It was more than fifty years ago that William Empson, then a fresh graduate of Cambridge University, popped up over the critical horizon with Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Reading it over again now, a few months after his death, one thinks at once what a thoroughly agreeable book it is. Tough, funny, intelligent, audacious, and deprecatory by turns, it’s very much a young man’s book—excited and nervy throughout. I find the margins of my old copy scrawled over in about equal quantities with indignant protests and delighted exclamation points. Needless to say, if I were annotating the book today in this informal fashion. I’d reverse the position of some of these pluses and minuses. The fact remains that Empson’s first book was, and still is, a wonderfully stimulating study. There are, to be sure, passages that work through a logical problem after the manner of a mathematics professor solving an extended string of equations under his breath at high speed; but they are balanced by others where his insights flare into instant conviction.

For example, Empson determined fairly early in his career that “all” was a pet word of Milton’s, and he pursued this notion through various formulas; but what was special about Milton’s use of “all”—common to all the dramatic contexts in which he used the word, and different from the way in which other poets used it—never came clear. One notes, by the way, that Donne in “Lovers’ Infiniteness” uses the word ten times in thirty-three lines, each time giving it a strong emphasis. If Milton did give the word some special inflection of thought or feeling, it might have been brought out in close comparison with such a poem.

On the other hand, when Empson called attention to Donne’s fondness for the idea of another world, another sphere, a fresh spiritual dispensation, it’s an insight that needs no elaboration; it changes instantly the emphasis with which one reads not only passages like the one on his mistress going to bed (“Oh my America, my new found land!”) but a crux like that in the last stanza of “The Relic”:

   Our hands ne’er touched the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.

Seven Types of Ambiguity is never altogether safe to read; one is constantly being carried off into speculations of one’s own, sometimes on the basis of a passage misquoted from Empson’s teeming memory, or in response to some other critic whose position has been seen only in part and askance. Empson wasn’t much interested in the plebeian sort of accuracy; but his mind worked at very high tension on the problems that concerned it—graduate students can, and doubtless will, clean up the details. I have heard that at least one highly respected physicist used to admit cheerfully that his mathematics wasn’t all that good; his gift was for insights, and he was glad to let other people work out the details. So, in many ways, William Empson, even as a young man.

The key to Seven Types, and to a good deal of Empson’s later writing as well, seems to me a sentence, half flip, half serious, in the preface to the second edition: “My attitude in writing [the book] was that an honest man erected the ignoring of ‘tact’ into a point of honor.” The single quotes around the word “tact” in this sentence enclose a large expanse of critical real estate. Before he has proceeded much further into the argument, Empson is found saying, “It is the essential discipline of the language that our elaborate reactions to a word are called out only by the word itself, or what is guessed to be the word itself; they are trained to be very completely inhibited by anything near the word but not quite right.” Whether this inhibition (which could also be called tact, without any quotation marks at all) is good or bad, he leaves ambiguous; but all the zest of his work goes into stripping it off and seeing what wonderful possibilities open up then. The fourth line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” is unlikely ever again to read as sparsely as it did before Empson parsed out the elements of the imagery. The metaphor holds, he says, because:

ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest and colored with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls colored like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions.

Such possibilities are wonderful, no doubt about it; but it’s not hard to think of others that are less so. The suggestion that when George Herbert wrote in “The Sacrifice,”


Oh all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,
The tree of life to all but only me.
Was ever grief like mine?

he intended to imply that Christ in mounting the cross was stealing the apple and symbolically committing incest—that suggestion ought not to be accepted without seeing what Rosemond Tuve had to say against it.

The aesthetic implications of his work were something about which Empson had, from the first, to be a little dodgy. He wrote mostly about pieces of poetry he particularly admired, and his aim (correct to the point of being commonplace) was to say what made it admirable. (The analogy he makes to the dealings of a dog with a flower is one of the funniest passages in a book distinguished among critical books by being a lot of fun: “Critics, as ‘barking dogs,’…are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up.”) But ambiguity as a concept had a dynamic of its own, which could not be reduced to serve a merely aesthetic point. Going far beyond and outside William Empson, it has now expanded to the point of declaring—rather comically, some think—that nobody can communicate with anybody, no text can possibly be so explicit as to be univocal.

