William Empson
William Empson; drawing by David Levine


William Empson was the finest critic in our century of English literature, but each of his books sparked a vigorous protest and even expressions of outrage. The first and still most famous of his writings is Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), written when he was a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate at Cambridge University, and the story goes that he produced this very substantial book in only two weeks. He never got his degree at Cambridge because his bedmaker discovered contraceptives in his room. (When charged with this offense, Empson explained that he was sleeping with a lady don, and suggested to the disciplinary committee that they would surely prefer that he did not get her pregnant.) For the next decade, he taught English in Japan and China. Returning to England at the beginning of the Second World War, he worked for the BBC as China editor from 1942 to 1946, and then went back to Peking.

Not until 1953 did he find a post teaching literature in England: it took a certain amount of courage, Empson realized, for the University of Sheffield to make the appointment. In an informal speech that Empson gave three years after retiring, on an occasion when he received an honorary degree from Sheffield, he said:

Listening to that splendid praise given me by the Orator, it struck me that the University also deserved some praise for making the appointment. It was what is called bold; when I was made Professor here, I had actually never done any teaching in England at all.1

Empson was knighted in 1979 and died in 1984. Since his death, an attempt has been made not only to keep his books in print but to collect the numerous essays that were scattered throughout the years in many different publications. A volume of Essays on Shakespeare came out in 1986 and has been followed this year after a long delay by the first of two books of Essays on Renaissance Literature, this one subtitled Donne and the New Philosophy. Between these two volumes, both of which he had planned himself but did not finish, there appeared his study of Marlowe’s Faustus and also a collection of shorter reviews and articles called Argufying, a word that Empson used and may have liked for its provocative inelegance (he preferred the kind of poetry that said something, that argued, and that one could talk back to).

The last two volumes have been edited by his colleague and authorized biographer-to-be, John Haffenden, with prefaces that assume the heavy task of defending every aspect of Empson’s thought. This is a friendly thing to do, and Haffenden does it about as well as one could want. I do not think that he realizes, however, that Empson’s greatness does not depend so much on his having been right. In fact, even when wrong, which was often enough, he was generally a better critic than his opponents.

The remarkable innovation of the early work of Empson (developed after the first youthful volume in two succeeding books, Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words) was a close and detailed examination of the different nuances of meaning that a word could assume, and the way these related meanings acted upon each other: the intensity of the analysis recalled the way that seventeenth-century preachers would torture a text from the Bible in an effort to extract the last drop of significance—this close likeness may appear ironic in view of Empson’s bitter hostility to Christianity. It was, in fact, seventeenth-century style that inspired him. A fine if minor poet whose poems will continue to appear in anthologies for years to come, Empson modeled his verse on that of John Donne, and he remained faithful to his love for Donne till the end of his life.

Empson’s analytic technique was created for poetry, and he defended it near the opening of Seven Types of Ambiguity:

A first-rate wine-taster may only taste small amounts of wine, for fear of disturbing his palate, and I dare say it would really be unwise for an appreciative critic to use his intelligence too freely…. Specialists usually have a strong Trades Union sense, and critics have been too willing to insist that the operation of poetry is something magical, to which only their own method of incantation can be applied, or like the growth of a flower, which it would be folly to allow analysis to destroy by digging up the roots and crushing out the juices into the light of day. Critics, as “barking dogs,” on this view, are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.2

A brief illustration of the way Empson considered words may perhaps be given most effectively from prose rather than poetry. I use an example that he discussed in the most systematic of his books, The Structure of Complex Words, the word “delicate” in a phrase spoken by a Victorian matron:


