The Genius of Ambiguity

William Empson
William Empson; drawing by David Levine

William Empson.jpg
David Levine


William Empson was a prodigy. He arrived at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1925, with a scholarship in mathematics: his college supervisor regarded him as one of the best mathematicians he had ever had. In 1928, however, he switched to English, under the supervision of I.A. Richards, and within a year or two a paper that he wrote for Richards while he was still an undergraduate had evolved into one of the great works of modern criticism—Seven Types of Ambiguity.

By that time he had also made a name for himself with the poems he had begun publishing in Cambridge magazines. The best of them were not only promising, but fully achieved: dazzlingly clever, but with an imaginative boldness that went far beyond mere pyrotechnics. For a moment, before the emergence of Auden, it looked as though he might prove to be the most gifted English poet of the coming generation.

He lived on into the 1980s, and he went on writing—poetry (although only fitfully) until he was in his thirties; prose until near the end. But if he had died in 1930, when he was only twenty-three, his place among writers who count would still be secure.

John Haffenden’s two-volume biography, of which the first volume has now appeared, has been more than twenty years in the making. Haffenden has tracked down innumerable sources (many of them in China and Japan, where Empson once taught), and spoken to hundreds of surviving witnesses (some of them only just in time). He has also edited Empson’s poems—his notes are a major feat of illumination—and several volumes of Empson’s lesser writings.

The first installment of the biography is spirited and humane, with a fine sense of both Empson’s personal quirks and the social settings within which he lived and worked. The one obvious problem about the book is its length. Haffenden takes 570 pages (and that doesn’t include a hundred pages of copious notes) to get his man to the age of thirty-three. In comparison many major biographies of more important literary figures—Richard Ellmann’s Joyce, say—look like triumphs of compression. A case could no doubt be made for including virtually everything Haffenden has. The side issues are often engrossing; the incidental details tend to have a gossipy charm. But life is short. It is not so much that readers are likely to be bored as that potential readers are likely to be deterred.

Haffenden can fairly claim that Empson himself “dearly loved biographical enquiry.” He would have no truck with those critical schools (with at least one of which, the “New Criticism” of the 1940s and 1950s, he was often wrongly identified) which held that for the reader, an author’s personal history is irrelevant. As Haffenden points out,

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