Useless to tell such enthusiasts that they themselves are perfectly comprehensible, indeed, tiresome; if confusion is cultivated for its own sake, language can indeed become a winding stair to terminal solipsism. But this cul-de-sac is far from what Empson intended when he opened the topic of ambiguity; he was and for the most part remained a literary analyst with a social bias. He did not try to give the linguistic implications of his insights a philosophical footing, did not try to work out a full theory of literary value, did not use his considerable and early prestige as a platform for launching an orthodox academic career. All these refusals of the anticipated and readily available paths led to a career of isolation, broken by occasional forays in directions which, however distinctive of the man, could scarcely be predicted, and earned for him the reputation of a brilliant amateur.

His first step was to take jobs teaching English, first in Japan, then in China. During the Second World War these assignments, especially that on the mainland, were, to say the least, adventurous; his university was forced to move across a thousand miles of war-torn back country, so that occasionally he had no books for himself or his students, and had to chalk out the texts for discussion, from memory, on a blackboard. Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) feels in many ways like overflow from Seven Types, for it deals with a systematized duplicity of language and feeling; but it differs in dealing mostly with large and complete works, and with the ironic overtones of discussing one class in terms of another. Thus the “gentlemen of the road” in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera cast continual satiric glances at the gentlemanly politicians whom they imitate, and who reciprocally imitate them, and the sanity of the heroine in Alice in Wonderland provides an unclouded mirror for seeing the distortions and eccentricities of the grown-ups surrounding her.

That same year, 1935, in the course of a brief return to England, Empson published a small collection of poems, annotated by himself and since slightly expanded. Like his prose, his poems are dry, witty, and gnomic; like his other books, they have earned respect but few imitators. His last critical work before returning to England after the war was The Structure of Complex Words (1951), a volume which suffered from having undergone, owing to wartime stress, a double genesis. I.A. Richards called it a “palimpsest,” and (whether because of overwriting or not) much of it makes very heavy going.

In this book Empson combined close analysis of the components of certain English words with a discussion of the social circumstances under which those components came to be readjusted and given new emphases. “Fool,” for example, meant both a clown who might be rather clever, and a lunatic, who was definitely not; it also came to mean a privileged truth-speaker, an affected or mannered person, and occasionally something close to a saint—cf., Paul’s “fool in Christ” and Dostoevski’s “Idiot.” There are contexts in which “dog” can mean a scavenger, a degraded person, a cynic, a flatterer, or a jolly good fellow. On a more complex level, Empson analyzes the concept of “candor” and the complex of words clustering around “sense,” “sensible,” and “sensibility”; and his approach could readily invite us in 1985 to consider the word “intelligence” as used by William Casey, or “defense” as used by Caspar Weinberger.


By positing linguistic changes within the microcosm of the word itself—new emphases and applications, new meanings (perhaps boldly metaphorical at first but then gradually silted over)—Empson undertook to make of ambiguity a less corrosive mode of analysis. He reintroduced into linguistic analysis the crucial element of time. Very likely, had the book itself been less allusive and cryptic in its prose, and had the important thesis of controlled consensual change been stated at the beginning rather than in an appendix, it would have been better received. As it was, the analyses of individual words and modes of usage were (as often in the judgments made of Empson) better appreciated than the book’s larger argument.

Returning to permanent residence in England in 1953 seems to have caused considerable culture shock for Empson. This was not a matter of material deprivation, for he settled readily into teaching at Sheffield University. (Whether he didn’t want or couldn’t get an appointment at one of the more prestigious universities I don’t know. Teaching at Sheffield left him within easy reach of the extensive family holdings at Yokefleet in Yorkshire, where he was born.) Spiritually, however, return to postwar Britain was a more troubling matter. For twenty years and more, Empson had been largely out of touch with the academic establishment. Meeting a new generation of English literature students made him aware of the extent to which their minds had been pressured into accepting a Christian tradition, diluted and largely de-theologized but so firmly established as a literary code, among right-thinking people, that criticism of it could only appear jejune and naive.