“You can’t take Amelia for long walks, Mr. Jones; she’s delicate.” The word has two senses…and I suppose the lady to assert a connection between them. “Refined girls are sickly” is the assertion, and this gnomic way of putting it is a way of implying “as you ought to know.” I choose this case partly to point out that a stock equation may be quite temporary; this combination of meanings in the word seems to be a Victorian one only. You might think that the expectation that young ladies will be unfit to walk was enough to produce it, and that the expectation merely followed from tight-lacing: but the eighteenth-century young ladies also had waists, and would agree that long walks were rather vulgar, and yet this use of the word would be “out of period” if you were writing a pastiche. The reason seems to be that in the eighteenth century the older meaning “fastidious” was still knocking about, and even the meaning “luxurious, self-indulgent” was not yet sufficiently forgotten…. Now it is clear that refined and sickly must be given different logical positions in the Victorian use; all refined girls are sickly, but not all sickly girls are refined…. it is by a tone of moral grandeur that the Victorian matron has to put the meaning “refined” here into her use of delicate.3

Later Empson observes:4

It seems fair to say that our two senses of delicate, “refined” and “sickly,”… proceed from the two equations “persons devoted to pleasure improve their taste but lose their health.” The Victorian matron…would fiercely deny this connection with sensuality; her equation of the surviving pair [of senses] was meant to imply that the best people ignore the body and its pleasures, preferring chastity and the consequences of tight stays.

What interests Empson is not so much the poetic resonances of meaning but rather the possibility of saying something covertly that could not be put into more direct expression without disclosing aspects of experience which society was unwilling to face head-on. The ambiguity of language reveals our unacknowledged desires and prejudices. For Empson, the role of the poet or the novelist was to uncover these unrecognized tensions and contradictions, to provide his readers with the knowledge of themselves and their culture they did not know they needed.

It is clear from the protests inspired by parts of these early volumes that even Empson’s admirers felt that his ingenuity at winkling out possible meanings sometimes went too far: time has not softened the irritation created by his overzealous intelli-gence.5 He was accused, not without some justice, of treating the lines of poetry that interested him by simply looking up one of the key words in the large Oxford English Dictionary, noting which senses existed at the time the poem had been written, and attempting to read all of these meanings into the poem without regard to their relevance to the central meaning of the passage or of the poem as a whole, and without sufficiently considering which senses of the word were primary and which secondary.

As a matter of fact, however, The Structure of Complex Words is perhaps the first systematic attempt to deal with the way primary meaning and secondary associations combine to inflect and even determine the significance of propositions. (In the example quoted above, “sickly” is the primary meaning of “delicate,” but the context pushes a secondary meaning to the fore.) The book even maps out a very elaborate machinery for describing the interaction of the different senses. Nevertheless, many of Empson’s analyses of poetry were of individual lines or passages ripped from their contexts, and he seemed to take a virtuoso’s delight in bringing up the most far-fetched considerations, many of them at least at first sight very remote from the text he is looking at. The virtuosity is all the more impressive, of course, when it pays off, as in his remarks on the influence of Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species on Alice in Wonderland.


An accusation even easier to demonstrate against Empson was his habit of misquoting. It is true that he mostly quoted from memory—he was famous for being able to reel off enormous quantities of verse without referring to the texts, something he found not only useful but necessary when he was teaching in the Far East without access to a library with any English literature. Unfortunately his memory tended to be creative. In a note introducing his selection of Empson’s articles Argufying, Haffenden writes that “his publisher reported 900 cases of incorrect quotation in the typescript of The Structure of Complex Words; that is, 80 percent of all the quotations in the book needed to be corrected before publication.” That is a hefty percentage, but the assertion that he deliberately distorted his quotations in order to prove the point he wished to make about them will not stick. (He himself said in answer to this charge that almost any other form of human frailty would have appealed to him more.) No important aspect of his interpretations ever depended on a misquotation.

It may appear surprising that a critic should excite such admiration when so much of his work seems irrelevant, immensely self-indulgent, or just plain wrong. Perhaps we should remember that Samuel Johnson, often considered the greatest literary critic of the eighteenth century, by his own admission never finished a book, but just browsed over some of the pages, and that his judgments of literary value were absurdly prejudiced by his politics. It is manifestly unfair that critics whose work is openly vitiated by the most evident irresponsibility should reach such eminence with ease, while the conscientious worker who does not shirk his professional drudgery must be content with a more lowly rank, his virtue largely unrewarded.


