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 more elevated manners.

The prose of the letters affords many different pleasures. Empson is a master of the neatly handled metaphor, for instance, as in his comment on Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu: “It is true that he rather tiresomely refuses to go into deep water, but he had so much coastline to visit that his long book doesn’t become trivial.” At a humbler level, he comes up with some agreeable wisecracks, such as his comment on a scholar whom he liked but who had made the sad mistake (in his view) of accepting a post in New Haven: “Yaled for life.”

Not all the qualities that make the letters memorable are ones that necessarily command respect. In particular, Empson stands revealed in them as a much more aggressive figure than one would glean from his major published works (with the partial exception of the stridently anti-Christian Milton’s God). Again and again he crosses the boundary that divides vehemence from virulence. He is hardly the only writer to have had strong opinions, but few others can have relied quite so heavily on terms expressing simple disgust. “Horrible,” “nasty,” “filthy,” “beastly,” “loathsome,” “nauseating”—these are the adjectives he moves around like counters, along with a smaller group of words and phrases expressing even more direct physical revulsion (“greasy,” for example, or “smearing nastiness over everything”).

It is true that he mostly uses this language in connection with Christianity, but he is quick to reach for it on other occasions too. The underlying critical attitude of Ian Hamilton’s magazine The Review, he tells us, is “filthy.” The surrealist poetry of David Gascoyne is “nasty to touch, gluey on the outside.” And “what a disgusting poem Edward Thomas wrote to his wife,” he tells a friend. “I shall never forgive him for it.” (This last remark was no doubt half-jocular, but is unpleasant all the same. The poem to which it refers, “No one so much as you,” was written not long before Thomas met his death as a soldier in the First World War; it is painful in its refusal to accept or grant romantic consolations, but “disgusting” is about the last word I should apply to it.)


As comments on people or books that Empson is discussing with a third party, the “horribles” and “nauseatings” eventually lose much of their force: they are blunted by repetition. It is the letters in which he addresses his victims directly that are really spectacular. You can read them two or three times and still rub your eyes.

A prize specimen is the onslaught on the critic and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, who had been thinking of turning the Ph.D. dissertation which he had written under Empson’s direction into a book. Hobsbaum’s crime was that he subscribed to what was then the widely held belief that a writer’s intentions are no part of a critic’s concern, and the letter in which Empson set out to put him right is a very long one. It is full of plums (Hobsbaum is informed that he has been “boastfully and farcically ignorant,” and so on), but the best is reserved for last—a postscript in which he is warned that “you are unusually bad at estimating other people’s intentions, below normal there in fact, so that nursing a sheer theory you needn’t even try at it is shockingly bad for you.”

The point is not whether Empson was right on the issue of the “intentional fallacy.” Many of us will feel that he was. But if a case is argued with sufficient violence, it’s the violence you are left thinking about, not the argument. You can’t help wondering why Empson felt it necessary to pile into Hobsbaum quite so heavily—just as you ask yourself why, when a Canadian academic sent him an article on a Jacobean play, he couldn’t have found a more effective way of getting her to change her mind than telling her that her approach was “merely sordid.” He was valiant for truth, no doubt, but it is hard not to conclude that he didn’t also get a great deal of pleasure from delivering insults.

He sometimes softened up opponents with his gentlemanly tone. After some mild opening paragraphs, A.L. Rowse suddenly found himself confronted with a snarl about “the obvious nastiness of lying Rouse.” (The misspelling of his name was almost certainly deliberate.) And the same technique crops up in the exchange Empson had with F.T. Prince—a scholar as well as a fine poet—about Milton and Shelley. Prince, who was a Catholic, was polite and conciliatory. Empson began his reply by thanking him for his courtesy. But that should have set alarm bells ringing, and by the end of the letter Empson had duly boiled over: “I sit here hesitating what to type down,” he wrote, “because it would be too rude to say I don’t believe you and it is impossible to invent any convolution of your mind which would make your behaviour anything else except dirty twopenny cheating.”

What Prince made of that is not recorded. But in a number of cases—those of Laura Riding and Geoffrey Grigson, for instance—Haffenden’s editorial notes allow us to see correspondents who were at odds with Empson hitting back. The most curious exchange was with T.S. Eliot. In 1948 Empson wrote to the older man complaining that Faber and Faber, where Eliot was a director, had been sitting on the American rights of his poems for years and failed to sell them. (His exact words were “I am extremely annoyed with you for mucking up the chance of an American edition of my verse.”) Haffenden calls the charge “ill-judged”; on the other hand Eliot’s reaction seems disproportionate by anyone’s standards.