This sort of assurance, which didn’t always keep itself from degenerating into cant, was as a red flag to Empson. He chose to meet the enemy (their captains were E.M.W. Tillyard, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Northrop Frye, but there were many more in what Milton would have called “the promiscuous crowd”) on the field of Miltonic scholarship and interpretation. Milton’s God (1961) argued that Milton had not written a flawed poem in behalf of a noble creed, but rather the best possible poem in behalf of a creed flawed at its very heart by the hateful and barbaric doctrine of the Vicarious Atonement, which Empson saw as a revival of the idea of human sacrifice. Whether there are not ways to make this challenge less blunt, so as to avoid the “village atheist” overtones, is open to discussion. Seeing God as essentially despotic in Paradise Lost, he presented Satan as a hero of conscience, refusing to kowtow to mere brute force.

There is a fundamental truth to this view that Milton himself explicitly recognized as early as line 26 of his epic, when he said that the ways of God had to be “justified” to man. No doubt Milton had many troubles in manipulating a divinely inspired and therefore unchangeable biblical story so as to bring it in line with “modern” (i.e., seventeenth- but also twentieth-century) sympathies. Some of the ways in which he did this—the balancing of justice and mercy in the early books, the contrasting behavior of Satan and the human couple under stress of a bad conscience, the muted yet threatening presence of Chaos—would, I think, modify the sharp contrast between God and Satan that Empson accepts. It might also have enabled him to avoid the appearance of countering one parochialism with another. But in Milton’s God he struck from the shoulder, and there are signs that he succeeded in ruffling some complacencies that badly needed disturbing. In any event, the furor over Milton’s God was Empson’s last large raid on the academic chicken coop; in 1971 he retired from Sheffield and moved to London. In 1979 he was knighted, and in April 1984 he died, leaving in press his final book, Using Biography.

On the whole, the reception of Empson’s work throughout the postwar years was not good. Almost everyone recognized the ebullient energy of occasional insights, but the different versions of pastoral never caught on as a working critical category any better than the several types of ambiguity. Clouds of gathering deconstructionism darkened the idea of gathering consensual linguistic enrichment through ambiguity in Complex Words; and in Milton’s God, Empson chose to plead his case against Christianity before the packed jury of an entrenched Miltonic establishment.

In every instance one could trace an element of that original bias for “erecting the ignoring of ‘tact’ into a point of honor”; and, to do them justice, few of the critics failed to recognize the humane and honorable principles behind Empson’s campaigns. His early insurrection against literary “tact” was the work of an energetic, self-assertive reader feeling stifled by urbane convention; his antipathy to bringing historical traditions to bear on the reading of seventeenth-century poetry came from a fear of “explaining away” the poetry itself; his battle against Christianity in Milton was an emphatic affirmation of conscience. (A few of his critics went so far as to imply that his procedure was chivalric, though they commonly adorned their “tributes” with references to Don Quixote or the White Knight.)

During the latter part of Empson’s life, however, he was often dismissed as crotchety or eccentric, because of battles like the one over the revised text of Donne against the substantial body of modern textual scholarship. This sort of condemnation irritated him, and he protested strongly against it. Yet his failure to persuade more widely than he did remains to be explained, and not simply by the fact that he regularly ignored some of the first principles of persuasive writing. He is, to be sure, a difficult critic, but one of the difficulties is that he was often talking about a subject other than the ostensible one, pushing argument B under the screen of argument A. Some of this comes clear in Using Biography.

It is a new book only as a printed volume, since of the eight essays it contains only one that was published as late as 1982, and five of the other seven are from the 1970s. The title is a bit misleading, even though in these essays Empson deals more directly with the biographies of authors than he has done elsewhere, since in fact the uses of his materials are precisely what he does least to explain. The second and most extended of his essays makes this point very clear. It is an exploration of the complicated question of Andrew Marvell’s alleged, questioned, and here passionately reaffirmed marriage. The transactions, infinitely complex, involve a couple of bankrupts on the lam, secret hideouts in London, numerous lawsuits and threats of lawsuits, and hundreds of Public Record Office documents; Empson’s arguments include insinuations of homosexuality (or at least dubious virility) on Marvell’s part, formidable family feuds, especially with two harpy sisters, and as the poet’s final act something very close to deliberate suicide.