In the latter part of his life after The Structure of Complex Words, Empson was embroiled in two controversies: arguments about the Intentional Fallacy—here his enemies were W.K. Wimsatt and the critics influenced by T.S. Eliot—and about the text of the poetry of John Donne, where he attacked the new edition of Dame Helen Gardner for what he called a neo-Christian viewpoint or an attempt to whitewash the blasphemy that Empson felt was so vital to Donne’s early writings before he became a famous preacher. His attacks on his opponents became heated in the last years, although he rarely lost the off-hand, bluff urbanity that characterized his style. He often wrote like a hearty, old-fashioned country squire from one of Fielding’s novels, speaking his mind to his social inferiors: this, too, did not endear him to other scholars.

He tended to nag irritably about the Intentional Fallacy, a creation of Monroe C. Beardsley and W. K. Wimsatt, who claimed that the intention of the author was irrelevant to his achievement—it was not what he wanted to do that mattered but what he succeeded in doing. Essentially, back in 1946, they were protesting the academic tradition of interpreting a poem or novel only with reference to the author’s biography, as if it were a private document of which the sole interest was what it revealed about the writer’s life: at the time this was the fundamental way of teaching literature in the university. A student’s interpretation of a text that went beyond the limited horizon of what was thought to be the author’s point of view was discouraged. The pendulum of academic fashion then swung the other way: to try to imagine what the text could have meant to the author was no longer acceptable. The author’s own view of his work, for example, was not considered privileged; once having written the poem, he was now merely a reader and a critic like anybody else. And it is true that an author’s explanation of his work is meant to mislead or to cover up as often as it is to illuminate.

The anti-intentionalist position is sometimes considered a modern fashion, a new-fangled way of looking at literature wickedly invented by the New Critics in the 1940s as a means of preventing people from enjoying novels and poems in the traditional way, that is, with a feeling that they were coming into direct contact with the mind of the author. But the belief that the author is in fact no better at interpreting his work than anyone else is a very ancient one, explicitly presented by Plato in the Ion. I should imagine that both intentionalist and anti-intentionalist views have existed throughout history. An attack on the kind of biographical criticism that the essay on the Intentional Fallacy condemned was made most provocatively at the end of the eighteenth century by a friend of Goethe, Johann Heinrich Merck, and those who believe, as Empson did, that this theory is diabolical, will be glad to know that Goethe used Merck as the model for Mephistopheles in Faust. I quote a few passages from Merck’s charming dialogue “Reader and Author” not only to show the age and persistence of the controversy, but to shed some light on its confusions:

Reader: Before we get further acquainted, tell me: Just who are you and what was your intention in writing this book?

Author: I should have thought that would be as unnecessary to know as whether a shopkeeper was Catholic or Lutheran. I am an author, just as a businessman is a businessman and that should be enough to give me the honor of your acquaintance.

Reader: But with an author it is very important to know what else he does besides his profession, how and why he became an author, whether he is single or married, a priest or a local tax-collector.

Author: That is a new way of judging works of art. Does it have any interest when you see the canal to Bromberg to know that the author is a chief counsellor to the consistory of Berlin?

Reader: Of course, a lot depends on outer circumstances, and if I know that the author is a student, I can say to him in advance: Sir, please spare me any scenes of high society, pictures of sophisticated life, and everything that you want to serve up about the secrets of the female heart and affairs of great passion and so on. You have invented all that and not seen it, and as a man who has lived, I can take out of my pocket a sum of experience for daily expense with which I could buy your entire patrimony.