Replying to Empson, he told him, in tones better suited to Lady Bracknell, that his letter was the most insulting he had ever received, and he went on in the same vein: “I shall be obliged… if you will in future address all your communications to Mr. du Sautoy [another Faber director] instead of to myself.” Empson ignored the request, and wrote back to him. He could only assume, he said, that when Eliot received his first letter he must have supposed he was being accused of some “underhand trick,” which would have been “nauseating.” All that he—Empson—had meant to imply was that there had been a muddle.


The feelings at work on both sides of this dispute remain hard to determine. In retrospect, the episode marks a significant step in Empson’s estrangement from Eliot (which was moral and intellectual rather than personal); but for a fuller sense of the relationship between the two men, one must naturally turn to the biography.

Haffenden’s first volume was rightly praised for its thoroughness, its liveliness, its sense of drama, and its skill in delineating both Empson’s personality and the social settings in which he lived and worked. The same qualities are equally in evidence in his second volume, and it is hardly Haffenden’s fault if the older Empson emerges from it as a less sympathetic figure than the young one. He is simply following the facts—and, indeed, trying to present them in as sympathetic a light as he can.

Empson’s later career fell into three fairly clearly demarcated phases. Between 1940 and 1947 he worked for the BBC, organizing talks broadcast to China for its overseas service and propaganda programs for its domestic service. Between 1947 and 1952 he taught at the National Peking University, observing both the siege of the city and the Communist takeover at first hand. In 1952 he returned to England to take up the chair of English at the University of Sheffield, a position he held until his retirement.

He was a man who lived the life of ideas, and the gossip in which Haffenden’s book abounds seldom remains mere chit-chat for long. If Empson was drawn into the jungle of office politics at the BBC, it was usually because real political issues were at stake, issues affecting the content of programs. If he was caught up in an academic spat, it almost always involved strongly held views as well as personalities. Nonetheless the book is far more enjoyable than most literary biographies. Empson’s vagaries lend it constant color, and there is an impressive supporting cast—just about everyone from Dylan Thomas to Hugh Kenner.

There are even a couple of cameo appearances by the present Queen. Empson was introduced to her when she came to Sheffield in 1954 and the university authorities commissioned him to write a masque in her honor. He was greatly taken with her, so much so that he started collecting pictures of her that he cut out of the papers. (Poets are full of surprises.) Then, twenty-five years later, he met her again, when she conferred a knighthood on him:

When asked in the local pubs why the Queen had given him this honour, he would reply, “I told Her She was God”—and then, after a pause, he would explain how he had once written a masque for the Queen’s visit to Sheffield in 1954, invoking her as a goddess. All the same, he knowingly confided, “They don’t like to reward you at the time—it looks too like bribery.”

Some of the anecdotes that Haffenden recounts are in the classic dotty-professor mode. Empson once began a seminar on Henry James by taking off his shoes and socks, throwing the socks on the fire, producing a new pair, putting them on, and reassuring the class, “James would have approved.” Other stories feature the quixotic Empson. In the middle of the war he commissioned a critic called Desmond Hawkins to deliver a talk for transmission to China on the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett—a gesture that Hawkins himself described as “almost sublime in its impracticality!” There are also many stories of the boozy-bohemian variety. In December 1941, Empson got married. He and his bride, Hetta, gave a party in the basement flat which was to be their home for the rest of the war; at the end of the evening he turned to Hetta and said, “Well, I’ll be going along, my dear.” Haffenden considers the possibility that he was trying to get out of cleaning up the party debris, but thinks it far more likely that he had drunk so much that he had forgotten he was no longer single.

Hetta was a South African, of Afrikaner stock, who had been living in London since 1938. A handsome, strong-willed woman, she was a sculptor by training, though she only practiced her art fitfully. She was also a devout Communist. In 1939 she became a volunteer ambulance driver, but she refused to support the official British war effort until, as Haffenden rather oddly puts it, “Hitler betrayed the Russo-German pact.”

She and Empson had two children. They also had an open marriage, with Hetta taking most of the extramural initiatives. Their rackety parties were a familiar feature of the London literary and artistic scene, but things took a more serious turn in 1954 when Hetta started to “hell around” (in her own phrase) with a new lover, a young journalist and BBC producer called Peter Duval Smith. The affair was a stormy one, spread out over six years, in the course of which Hetta and Duval Smith had two children (a girl, who was stillborn, and a son). There was nothing covert about it, but Empson not only acquiesced—initially, at least, he approved. He no longer slept with Hetta, and he had already sketched out his recommendations for a “happy triangle” in an unpublished poem he had written for her in 1948. The idea, as Haffenden sums it up, was that a husband could save a marriage by encouraging his wife to take a lover “in the expectation” on Empson’s part “not just of scopophiliac pleasure [i.e., in observing the lovemaking of the other two] but even possibly of sharing the lover’s favors.”2

This may not be a design for living that would recommend itself to everyone. If it worked for this particular trio, however, it is not for others to judge it, and it is true that in the end Empson and Hetta stayed together and retained strong positive feelings for each other. But life in the happy triangle was no picnic. It turned out to involve a great deal of wretchedness and wretched behavior, and although Duval Smith, who was a very tricky character, eventually disappeared from the scene, his successor as the third player in the game, a young ex-sailor known as Josh, doesn’t sound much of an improvement. He was given to violence: in the course of one row he punched Empson in the stomach, in the full knowledge that he had recently had a stomach operation.

