On Empson

By Michael Wood. (New Jersey: Princeton, 2017), 184 pp.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in The Weekly StandardApril 10, 2017.


Today, when literary criticism—especially the close reading of lyric poetry—has become a suspect discipline, largely dismissed for its elitism and irrelevance to the political order, Michael Wood’s elegant and concise study of the great British literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) is especially welcome.  Empson was all of  twenty-two when he produced, atht suggestion of his Cambridge supervisor I. A. Richards, a bulky manuscript called Seven Types of Ambiguity.   Published in 1930, the book quickly became a classic, read and hotly debated in classrooms across the UK and US.   Not until the seventies, with the rise of Deconstruction, did Empson’s star go down, the irony being, as Wood notes, that he anticipated so many of the theorems of what he called, in a letter to a friend, “those horrible Frenchmen”—he referred to the chef d’école of Deconstruction as “Nerrida”—who were “so very disgusting, in a social and moral way.”  “What Empson found disgusting,” Wood explains, “was the seeking out, as he saw it, of complexity for complexity’s sake, a project that was ‘always pretending to be plumbing the depths’ but in reality was only congratulating itself on its cleverness.  Above all he took it—this was in 1971—as just one more instance of what he saw as happening to language and literature everywhere: the human stakes were being removed, words were let loose in the playground, no agents or intentions were to be seen.”

Forty years later, Empson may be making something of a comeback.

Oxford has recently published John Haffenden’s two-volume biography, which gives a fascinating portrait of Empson’s turbulent life, from his student  days (he was dismissed from Cambridge when a box of condoms was found in his room!) to his turn to the East—he taught first in Tokyo then in Beijing from 1931 to 1952 except for the interim of the war, continuing to write and publish his own poetry—to his postwar years as London literary lion, Chair of English Literature at Sheffield University and distinguished lecturer in the U.S. and around the world.  However messy and disaster-prone Empson’s private life may have been, his brilliance, learning, and wit were never at issue.

Seven Types of Ambiguity set the stage for a new way of reading poetry.  The young Empson was the first to admit that his seven-fold division was arbitrary, that in practice his categories merged and overlapped.  Thus the first ambiguity, “Mere richness (a metaphor valid from many points of view)” and the second, “Two different meanings conveying the same point,” are not really distinct, and neither are the other five, culminating in #7, “Two meanings that are the opposites created by the context.”  All Empson really meant to convey by announcing that there are seven types of ambiguity (there might have been seventeen!) was that, by definition, poetry was characterized by the multivalence of its language.   An ambiguity is defined on the opening page of the book as “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.”  And Empson adds commonsensically, “Sometimes . . . the word may be stretched absurdly far, but it is descriptive because it suggests the analytical mode of approach, and with that I am concerned.”

“The analytical mode,” which became Empson’s stock-in-trade, involved a technical rigor (he initially came to Cambridge to study mathematics) that is the very antithesis of the current emphasis on what a given poem says, what information or morality it imparts.  Denotation and connotation, metaphor and metaphysical conceit, pun, rhetorical figure, syntactic form, sound play and rhythmic structure: all these aspects of poetic language are to be examined so as to detail the rich ambiguity of the poem in question—its power to charm by its range and depth.  But unlike the American New Critics who insisted on the “intentional fallacy,” regarding a poem as an object not to be judged by external criteria including the poet’s intention, and unlike Foucault and Barthes who made their eloquent cases for “the death of the author,” Empson was quite willing to use whatever biographical, historical, or cultural knowledge might be relevant in unpacking the meaning of the poems he discussed.  That corpus, however—and this may well be seen as a limitation—was confined to canonical epic, lyric and dramatic poetry in English, mostly from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century with a few examples from T. S. Eliot and other Moderns.  Here is Empson on the opening quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs that shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”:

The comparison [between boughs of the tree and choirs] holds for many reasons: because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves. . . .

Michael Wood, who cites this passage, further comments, “When I think of this poem I am most taken by the thought that the choirs and the birds can be both literal and metaphorical—the birds can be birds or boys, and they can sing in the ruin or in the forest; the choir is a choir and a cluster of trees—and a real tension arises as soon as we remember the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which occurred in the 1530s, and altered the architectural face of England in so many ways, to say nothing of Henry VIII’s sources of income.”

Contemporary readers, unaccustomed to such dissection of a single line of poetry, may complain that it is overkill, but as Wood points out,  Empson’s underlying assumption is that a real critic is first and foremost a writer—someone, as Roland Barthes put it, who “experiences the depth of language.”  Empson’s method, like that of Barthes or, closer to home, T.S. Eliot, is inimitable, because his own imagination is so rich and idiosyncratic that it generates responses few other readers will fully share.  As such, Empson is the perfect subject for his fellow Yorkshire native and Cambridge graduate, now Princeton professor Michael Wood, himself a highly individual and imaginative critic, difficult to assign to this or that school or movement.