Author: I see that you are getting excited as if very important business is going to be transacted between us. Our relationship to each other should remain very distant. One of us buys and the other sells, and in this case we do not have to audit the financial statement on either side. The most insignificant tobacconist in Spaa may negotiate his business with Lord Clive concerning the Lord’s pleasure or convenience and for what the Lord did not possess before he made the acquaintance of the small shopkeeper. The Lord can gain by the transaction and the shopkeeper, too, without one of them paying too much or the other becoming rich.6

The Author here wishes the relation to the reader to remain impersonal, and for him a book is not a direct communication but a transaction, even a commercial transaction; the Reader, for his part, wants a guarantee of authenticity, an assurance that he is not being cheated by a fake product. Like the Reader, Empson insisted on the authenticity of the text—that is, on the sincerity and the immediacy of its reflections of the world. In a brilliant review of an edition of the poems of the Earl of Rochester, he takes up the famous lyric that begins “Absent from thee I languish still” and quotes the stanza:

Dear, from thine Arms then let me flie, That my Fantastic Mind may prove
The Torments it deserves to try, That tears my fixt Heart from my Love.

He comments on these lines with admiration:

What saves the poem is the wild claim that his “fantastic mind” somehow needs the “torments it deserves to try.” One is prepared to believe it of him. He is a test case, I think, against some recent critics who have said that one ought to ignore biography because a poem ought to stand by itself—if one didn’t believe Rochester, his poems couldn’t come off properly.

There is at least the germ of a confusion here. One has, indeed, to take the poems seriously for them to work, but the reader’s conviction that they are not superficial paradoxes does not come from a study of Rochester’s life—at least, we do not have to study the life for the poems to work. They convince on their own, by their intensity. It is true, however, that our conviction may be reinforced by a study of the life, and if, as everyone agrees, an understanding of the period when the poems were written is helpful to full appreciation, we can hardly avoid dealing with the poet’s life.

Arguments between Empson and his sometimes unwilling opponents about the Intentional Fallacy mostly give the impression that neither is listening to the other. The controversy reminds me of the eighteenth-century quarrel between atheists and deists: David Hume shrewdly pointed out that there was no real disagreement, merely a slight shift of emphasis, the deist insisting on the analogy between human intelligence and the apparently rational structure of the laws of Nature that governed the universe, the atheist insisting on the unbridgeable gap between the human mind and the transcendant workings of Nature that made it improper to claim that anything like a human mind was in charge. Similarly, neither Wimsatt nor Empson believed that a work of imaginative literature was a form of personal communication like a telegram asking to be met at Penn Station tomorrow morning, and both of them also knew that a poem or novel mimics communication, pretends to be very like the things we say to each other every day.

A love poem may be like a proposal of marriage, but even if we think that it reflects the author’s life and is sincere, it does not engage his responsibility: it does not, like a proposal, derive its meaning by being fixed in time and space. The poem has its action in an indeterminate space, and its time is whenever it is read. Our initial stab at understanding the poem may be to try to imagine someone saying and believing it, but we are not supposed to stop there: it was made for us to put our own feelings to work in it, and even to imagine the feelings of other people remote from us and from the author. The real fallacy is to believe that we have understood the poem once we think we have found out what it meant to the poet, and the successful poem is the one that leaves biography far behind.

In their controversy both Empson and his opponents made concessions which in the end badly weaken their positions. Anti-intentionalists mostly admit that biography is frequently a useful tool for understanding. On his part, Empson had so broad a view of intentions that it conceded almost everything to the other side: the intentions he liked to consider were largely unconscious ones. He wrote,7

What one can sometimes say, I think, is that the poet was inspired and meant more than he knew, and that the later reader can recognise in his working the growth of ideas which through also working in his contemporary public, and therefore accepted when they accepted his poem, were then obscure or even forbidden.

In practice, Empson interpreted intention to mean everything the author ought to have been unconsciously thinking about if he wished to retain Empson’s interest and admiration.

