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,

It was in defiance of almost every modern critical theory—including New Criticism, Deconstruction, the death of the author, and the “privileging” of the reader—that he gave the final volume he was to put together…the knowingly provocative title Using Biography.

The connections between his work and his life were often closer than might have been supposed, given his reputation for being detached, analytic, primarily a man of ideas. One of Haffenden’s prize exhibits in this respect is “Legal Fiction,” a poem inspired by an ancient maxim which maintains that a landowner is the lawful proprietor of everything above his land and everything beneath it. In principle, that is, he owns a vast cone of space beginning at the center of the earth and widening out toward the stars—an idea that Empson proceeds to develop through a brilliant series of images and conceits:

Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men.
Your well fenced out real estate of mind
No high flat of the nomad citizen
Looks over, or train leaves behind.
Your rights extend under and above your claim
Without bound; your own land in Heaven and Hell;
Your part of earth’s surface and mass the same,
Of all cosmos’ volume, and all stars as well.
Your rights reach down where all owners meet, in Hell’s
Pointed exclusive conclave….

He was later to describe the poem, written in 1928, when he was only twenty-two, as political, and so it is, in its satire on acquisitiveness and socially licensed self-assertion. (How much land does a man need?) It could equally well be described as philosophical or metaphysical. (Man is the creature bounded in a nutshell who counts himself a king of infinite space.) But what would have been hard to guess is that it is also highly personal, that it was based on an exceptionally elaborate will left by Empson’s father, a Yorkshire squire who died when Empson (the youngest of four siblings) was nine, and aimed at securing his children and their descendants a share in his estate for the next two hundred years. He had also become obsessed with the possibility that a neighboring mining company might be tunneling under his land, and he was anxious to secure future mineral rights. The will was an eccentric piece of work, which created many problems for the family, but Empson deplored it mostly for the acquisitive spirit and conservative values it enshrined.


“To an Old Lady,” of earlier the same year, can to some extent be seen as a companion piece. The lady in question was Empson’s mother, Laura.1 This has long been known; and difficult though the poem is, it is also clear that it embodies the double sense of distance and proximity between mother and son, conveyed in large part through the imagery of astronomy and space travel:

Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet
Revere; do not presume to think her wasted.
Project her no projectile, plan nor man it;
Gods cool in turn, by the sun long outlasted….

The note of reverence is by no means ironic. The poet remains separated from the old woman by age, outlook, and much else; at the same time he makes clear his affectionate admiration, and the deep sense of affinity with her which he still feels. Empson once wrote of the two of them, while discussing the poem, that “though isolated we shared a system closer than the great minds in books.”

You are left wondering what Laura Empson was actually like, and Haffenden rounds out the picture. Her family were long-established landowners, with substantial interests in quarrying and coal. She was forceful, good-looking, elegant in a tweedy way, a highly efficient fox-hunting, church-going lady of the manor. She had a quick temper, and to a sensitive child she must often have seemed intimidating. But Empson felt he could rely on her, and she later stood by him when he got into trouble in Cambridge. She had a sense of humor, too: after seeing his first attempt at a beard, while he was an undergraduate, she offered him £10 if he would get rid of it, and he complied. (It is a pity that she didn’t renew her offer later, when he grew one of the most unsatisfactory beards of his time, a straggling appendage which began below his jawline and looked like a false beard that had slipped.)

Empson spent his early childhood in a world only one remove away from that of Trollope. In all his later incarnations—bohemian, radical, pedagogic—he never quite lost the assurance of a true-born “gent.” Haffenden is excellent on the poet’s time at Winchester, the most intellectually demanding of English public schools. It emerges from his account as something like two-thirds civilized, one- third barbarous (corporal punishment and all that). Empson cherished the civilized parts, and in later life, long after he had put the public school’s class ethos behind him, he continued to express gratitude for the education he had received. His school nickname was “Owl Empson”; his cleverness was readily recognized, although he wasn’t the acknowledged star of his year.2

During Empson’s time at Winchester he appeared in a school production of Dr. Faustus, playing Robin the Clown. The subplot in which the clown appears has traditionally been seen as a variation on the play’s religious theme, a mocking counterpart to Faustus’s downhill progress. Some fifty years later Empson wrote a revisionist study of Marlowe’s play, in which Robin is presented as sympathetic, even heroic. Empson argues that the character of Robin is meant to reassure us that Faustus, the courageous Renaissance hero, doesn’t deserve damnation, any more than the clown does. Christopher Hawkes, who played Faustus in the Winchester production, helped to cast the play. This suggests that Empson’s being given the part of Robin was typecasting, since Hawkes also made it clear, when Haffenden interviewed him, that he had always thought of Empson in everyday life as a “character,” who “knew he was something of a clown, and acted up to it.”