But what about Empson’s poetry?   When Seven Types of Ambiguity was published, Empson already enjoyed a considerable reputation as a poet: his first collection Poems appeared in 1935 and won the respect of Eliot, W. H. Auden and the F. R. Leavisites at Cambridge.   In the U.S. he was never as renowned.   His formal, elegant, and stately poems, featuring the dense conceits and puns of John Donne and the other Metaphysicals  who were his model, may have appealed to such New Critical counterparts as John Crowe Ransom and the young Robert Lowell, but when, in the 1960s, the William Carlos Williams colloquial mode came to dominate,  Empson’s densely allusive symbolist mode was largely eclipsed.  Perhaps it was seen as too programmatic:  here is the opening of “Note on Local Flora,” cited by Wood as one of Empson’s signal poems:

There is a tree native to Turkestan

Or further east toward the Tree of Heaven,

Whose hard cold cones, not being wards to time,

Will leave their mother only for good cause;

Will ripen only in a forest fire. . . .

Wood comments:

“There is a tree” has the sound of a fable, a sort of botanical “once upon a time,” and the shift from Turkestan to Heaven—some distance “further east—confirms this effect.  The tree is “native” to those parts but there is one in Kew Gardens in London (introduced in line 10, as “thirst[ing] for the Red Dawn”).  And wherever it grows, the tree has this curious characteristic: only fire will make it flourish.  “Leave their mother” is a marvelous ambiguity.  When the fire arrives the cones will drop to the ground, abandoning their parent, and their fall will allow their mother to cover herself with leaves.” (79-80).

The second half of the poem draws on Greek myth for its dense symbolic network:  it all adds up, so Wood argues, to the poet’s attraction to revolution: “The thirsting tree represents a widely held but equally widely repressed belief: that only violence will allow us truly to live, to do something with time other than mark it.”

But if this reading is plausible, than surely “Notes on Local Flora” is, despite its complex figuration and allusion, a one-dimensional poem with a clear extractable meaning.   The ability to extract such a definite theme is precisely what Empson—and Wood after him—oppose in their readings of Shakespeare or Pope or metaphysical poetry, where the most minor detail can prove to be telling.  Indeed, the “tree native to Turkestan” is evoked by pure fiat, so that the poet can spin out his paradox, and the poem has the willed air of exercise rather than experience.  Or again, responding to the imminent threat of war during his Tokyo stay, in a love poem called “Aubade,” Empson gives us the line  “Only the same war on a stronger toe,” which Wood reads as a reference to the uncertain political climate of Europe, the war already in the air and present in the East too.”  No doubt this is the case but surely the metaphor of imminent war as a man rising “on a stronger toe” is no more than one-dimensional.  Indeed, whereas such metaphors as “the rooky wood” of Macbeth radiate ancillary meanings through the entire play, Empson’s metaphors tend to be one-liners, and Wood, following suit, explicates them, one by one.

But only two of Wood’s seven chapters deal with the poetry: the other five contain excellent readings of the critical studies.  In his later books—Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), The Structure of Complex Words (1951), and Milton’s God (1961)—Empson carried out the dissection of poetic language he initiated in Seven Types.  Wood gives us excellent and shrewd discussions of the highlights.  The chapter on King Lear in The Structure of Complex Words, Wood declares, “is one of the masterpieces of literary criticism of any time and leaves us thrilled and exhausted in ways that resemble the effects of the play itself.”   Here Empson takes the trope made of the repeated words fool, madman, jester, clown, simpleton” to show how folly is at the very core of Lear’s own nature, even as the simplicity of true folly eludes him till the bitter end.  Empson’s commentary on the “”folly” complex takes him from Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly to what he takes to be the drama’s rejection of Christianity: his is indeed an enormous rich reading of Lear.   Equally fine is Empson’s dissection of the word honest in Othello, zeroing in on “honest Iago,” the villain who is, in one sense, the most “honest” character in the tragedy, being the one who is least deceived.

On Empson ends somewhat abruptly with a short chapter on Milton’s God, which dwells on such striking paradoxes as “the reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad.”  However one agrees or disagrees with Empson’s reading of Milton, it is exciting and provocative.  Wood’s critical introduction to Empson’s bracing and controversial criticism will hopefully bring a new readership to one of the great neglected critical minds of the twentieth-century.  If we come away with one thing from On Empson it is the reminder, in the age of STEM courses, of just how much poetry matters—matters not on ethical or political grounds—but simply for its own sake—for its exposure of the possibilities of the language that we use every waking moment of every day without taking into accounts in its astonishing possibilities for knowledge, power, and especially pleasure.