Indeed, Empson liked to think well of the authors whose work he admired. This was at the root of his harsh treatment of John Carey’s 1981 biography of John Donne. Carey’s image of Donne was that of a hypocrite, an arriviste, and a male chauvinist pig (his image of Empson, incidentally, was of a poet and critic with a “distaste for people,” “captious, niggling” and overingenious, whose criticism was a vandal’s attack on the more obvious values of English literature). Carey’s picture of Donne was not absolutely false. At a time when openly professing controversial opinions could get one thrown in jail, Donne was certainly not always completely frank about his religion or philosophy. He was also ambitious, although his making an unwise marriage showed that there were limits to what he would do for his career. Virtually all men in the early seventeenth century (and most women, too) were male chauvinist pigs, as they still are today except for a few who try hard to be politically correct—and then their swinishness may often take another but not very different form. What is untrustworthy about Carey’s biography is its fashionable, even chic debunking and its relentless lack of magnanimity.

The chief bone of contention was Carey’s reading of the elegy “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” For Carey, this traditional exercise in Renaissance soft porn, in which the poet urges the woman to undress, is an attempt to “insult, humiliate, and punish.” For Empson, “it describes the greatest bit of luck in this kind that a male reader can imagine”; furthermore, at the poet’s finest moment, “he says he has no claim to deserve such intimacy, except that she has already chosen him by her visit; her previous choice is like the predestination of God.” In Empson’s discussion of the elegy, two obsessions met and fused: his admiration of Donne and the importance of biographical criticism.

Both Carey and Empson viewed the poem as autobiography, although Empson admitted that “this early poem must be expected to be fantasy,” since the woman must be assumed to be aristocratic and the young poet had not yet met any upper-class women. Empson’s biographical speculations are much more good-humored and generous than Carey’s determinedly nasty ones, but both seem to me beside the point. In a typically wild rush of imagination, Empson decided that the fantasy woman is married (she is called “Madam”—not really a very convincing argument) and that “she has (presumably) come on from a banquet or reception to the humble lodging of the speaker; somehow she has been released, maybe because her husband got drunk.” If she is only a fantasy, what are all those conjectures about her life outside the elegy doing? It is true that Empson’s reconstructions are sometimes very far-fetched, but he clearly had fun thinking this one up.

It seems pedantic and churlish after that to point out that this elegy is in a long tradition of erotic descriptions of a woman’s body, with the finest models of it in French literature of the sixteenth century. Empson generally and rightly did not like being told that his interpretations were fanciful because he was dealing with an ancient and traditional trope,8 and it is true that Donne transforms the erotic tradition into a little dramatic scene. Empson, however, was right to protest against some critics that the girl is not a prostitute, but then she is not a married lady, either, or aristocratic, or upper-middle class, or whatever; she is, indeed, welldressed, but that is only to make the description of the strip-tease more detailed and give it more class.

I suppose one might reasonably reproach Donne with not giving the woman a full humanity with a rounded personality and economic status, but then that was never considered necessary in pornography, even soft porn—and when it is done, it tends to make the porn more vicious by offering opportunities for psychological sadism. (As a matter of fact, in the act of sex one is not often at the crucial moment concerned about the rounded personality or the class status of the partner, unless one has a fetish about being whipped by a member of an upper or a lower class.) The attempts by both Carey and Empson to imagine the actual situation in which Donne either found or imagined himself are distractions: no one ever read the elegy like that before it was taught at a university in the twentieth century.

Empson wanted Donne to be like himself, an advanced, liberal thinker with an up-to-date knowledge of science and philosophy and a dislike of orthodox Christianity, and he insisted that many of Donne’s poems hint at the possibility of life on other planets. This idea was making the rounds at the time, largely through Giordano Bruno, who visited England for a few months and was finally burnt in Rome for heresy, and it did create a theological problem: if salvation and the avoidance of eternal damnation could only be achieved by acknowledging the divinity of Jesus Christ, those who lived on other planets were being penalized unfairly, as news of Jesus could not have reached them. In fact, this matter had already been raised about the civilizations on other continents, like the Aztecs and the Incas.