Clowning, often reinforced by alcohol, is a recurrent motif in Haffenden’s book. Empson was jokey and unpredictable; his conversation went off at odd angles, and he had a way of getting into farcical scrapes. On his first night in Japan in 1931, for instance, he found himself locked out of his hotel, broke in through a window without realizing it was part of the railway station next door, and ended up in a bucket of water kept standing by for emergencies. He neglected common proprieties, too. He was capable of offering a guest tea in a mug which he had just used for shaving.

His literary gifts were not apparent until the end of his second year at Cambridge, when he first published a poem (heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein) in a college magazine. But within a few months of that he had come into his own—sensationally so—as both poet and critic. Haffenden’s Cambridge chapters give pride of place to the evolution of Seven Types of Ambiguity and to Empson’s relations with I.A. Richards, which were as close as legend suggests, both then and later, but more complicated. Where Richards thought of poetry as a means of attaining harmony, for instance, Empson saw it as an expression of conflict.


Empson’s years at Cambridge were a hopeful time; and in June 1929, he was elected to a research fellowship at Magdalene. Then, within a matter of weeks, disaster struck. While he was moving to new rooms, a college porter spotted some contraceptives among his luggage. The news spread fast, and soon reached the dons. (There was also talk of his having entertained a woman in his rooms late in the evening.) It seems incredible now, but a special meeting of the college’s governing body was convened to consider his fate, with dismal results. There might have been a different outcome if Richards, who was away in China, had been there to defend him. As it was, Empson was deprived of his fellowship, and his name was erased from the college books. He was even forbidden—colleges had that kind of power—to go on living in Cambridge.

Within a month or two he had summoned up enough scorn to look back at the affair in an admirable poem entitled “Warning to Undergraduates,” written in the meter and with a good deal of the spirit of Samuel Butler’s anti-Puritan satire Hudibras:

Remember what a porter’s for;
He hears
ad portam, at the door;
He carries (
portat) as he ought
(Dons love a Latin pun, with port)
All tales and all exciting letters
Straight to the councils of his betters
(Not that he wishes so to thrill;
But it’s his duty, and he will).

The “letters” referred to are, of course, French letters. The joke about port picks up a pun about port-drinking dons in Pope’s Dunciad, which is discussed in Seven Types of Ambiguity. One is impressed by Empson’s buoyancy, but that doesn’t mean that what had happened hadn’t been a deeply bruising blow.

He was a man of strong feelings. Hostile critics of his poetry have dismissed him as a narrowly intellectual writer, or as a contriver of puzzles. Applied to some of his weaker poems, such a judgment doesn’t seem amiss. But in his successful ones he is master of what he once called (not in connection with his own work) “the singing line”—and lines don’t sing without passion behind them.

He was also a man of troubled feelings. Many of his early poems are love poems, but the love they describe is mostly frustrated or unfulfilled. Their underlying theme, he himself insisted, was fear—“boy being afraid of girl, as usual”; and it is hard not to link this to the fact that, while he was drawn to women, many of his sexual or erotic involvements, at least until he was in his thirties, were with men. The series of “Letter” poems, (“Letter I,” “Letter II,” and so on), for example, written over a period of seven years, was inspired by his yearning for a handsome fellow undergraduate, Desmond Lee, who was also a favorite pupil of Wittgenstein. In London, after he left Cambridge, he fell under the renewed spell of a friend called Carew Meredith, whom he had been smitten with when they were both at Winchester. He finally left Japan under a cloud after making a drunken pass at a taxi driver: the man complained to the police.