Partly because the matter is very complicated in itself, partly because Empson freely mingles guesswork and fictional hypotheses with his details, this piece of literary detective work will exhaust and bewilder most readers. Yet Empson admits that it has little to do with Marvell’s poetry, the most memorable parts of which were written forty years and more before the question of Mary Marvell and her identity ever came up. But to establish the marriage makes an honest man out of Marvell and an honest woman out of his widow; and that, for what it’s worth, is the use of this particular piece of biography.

More complex in its relation to literature is an argument, in the second of two Joyce essays, on the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. (This piece has status problems of its own, since in 1962, eight years after its original formulation, Empson disavowed what had seemed to be its central assertion, while at the same time affirming that most of the argument still stood.) The thesis is that Stephen, Bloom, and Molly at the conclusion of Joyce’s novel actually form a ménage à trois, the mingled jealousies and indulgences of which so stimulate Bloom that he is finally able to beget a son who will replace the deceased Rudy.

It is a thesis that weaves together an episode from Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, a theme from Joyce’s play Exiles, and many teasing, elusive hints in the novel itself; and, to be sure, it resolves some of the outstanding imbalances with which the book has concerned itself. But at what cost! It is a cost to be counted in large themes tied off and remote perspectives suddenly domesticated, which the reader will have to calculate for himself. Empson, like the aggressive prosecuting attorney he often affects to be, is too busy jointing together the bits of evidence that make up his case to step back and declare, not only what uses his theory serves, but what uses it precludes. There can be no doubt that Stephen Dedalus has to become more in the work of Joyce than a butt for jeering and uppity moralizing (this is the anti-Kenner part of Empson’s argument); but the three-way circuit—apart from the inherent instabilities that disqualify it as the end of a novel—introduces too many other imponderables. How, for instance, if they were both sleeping with Molly, did Bloom and Stephen settle on the paternity of her son? What does this fantasy do to the common understanding that in Bloom and Molly Bloom Joyce was reproducing aspects of his own relation with Nora? The whole thing is a tune from another opera, interesting chiefly as it illustrates Empson’s resistance to the strong anti-humanist streak latent in Joyce.

The greatest success in this collection is the study of Tom Jones, originally published in 1958 and here rounded off with a brief postscript. In this essay Empson, though he takes a few sideswipes at Professor Wimsatt and the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy, is essentially concerned to show that Fielding assumed an unequivocal moral position toward his developing hero. The novel is thick with ironies of several sorts working in different directions, but they lead to a balanced, dynamic conclusion. As Dr. Johnson saw to his indignation, the young man cannot be understood as profiting by good principles to lead him toward heavenly Sophia; neither can his tale be seen as a working out of simple natural goodness. Avoiding the Hobbesian doctrine of universal selfishness as well as the excessive benevolence of vague Squire Allworthy, Tom is pointed toward an ethos of sympathetic community tempered by social status—imaginative awareness of one’s kinship with others, founded primarily on secure possession of one’s self. Empson sums it up: “If good by nature, you can imagine other peoples’ feelings so directly that you have an impulse to act on them as if they were your own; and this is the source of your greatest pleasures as well as of your only genuinely unselfish actions.”

I think that working out this ethic through the several situations where it presents itself in Tom Jones does a great deal to animate a plot that could otherwise seem mechanical. It also chimes effectively on the ethical considerations that Empson put forward at the end of The Structure of Complex Words (in the appendix titled “Theories of Value”), which again he sums up in a formula: “The creature must think ‘It is good, in general, to act so as to produce good effects. Good effects are the same when I am there as when I am not, like the rest of the external world, hence they are good in you as well as me. Hence, it is good for me to produce good effects in you.” These are simple formulas, but they come at the end of extended and knotty arguments; they have been earned.

