From the start of his career William Empson enjoyed a double reputation, as a poet and as a critic. It now seems clear that he has an additional claim to be remembered, as a letter-writer. The first volume of John Haffenden’s biography of him, which appeared two years ago, broke off in 1940, when he was thirty-three.1 The new volume takes the story up to his death in 1984, and at the same time Haffenden has brought out a volume of his correspondence—selected rather than collected, but still running to seven hundred pages. In some respects it can hardly avoid being seen as an adjunct of the biography, but it is much more. The letters are emphatically worth reading in their own right.
Most of them deal with literary themes. Empson worries away at Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, and the other big preoccupations of his published work, but he also strikes out in unexpected directions. Hitting back at a critic who had tried to put down Dylan Thomas by comparing him to the deeply unfashionable Victorian poet Francis Thompson (of “The Hound of Heaven”), Empson takes the opportunity to speak up for Thompson as well as for Thomas. He offers his views on whether D.H. Lawrence was advocating anal intercourse in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; a reading of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” prompts some subtle reflections on daydreams.
Many readers, coming to the correspondence for the first time, may be disappointed that so much of it seems to be professional rather than personal; but the distinction, in this case, is largely artificial. Almost every letter that Haffenden has chosen bears the full stamp of Empson’s personality. In almost every one of them you can hear his idiosyncratic tones.
That means that they are pungent, witty, and richly suggestive (and also, it must be said, that they contain leaps and elisions of thought that sometimes make them only semi-intelligible). But he didn’t achieve his happy effects simply by “being himself.” As Haffenden makes clear in his excellent introduction, the seeming spontaneity of the letters actually involved a good deal of deliberation. Empson quite often revised them before mailing them, and he worked hard to establish the right tone.
One obvious feature of his style, for instance, is his informality—less remarkable in a letter than it would be in a formal essay, but still very striking. A single paragraph, chosen almost at random, yields “this bit of hush-up,” “our old pal,” “well come now,” “knew the ropes,” and “warn him to shut up.” The subject under discussion was Allen Tate’s response to T.S. Eliot’s view of John Donne’s religious beliefs: it is hard to imagine many other writers treating Tate’s views in quite such a jaunty fashion. Yet in the same paragraph Empson can also pin down a piece of evasiveness on Tate’s part with the finely wrought phrase “elegant mufflement.” He is careful not to let his slanginess get out of hand: it is played off against more urbane and…
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