Meanwhile he had been spending plenty of time on the other side of the street. There were involvements with women in both Cambridge and London. In Japan he had an affair with a young woman called Haru, a nursemaid working for the German ambassador. It is commemorated in one of his finest poems, “Aubade”:

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And that is only the beginning of a poem which takes in “Europe and its pains,” and then circles back to war in the East, and then to the two lovers in Tokyo, and their separation:

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

One of the women he fell in love with in London was a medical student who took it for granted that he was bisexual: she didn’t mind, but their affair came to an end after what proved to be a one-night stand. Bisexuality was in fact far from being an easy option. Empson still had to contend, in Haffenden’s words, “with the demons of misogyny in his own nature”—which might seem an extravagant phrase, if it were not for a lurid incident which took place in 1930. The occasion was a party which he gave to celebrate the publication of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Carew Meredith and his wife Sybil were among the guests; at one point in the evening he tried to strangle Sybil, and might well have done if another man hadn’t pulled him off. It was “a ghastly experience,” she recalled when Haffenden spoke to her sixty years later; and although by then there was no one left who could corroborate her account, he sees no reason to doubt it. The attack was presumably triggered off by homosexual jealousy. But it is hard not to discern even more disturbed feelings at work.

There is anguish in Empson’s poetry, but there is aesthetic delight as well. He is a very sensuous poet: when he tells us, for instance, as he does in the poem “This Last Pain,” that “All those large dreams by which men long live well” are an illusion, he allows us to feel the languorous attractions of those dreams at the same time. This is the Empson who learned something from Swinburne and Keats, as well as from Milton and Donne. And his criticism, too, has an evocative power which has been insufficiently noted.


Seven Types of Ambiguity burst upon a world in which the primary job of the critic was still commonly assumed to be that of praise and appreciation. Demonstrating the superior claims of verbal analysis, it is supposed to have put paid to the appreciators once and for all. Empson himself encouraged the belief with an overquoted passage early in the book in which he compared critics to dogs, and divided them into two categories: “those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up.” “I myself, I must confess,” he added, “aspire to the second of these classes.”

But the idea that there is a necessary opposition between appreciation and analysis is false. Empson also announced at the beginning of Seven Types, no less pertinently, that “I shall almost always take poems that I admire, and write with pleasure about their merits.” The book impresses in the first instance with its subtle dissection of verbal effects—of the multiple meanings compressed in a phrase, or the alternative possibilities opened up by an uncertain piece of syntax. But analysis by itself, uninformed by style or imagination, can be an arid business, as all too many post-Empsonian critics have shown. Empson himself adds atmosphere and humor; he characterizes and enlarges on his material as well as anatomizing it. Teasing out the meanings of a single line in Henry V—“The singing masons building roofs of gold”—he launches into a page or so of what is as much prose-poetry in its way (a more germane, more vigorous way) as any purple patch in Walter Pater. The comparison between masons and bees, for example:

Both parties are given wealth and delicacy because the yellow of wax is no surface gilding, not even such as in the temple of Solomon (built without sound of hammer [i.e., with mortar], in the best bee tradition, though it was) shone thickly coated upon ivory, but all throughout, as the very substance of their labours, in its own pale ethereal and delicious gold.

Discussing the passage in Pope’s Moral Essays where the poet foresees Nature resuming her sway over a great country estate—

Another age shall see the golden ear
Embrown the slope, and nod on the parterre

—he visualizes corn nodding in the breeze on what was once the parterre, a space occupied by flower beds, “like a duchess.” The duchess is his idea; she isn’t strictly necessary to his interpretation, but she makes a big difference.

The same imaginative qualities distinguish his second book of criticism, Some Versions of Pastoral, if anything to a greater degree. Between the two books, his focus shifted somewhat. Seven Types was primarily concerned with poetry as the expression of emotional conflicts, Some Versions (which was published in 1935) with literature as a response to social tensions and class conflict. Psychoanalysis hovers somewhere in the background of the first book, Marxism somewhere in the background of the second: Empson doesn’t subscribe to either system, but he is aware of their claims.

The books also differ in a simpler respect. Seven Types of Ambiguity maintains at least the show of pursuing a coherent argument, proceeding systematically from one type to the next—from ambiguities in which two or more alternative meanings are fully resolved into one, for instance, to ambiguities in which two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously. Some Versions of Pastoral is much more a collection of essays, and essays on very disparate topics—a Shakespeare sonnet, Marvell’s “The Garden,” The Beggar’s Opera, Paradise Lost, Alice in Wonderland. Some of these studies are among the best things Empson ever wrote. The chapter on Milton lays bare the subtexts and buried conflicts of Paradise Lost to thrilling effect. The chapter on Lewis Carroll applies Freudian—and Darwinian—ideas to the Alice books with a verve which few psychoanalytic critics have even begun to match.