I believe it was Roger Sale who, in his book Modern Heroism (1973), first called attention to the strain of severe and energetic morality that runs throughout Empson’s critical work. Lazy aesthetes who don’t want to think about poetry are a broadside target of Seven Types; the merely emotive significance of words like “good” and “bad” is the nightmare being exorcised in Complex Words; while Pastoral is imbued, almost to lyricism, with the ideal of social community, imaginatively perceived through mutual ironic reflections between high and low social classes, nature and her counterpart, civilization. Most strikingly, the attack on Christian religion in Milton’s God is an attack on a sluggish and unthinking repetition of formulas shielded by special pleading and parochialism. Empson has been the most militant of our critics, as can be seen at once by glancing at his critical style. He recurs continually to the formula, “You may say that…” followed by, “Then I can answer that….” His passion for the dialectic amounted almost to obsession; if it led him sometimes into private labyrinths, it also engaged, and continues to engage, minds that can recognize resistance as a form of tribute.

Now that it can be seen as a whole, Empson’s career, like one of his complex words, begins to reassemble its particular components, and one of its dominant themes could be a nice sense of punctilio. He was meticulous in points of intellectual honor; many of his books sprang from recognition of them, and somewhere I recall he speaks about having too much respect for his argument to make it in a too sympathetic tone. (This is very approximate recall, à la Empson.) That makes reading him a constant test of one’s self and one’s personal equilibrium. As for Empson, one could consider his attitude either that of having a decent respect for his reader or else as challenging him, on the old principle of “owing it to one’s students not to teach too well.”

It’s too easy to say every reader must decide for himself how well Empson repays how much study and of what sort. What’s different about Empson’s work is the amount of discrimination the reader must exercise, the closeness with which his mind must engage the author’s. Already certain passages of Empsonian exegesis—of poems by George Herbert, Crashaw, Shakespeare, and Gray, to name no others—have attained classic status, so that the text can’t be intelligently considered without them. I’m not talking about agreement; this isn’t the sort of literary commentator who attracts docile disciples. But I think he had, though in lesser measure, Dr. Johnson’s extraordinary gift for laying his finger on crucial literary moments; and that alone is likely to ensure him a measure of permanence.

A new and valuable piece of apparatus is an annotated bibliography by Frank Day of Empson’s writings and writings about him; it is published by Garland Press as part of their Modern Critics and Critical Schools series. It will be particularly useful in rounding up the scattered journalism, reviews, rejoinders, retractions, amplifications, and miscellaneous commentaries, such as make up the diffuse, persistent campaign that Empson waged in behalf of H.J.C. Grierson’s 1912 edition of Donne. Incidentally, the bibliography makes clear how much uncollected material still remains; for example, a tidy volume could be made of Empson’s work on the seventeenth-century poets. It would be less miscellaneous than Using Biography, and would encourage people seriously interested in the subject to reach a coherent judgment on a complex bundle of ideas about a central period of English literature.

A less portentous way of finding out if Empson is to your taste is to read the Collected Poems, which Harcourt Brace Jovanovich still keeps in print. It’s a short volume filled with puns, jokes, curious erudition, and contorted oddities of popular fact—as Coleridge said of Donne, “iron pokers wreathed into true-love knots.” There’s a fair argument that some of these twists have been deliberately imported for their own sake, so the poems, though intricate, are not really rich. Maybe that bothers you, maybe not. If you get past that obstacle, you will find that many of the poems have a special gift for teasing and tricking their way into the recesses of your mind, where they may well take up permanent residence. “Arachne” is one of them, a little poem indeed, but glancing its way through prehistoric man, the world seen from outer space, and some aspects of entomology, to culminate playfully in a common atavistic fantasy:

Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves;
Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems;
Earth’s vast hot iron, cold space’s empty waves:

King spider, walks the velvet roof of streams:
Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid:
Dance, like nine angels, on pin-point extremes.

His gleaming bubble between void and void,
Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands,
Earth’s surface film, is at a breath destroyed.

Bubbles gleam brightest with least depth of lands
But two is least can with full tension strain,
Two molecules; one, and the film disbands.

We two suffice. But oh beware, whose vain
Hydroptic soap my meagre water saves.
Male spiders must not be too early slain.

This Issue

April 11, 1985