The most admiring of Empson’s critics, Frank Kermode, has claimed that he was wrong about Donne’s position on these matters of contemporary science, and has given very good reasons for believing that, although Donne knew about the latest cosmological theories, his thinking remained pre-Copernican. It is clear that Kermode is basically right, but I suggest he has been trapped by Empson’s insistence that the poets he liked must have passionately believed everything they put into their poems, and that it degraded the poetry to think otherwise. Empson wanted the love poems of Donne to be a subtle form of propaganda against Christianity. He did not think a poem could be serious if the poet did not guarantee the truth of what he had written. This makes the question of belief a much less complex thing than it is—as Empson himself realized as soon as he dealt with a poet like Coleridge whose acknowledged beliefs were antipathetic to Empson, and he was able to show correctly that much more heterodox opinions had found their way into Coleridge’s poetry—against the author’s intention, most of us would say. It seems to me that Kermode slightly underrates the power and interest of the cosmological theories and theological problems that were current in England and Italy when Donne was young. I think that they do play a larger role in his poetry than Kermode is willing to consider, although not as crude or straightforward a role as Empson would like us to accept. They exist in the poems like the secondary meanings of words to which Empson was so sensitive; they add resonance.9

I do not want to imply that even Empson’s wildest biographical speculations are always as wide of the mark as they may first appear. In a review of an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,10 Empson once tried to reconstruct in detail the relations, social and sexual, of Shakespeare with the young Earl of Southampton, whom Empson believed to be the Friend to whom the sonnets were written:

The years 1592–4 make a dividing line for the drama; the theatres were closed for plague….It was for survival, we need not doubt, that [Shakespeare] wrote the two long poems with dedications to Southampton, the first very awestruck, the second boasting of intimacy. There is a legend that Southampton gave him a large sum for a special purpose, and the new Company would need capital to get started in 1594….Southampton was his only angel, in the modern theatre’s sense, and the poems among much else thank an angel.

In 1594 Shakespeare was 30 and Southampton 21….The social ladder was steep, and Shakespeare wanted to write speeches for aristocrats on the stage, so he was keyed up to hear them talk. No wonder he was bowled over by the Earl. He continued to feel wiser; that is why he pretends in many of the Sonnets to be old…What a pleasure, at 29, to say: “But I can’t be friends with you—why I’m a shambling old man, with no teeth“; and how adroit one would feel, when the real meaning was “I know I’m not good enough class.”…

Mr Seymour-Smith, I think, assumes that anal coition took place, with the Earl as the girl; and this is what Dr Rowse et al. feel it urgent to rebut….So far I agree with the majority and Dr Rowse: the Earl was prone enough to women, and what he expected of his poets was flattery. I expect he was practically as virgin as the Queen who served as his model in the affair, though some grudging masturbation may have been an occasional reward….

If the Earl was as much of an angel as was needed, and fun as well, need Shakespeare’s praise of him so often have been “bitter irony” as the editor finds?…

The editor assumes that the metaphor of feeding, used for pleasure in the beloved, means some gross kind of love…. But when Shakespeare speaks of himself as “starving for a look”—across a crowded room, no doubt, when the Earl is giving a grand party, to show that Shakespeare is forgiven—the thought of food is used for something very unsensual…. Shakespeare had to pretend an all but unrestrainable desire for the person of the Earl, so that the Earl (as it might be the Queen) could have the pleasure of restraining him.

A modern reader is necessarily misled if he uses the words “snob” or “pansy” about the affair, because it is so far from our experience. In the course of applying for a grant (as we would say), when in dire need, Shakespeare was not upset to find that the formula had become genuine; he had actually worked up a desire for the patron. A man must expect this only to make the routine more exasperating, but it wasn’t so bad if one had a Dark Lady in the background. To have the patron take over the lady would at least make it more intimate. But I suspect that the main thing (after the life-saving grant) was to be allowed to come to the parties; every detail there was going to be important for all his working life. The poet might well respond with the generosity which C.S.Lewis found to be the astonishing thing about these love poems: the childish patron had given much more than he realised.