But it is hard to extract a central thesis from a work which winds its way through such miscellaneous territory, and even Haffenden admits that what ought to be the key term, “pastoral,” doesn’t shed much light—not when Empson uses it in a very different sense from the conventional one. Traditional pastoral, he writes, “was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor.” Discussing the form’s supposed mutation in his chosen writers—Milton, Marvell, John Gay, Carroll, and the others—into covert pastoral, mock-pastoral and other largely subversive variants, he seems ready to apply the pastoral label to whatever he chooses.

Haffenden does claim, however, that there is a unifying theme. All the chapters deal in one way or another, he argues, with the notion of the outcast returning to sit in judgment on his society and the scapegoat setting up as detached social critic. This in turn is an allegory of the role of the artist, a sacrificial victim who suffers isolation or rejection but achieves true independence as a reward. And such a role, Haffenden maintains, is one with which Empson strongly identified. How could he fail to, when he reflected on the fact—at least, this is how Haffenden chooses to put it—that “Magdalene College had made a sacrifice of him”?

Whether it would have been better for him to stay in Cambridge is another matter. It would no doubt have been better for Cambridge, but he himself might soon have grown tired of the place he described in his “Warning to Undergraduates” as “that strange cackling little town.” In the event, after leaving Magdalene he tried to get a job at the University of Birmingham, but not very hard. Taken to have tea with the elderly head of the English Department, he immediately began by recommending “the most wonderful book,” which his host simply had to read—The Sexual Life of Savages by Bronislaw Malinowski. (This was perhaps Empson the clown talking rather than Empson the sacrificial victim.) He didn’t get the job, and soon afterward he plunged into a rackety freelance life in London.

The London years, punctuated by three years in Japan, took up much of the 1930s. They make amusing reading: Haffenden’s account ought to appeal to anyone who enjoys the picture of bohemian London in the same period in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. And then every so often we are reminded that we are dealing with a man of genius. Empson spends an evening with T.S. Eliot’s friend John Hayward and gets horribly drunk. A day or two later, by way of apology, he sends him a copy of a poem he has just written, the superlative “Missing Dates”:

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

His teaching appointment in Japan in the summer of 1931 was at the University of Literature and Science in Tokyo. He arrived in the country shortly before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. A feverish nationalism was taking over the country: as he wrote to a friend back home the following year, “one feels the popular jingoism and official militarism like a weight on the back of the neck.” This didn’t prevent him from enjoying Japanese life where he could. He proved a popular teacher. He developed a passionate interest in Buddhism. These were also the years in which he took up the cause of Basic English. He gave talks about it, wrote letters to local papers defending it, and prepared Basic versions of specimen texts. But politics overshadowed everything, and he was never to become as deeply engaged with Japan as he was with China.

Empson’s second Asian teaching post was at the National Peking University, beginning in August 1937. Haffenden’s splendid account of the two years that followed would make a small book in itself, “Empson in China” (or rather the first half of such a book, since he was to return in 1947 and remain until 1952). Almost as soon as he reached Peking in 1937 he was obliged to move on. The Sino-Japanese War had begun. The northern Chinese universities sought refuge in the south, and Empson joined them in a trek which took them first to a site in central China and then to the remote province of Yunnan, near the Vietnam border. On the first stage of his travels he was accompanied by I.A. Richards and his wife and by a British civil servant called Victor Purcell. After they left, Empson became the only European to share the dangers and privations of exile with his Chinese colleagues.

One is impressed by the determination of the Chinese to maintain decent academic standards amid what Empson called “the savage life and the fleas and the bombs,” and equally impressed by his prowess as a teacher. Much of the time he had to make do without books, and while the story that he once wrote out the whole of Othello from memory turns out to be a myth, his actual feats of memorial reconstruction were amazing enough—enormous quantities of poetry, often serving as the basis for an entire course. His students greatly admired him, and they weren’t put off by his drinking; on the contrary, it fitted in, as Haffenden nicely puts it, with “the Chinese classical tradition of venerably inebriated poets.”