The quest for triangular fulfillment had its counterpart in Empson’s writing. He became convinced that he could discern a similar pattern in Ulysses. We know, because Joyce tells us, that Leopold Bloom has developed a neurotic inability to sleep with his wife. But, according to Empson, he also harbors strong homosexual feelings for Stephen Dedalus: if he can get Stephen to go to bed with his wife, he will cure himself of his dysfunction, and that is what is about to happen as the novel ends. The entire situation, moreover, was obviously based, so Empson argued, on something that Joyce had experienced himself.

Such is the secret of Ulysses, which had eluded previous commentators. Empson first unveiled it in 1954, in a BBC talk produced—extraordinarily enough—by Peter Duval Smith, and he went on proclaiming it in articles and talks over the next thirty years. There is no way of proving whether or not the theory has anything in it, but Haffenden might have given readers a chance to consider Richard Ellmann’s wise objections to it in his book Ulysses on the Liffey. Ellmann argues, with quotations to support him, that Joyce meant Ulysses to end exactly where it does, and that he would never have thought of his characters having an afterlife. He also amusingly juxtaposes Empson’s views with Edmund Wilson’s equally speculative notion that at the end of the novel Bloom is supposed to recover his full manhood spontaneously (the chief evidence being that he asks his wife to make him breakfast in bed the next morning). Wilson and Empson can’t both be right, though they could both be wrong.

The Joyce campaign, though it was close to his heart, represented only a small part of Empson’s later literary activities. He gave up writing poetry in the 1940s, and in the remaining thirty-five years or so he published only two full-length works of criticism: The Structure of Complex Words (1951) and Milton’s God (1961). But that gives a very misleading idea of his critical output. He also went on producing a steady flow of essays and reviews, which have been collected and published since his death in seven or eight volumes. These collections contain some of his best work: in particular, nowhere can you get a keener sense of his range and energy than in the 120 short pieces gathered together and edited by John Haffenden in 1987 under the title Argufying.

Of the full-scale later works, The Structure of Complex Words is recognizably in a line of succession from Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral, but although it has had some distinguished admirers (C.S. Lewis and René Wellek, for example), it has never achieved quite the same status as those early classics. Empson’s studies of selected “complex words” in action (“honest” in Othello, “wit” in Pope’s Essay on Criticism, and so on) are brilliant; his criticisms of dictionary definitions of words and suggestions for improving them are both incisive and practical. But Empson’s wider forays into linguistics are often tortuous, the quasi-mathematical symbols he employs are off-putting, and the shape of the argument is often hard to discern. I suspect (perhaps because I am one of them) that there must be many readers who have been captivated by individual chapters of the book but who have never succeeded in finishing it.

Milton’s God is another matter. It is more disciplined and tightly organized than Empson’s other books, and it has a more consistent central theme. Following Blake and Shelley, he insists that the real villain of Paradise Lost is God, and that Milton’s feelings—fortunately for the poem—were in revolt against his own life-denying theology. The argument is driven home hard, and the reader has no problem following it.

The book was the most conspicuous milestone of Empson’s later career. His hostility to Christianity had become increasingly evident over the years, but he had tended to express it obliquely, or in passing. With Milton’s God, it came fully and flagrantly into the open, and from this point on it might almost be said to have become his trademark. The most prolonged of his subsequent critical battles were attempts to distance Donne and Coleridge from their Christian interpreters, and he launched countless lesser attacks on the “neo-Christian” virus which he thought had infected current literary studies.

Haffenden goes out of his way to insist on the dominant role played by revulsion from Christianity in Empson’s later outlook: he has given his second volume the forthright subtitle “Against the Christians.” Nor is there anything to suggest that he doesn’t endorse Empson’s attitudes. Certainly he takes them in his stride: summing them up, he can say things like “the Christian God is nothing but a torture-monster” without turning a hair.

