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The Miraculous Mandarin

William Empson: Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume One, Donne and the New Philosophy

edited by John Haffenden
Cambridge University Press, 296 pp., $49.95

William Empson: Argufying, Essays on Literature and Culture

edited by John Haffenden
London: Chatto and Windus, 657 (out of print) pp.
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…

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