In the autumn of 1939 Empson began making his way back to England, breaking his journey for several months in the US. The last set piece in the book is an account, in his own words, of what happened just after he had landed in Los Angeles. He climbed to the top of a hill in a city park and started screaming, until some boys with air guns began shooting at him. “This satisfied me in some way; I came down the hill and took the train to San Francisco.” The scene makes an effective fade-out.

Ahead lay war work for the BBC, marriage, fatherhood, the return to China, further critical books, a professorial chair, a new generation of admirers, a knighthood, and, late in the day, an honorary fellowship of Magdalene. Ahead, too, lay the fading of his creative gift, though not without one or two final poems of great power, above all the six lines of “Let It Go”—

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.
The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

Empson himself later belittled this poem (“it seems so slight”), but people sometimes belittle things that are too much for them.

All this must wait for Haffenden’s second volume. Meanwhile, his portrait so far is notable for its sympathy and scholarly assiduity. But one reservation has to be added. Sympathy can come at a price, and in some of his broader assessments the biographer seems too close to his subject. He doesn’t simply record Empson’s hatred of Christianity, for instance, he cheers it on. But someone could reject all religions as untrue, or hold that they have done more harm than good, and still find Empson’s fulminations against what he called the religion of torture-worship unbalanced. It isn’t a question of his individual criticisms of Christian doctrine—many of them will probably strike most educated people today as well founded—but of everything that he leaves out. We are in the presence of an obsession which deserves to be analyzed rather than applauded.

Again, Haffenden announces at the outset that “for Empson, it is axiomatic that the writer is at odds with his society,” and he quotes Empson a number of times to that effect: we learn that he once wrote, for example, that “to become morally independent of one’s formative society…is the grandest theme of all literature, because it is the only means of moral progress.” But this is an axiom which needs to be scrutinized more closely than Haffenden seems to think. Literature, to say nothing of life, is full of characters who have become morally independent of their formative societies, but also engage in some very unpleasant activities.

Admittedly the idea of being an eternal rebel remains a stirring one—provided it is presented at a sufficiently elevated level. But in practice, the choices we have to make are more complicated: to be against something usually involves being in favor of something else. Nowhere is this more true than in politics, and Empson’s politics are passed over relatively lightly by Haffenden, except in the chapters on China. (He gets full marks for liberalism; there is mild regret that he was willing to give Chiang Kai-shek the benefit of the doubt for as long as he did.) We are bound to hear more about political choice and necessity in the next volume, however, especially when Haffenden gets to China under Mao.

There remains a more pervasive problem. Empson is a difficult writer, and often, we feel, wantonly so. The lines sing, but they don’t always cohere; the critical ideas are brilliant, but it is sometimes hard to see how he gets from one idea to the next. At his most abrupt, he can be as impenetrable as the creatures he writes about in his essay on Alice in Wonderland.

In part this seems to be a direct reflection of his character. Victor Purcell thought he was both congenial and almost completely self-contained: “He is purely impersonal.” Less sympathetic witnesses found him aloof. And it is true that in his writings he is often guilty of what in a lesser man might be considered take-it-or-leave-it arrogance.

A couplet from “Aubade” can serve as an example. The poet and the unnamed Japanese girl—Haru—have been spending the night together, but they are forced to part:

The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.

Some early readers of the poem (perhaps most, if they tried to puzzle it out) assumed that “he” was the girl’s husband, and Empson is reported to have been indignant at the idea. “He” was in fact the child whom Haru was employed to look after. But there is nothing in the poem to indicate that the girl is a nursemaid, or that “he” isn’t an adult. (It was the readers, if anyone, who had the right to be indignant.)

Yet “Aubade” remains a marvelous work. Perhaps we just have to accept that it isn’t a wholly autonomous poem, and that Empson’s method gives him the right to the occasional enigmatic twist and unexplained reference. My own feeling, however, is that his obscurity is more of a limitation than many of his admirers are willing to acknowledge, though at the same time it is often less damaging (as in “Aubade”) than you feel it might have been. The whole question is a puzzling one, which deserves more discussion than it has received. But that is no doubt a job for a critic rather than a biographer, and if Haffenden doesn’t spend much time on it, it would be unreasonable to expect him to. He has done quite enough for Empson’s readers already.

This Issue

March 23, 2006