Yet you could be a staunch secularist and still find the spectacle of Empson contra Christianos unimpressive. You could be clear-sighted about the destructive potential of religion, and still wonder whether his denunciations didn’t do more harm than good. For one thing, his animus was directed almost exclusively against one religion alone, so that in effect what he was preaching was not so much rationalism or humanism as Christophobia. For another, the animus was expressed in such violent terms that it was more likely to inflame prejudices than dispel them. And then there are the questions that aren’t addressed. Religion doesn’t begin and end with theology. Even in a brief account its social aspects deserve a far more rounded consideration than Empson accords them.

One reason he gave for the degree of his exasperation with Christianity is that when he came back from China and began teaching in England in the 1950s, he found that “neo-Christians” in the English Departments were ruling the critical roost. Here one can sympathize, up to a point. But he exaggerated. Many other types of criticism were being taught or practiced at the time, and Christian interpretations were far from enjoying a monopoly. It seems to me quite likely that some of his fury against the “horrible nastiness of Eng. Lit.,” as he once chose to call it, was in fact displaced or concealed hostility toward T.S. Eliot. (At one point, in Milton’s God, he let the cat peep out of the bag—“the eminence of Mr Eliot,” he wrote, “tempts one to blame him for the whole neo-Christian movement, which I think has done such harm in literary criticism”—but in general he refrained from taxing Eliot on this score in public.)

In comparison with the issues Empson was confronting, however, the politics of Eng. Lit. seem rather parochial. The most striking aspect of his decision to concentrate his fire on Christianity is that he had direct experience of another religion, the cult of Mao Tse-tung, which, even while he was writing, was responsible for murder, torture, and oppression on the most appalling scale.

He was neither a Communist nor a Marxist, and when the Chinese Communists came to power he initially tried to keep an open mind about them. But he had already had a taste of revolutionary exaltation—during the fighting for Peking, when he was briefly detained by Communist troops, he was impressed by their “beautiful evangelistic feelings”—and he was soon energetically accommodating himself to the new regime. He swallowed bucketloads of official propaganda, minimized the savage effects of “Thought Reform” in education, and brushed aside such foreign criticisms of Chinese conditions as came his way.

Allowances have to be made. He was hardly alone in giving the Communists credit simply for not being their Kuomintang predecessors. He couldn’t possibly have known about a great deal that was going on in the early days of Mao’s reign (though he might have guessed at some of it). And in any case, as long as he was in China there was very little he could do. It was enough if he tried to look after the interests of his students.

Once he was back in England, however, he was free to speak out—and he did, but almost always in favor of Mao. He gave his wholehearted blessing to a lyrical (and ludicrous) account of life in China by the English journalist Basil Davidson. He did his best to explain away Mao’s persecution of intellectuals. But then gradually his faith faded. By the end of the 1950s, Haffenden tells us, he had come to believe that the Chinese leadership had betrayed its ideals, and no longer merited his support.

You would have thought, even so, that he might still have had something to say about China—that he would have been moved to take stock of his experience or to comment on later developments. But there is virtually no reference to the country in either the biography or the letters after 1960. On The Little Red Book or the Gang of Four, not a word. On the Cultural Revolution, stony silence. And nothing, either, on the revelations of atrocities and outrages that put paid to the excuse of ignorance, once and for all. It would be nice to think of Empson reading Simon Leys’s Chinese Shadows, for instance, but if he did, there is no sign of it.

Haffenden gives an honest account of Empson’s politics, as far as the facts go, but at the same time he contrives to let him down lightly. It may not be a biographer’s job to quarrel with his subject, but should he work quite so hard to make his subject’s views sound more palatable? At one point, for example, Haffenden tells us that

in August 1951, Empson gaily and perhaps glibly observed about the political situation: “As for the Chinese, it seems clear that they have plenty of traditional individualism, and may do well to have some practice in collective action.”

Considering that the “collective action” Empson was talking about eventually led to some 70 million people losing their lives, “gaily” and even “glibly” don’t seem quite adequate to the occasion. Or again, we learn that at his inaugural lecture at Sheffield Empson told his audience that Thought Reform in China “wasn’t a Terror,” that “nobody felt it like that, even when they were teased by it very hard.” Haffenden’s comment on this is that “his inveterate habit of employing unserious schoolroom cant such as ‘teased’ to describe such a grave subject is infelicitous.” I suppose “infelicitous” is one way of putting it, but personally I find what comes to mind is a phrase Henry James once applied to a piece of callousness by Bernard Shaw: “brutal flippancy.”

It is a measure of Haffenden’s success in other respects that his efforts to mitigate such faults are no more than a minor irritant. His general estimate of Empson’s significance still seems convincing, and the biography is a strong achievement. But the second volume, unlike the first, does leave a faintly disagreeable aftertaste.

This Issue

October 25, 2007