The extravagance of this fascinating but flimsy construction, based on very little evidence, is breathtaking. Every detail may in some way be mistaken. Nevertheless, it raises almost every major point that concerns the mysterious relation depicted in the sonnets: an older man to a younger one, a commoner to an aristocrat, a dramatist to someone of the highest social class, a professional man to a very rich one, a supplicant to a patron, a lover to his rival, a lover to one who rejects him, a poet to a friend who needs to be flattered. Empson has turned here from the ambiguity of words in his earlier books to an ambiguity of situation—that is, the sonnets are subject to multiple readings, none of which can be easily dismissed.

Empson’s account has a deliberate impudence in its assurance; to any right-thinking scholar it is a kind of effrontery. Yet it neglects very little, and calls attention to the complexity of tone and emotion that every one finds in the sonnets but that so many critics wish to reduce and simplify. This almost off-hand review, which Haffenden has not bothered to reprint, is in many respects like the brilliant essay in Some Versions of Pastoral on the sonnet “They that have power to hurt and will do none.” I remember reading this a number of years ago and feeling that many of the observations were irrelevant; and yet when I turned back to the sonnet afterward, it seemed to have become richer, more coherent, and more moving.

The deliberately disengaged looseness of Empson’s style has stimulated most of the indignation of his critics: F.L. Lucas objected to the “vulgarity” of his analysis of a poem by George Herbert, and Carey called the same analysis a “crude rewording” and a “comic paraphrase.” There is no doubt that the style was a provocation, an attack on the conventional academic manner. In a letter to Janet Adam Smith, Empson described the reaction of a friend of his to the way he wrote:11

I suppose he thinks if a critic says something simply that proves he meant to be ironical. Then he said, “How do you manage to get it as loose as that? Do you dictate it?” I explained I used beer, but that when I saw the stuff in print (I had to admit) it shocked my eye as much as it did his. He was very friendly, you understand. One thing is, I have to read so much Mandarin English Prose now, especially in literary criticism, and am so accustomed to being shocked by its emptiness, that I feel I must do otherwise at all costs.

Empson’s manner, and even its occasional use of lower-class slang, is a sort of High Mandarin, and an uningratiating way of looking down on the lower mandarin echelons.

In recent years, literary theorists have felt that Empson anticipated many of their techniques, and have tried to enlist him in their ranks. He himself resisted this takeover—this, in my opinion, is neither here nor there, merely another irrelevant quarrel about intention; but his work does not fit comfortably into the latest forms of theory, in spite of the impression he made on Paul de Man, and in spite of the admiration he now receives from deconstructionists like Christopher Norris, who has written well and interestingly about him.12 The situation is a little like the one many years ago in Vienna, when the Logical Positivists read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and thought delightedly that he was one of them; but after they had a meeting, it turned out that they were very far apart indeed. Still, it must be said that the Viennese positivists were not completely wrong about Wittgenstein, and their ideas did really overlap at many points; and the theorists today are not mistaken when they find much of what they are working for in Empson.

Nevertheless, Empson was neither one of the old New Critics, although his analyses of poetry had so much in common with theirs, nor a proto-deconstructionist, even if his insistence on multiple and contradictory significance in literature foreshadows their work. His contradictions always coalesce to form a new and cleanly defined sense, his ambiguities make a covert but definite statement. He was an old-fashioned humanist and a literary historian of culture, the last one of great distinction in our century.

It is through his humanism, or, better, his feeling for humanity, that he could reach extraordinary poetic heights with his quirky, allusive, disconnected style that darts rapidly from point to point refusing to spell out the connections. His masterpiece seems to me the essay “Milton and Bentley” in Some Versions of Pastoral, which examines the objections that the great classical scholar Richard Bentley made to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the controversy created by Bentley’s often niggling comments; many years in advance of the present interest in studying the critical reception of a work, this essay works toward an understanding of Milton by trying to account sympathetically for his critics.

