from self-pity to an imaginative view of the world,” your first reaction is to wonder how to save Keats from this vulgarian, who appears to see the poet as some kind of Steve McQueen; and your next reaction is to realize how thoroughly a tasteful statement would dilute what Empson wants to say.
We are wrong to look to Empson for dignity or doctrines, and probably wrong to look to him for complete, satisfying books, for masterpieces. It is true, as I. A. Richards says in Miss Gill’s volume, that Empson’s perceptions don’t have the “reconstitutive or seminal powers of those of Johnson or Coleridge,” but they have plenty of diffuse but enduring powers of their own. What Empson gives us are repeated instances of an incomparable mind at play. He enhances for us, even restores if we feel we are losing it, the pure, dizzying exhilaration of reading, and anyone who thinks this is not important doesn’t care about the life of the imagination in any of its forms.
January 23, 1975