In the final paragraphs, Empson considers what the poem tells us about the way we look at the past and treats the objections the critics made to Milton’s use of classical and pagan imagery in a Christian epic. He begins by identifying his view—and the reader’s—with Satan’s alien gaze looking back at our first parents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; like the great and guilty figures of history from Caesar to Napoleon they come to us from too far a distance for their original sin to spoil our admiration, even if officially we must deplore their eating of the apple. To the embarrassment of some of Milton’s early critics, Bentley above all, Milton introduced his pagan deities directly into the Garden of Eden in order to imply that the pagan landscape had nothing as beautiful or as sacred as the bower of Adam and Eve—admitting prudently, nevertheless, that in fact the classical nymphs and the god Pan were “but feigned,” unreal. These are not, however, the commonplace nymphs and satyrs of so much verse from that period. Empson perceived the wonderfully nostalgic tone here of the classical imagery and he comprehended the way this poetic tone affects the sense of Milton’s epic:

We first see Paradise through the eyes of the entering Satan, seated jealously like a cormorant on the Tree of Life. Like him we are made to feel aliens with a larger purpose; our sense of its pathos and perfection seems, as he does, to look down on it from above; the fall has now happened, and we must avoid this sort of thing in our own lives. Like so many characters in history our first parents may be viewed with admiration so long as they do not impose on us their system of values; it has become safe to admit that in spite of what is now known to be the wickedness of such people they had a perfection which we no longer deserve. Without any reason for it in Milton’s official view of the story this feeling is concentrated onto their sexual situation, and the bower where Eve decks their nuptial bed (let not the reader dare think there is any loss of innocence in its pleasures) has the most firmly “pagan” and I think the most beautiful of the comparisons.

In Shadier Bower,
More sacred and sequestered, though but feigned,
Pan or Sylvanus never slept, nor Nymph
Nor Faunus haunted.

[Bentley’s sarcastic comment is now quoted]: “Pan, Sylvanus, and Faunus, savage and beastly Deities, and acknowledg’d feign’d, are brought here in Comparison, and their wild Grottos forsooth are Sacred….”

Surely Bentley was right to be surprised at finding Faunus haunting the bower, a ghost crying in the cold of Paradise, and the lusts of Pan sacred even in comparison to Eden. There is a Vergilian quality in the lines, haunting indeed, a pathos not mentioned because it is the whole of the story. I suppose that in Satan determining to destroy the innocent happiness of Eden, for the highest political motives, without hatred, not without tears, we may find some echo of the Elizabethan fulness of life that Milton as a poet abandoned, and as a Puritan helped to destroy.

These lines of Empson’s call for a rereading as close and as intense as he brought to bear on his seventeenth-century poets. They deal with the moral pressure that we all feel when we look back at the past, above all at a past that we do not wish completely to acknowledge, just as Milton insisted that his classical deities were feigned. He could not renounce them, however, because they represented a view of the world that he needed but did not want to admit fully to his consciousness. This page, overcompressed and laconic—which gives it its force—is the most searching treatment I know of the role of the classical tradition in our civilization; Empson’s observations illuminate both the power of classical art, and the nostalgia it can evoke: “the pathos not mentioned because it is the whole of the story.” The essay is one of the few that give an adequate account of the emotional power of the poetry of the time.

I think the source of Empson’s success here is that he succeeded in loving Milton, an easy poet to admire but not to like. Even if we are not willing to accept without minor reservations Empson’s equation of classical mythology with the Elizabethan fullness of life (both evoke a mythical Golden Age which never existed)—an equation which arises from his hatred of Puritan Christianity—Empson is putting the most magnanimous interpretation on Milton’s lines, and his definition of the role of the pagan divinities in late seventeenth-century English culture is profound and essentially right. Empson’s achievement here as elsewhere comes from the generosity of spirit which made him consistently a great critic.

This Issue

October 21, 1993