William Empson

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William Empson : biography

27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984

Sir William Empson ( 27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984) was an English literary critic and poet, widely influential for his practice of closely reading literary works, fundamental to New Criticism. His best-known work is his first, Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930.

Jonathan Bate has saidBate, J., "The Genius of Shakespeare", PICADOR London, 2008 that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest."


Empson’s poetry is clever, learned, dry, aethereal and technically virtuosic—not wholly dissimilar to his critical work. His high regard for the metaphysical poet John Donne is to be seen in many places within his work, tempered with his appreciation of Buddhist thinking, an occasional tendency to satire, and a larger awareness of intellectual trends. He wrote very few poems and stopped publishing poetry almost entirely after 1940. His Complete Poems [edited by John Haffenden, his biographer] is 512 pages long, with over 300 pages of notes. In reviewing this work, Frank Kermode commended him as a ‘most noteworthy poet’, and chose it as International Book of the Year at the TLS.

Critical focus

Empson’s critical work focuses largely on early and pre-modern works in the English literary canon. He was a significant scholar of Milton (see below), Shakespeare (Essays on Shakespeare), and Elizabethan drama (Essays on Renaissance Literature, Volume 2: The Drama). He published a monograph, Faustus and the Censor, on the subject of censorship and the authoritative version of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. He was also an important scholar of the metaphysical poets John Donne (Essays on Renaissance Literature, Volume 1: Donne and the New Philosophy) and Andrew Marvell.

Occasionally, Empson brought his critical genius to bear on modern writers; Using Biography, for instance, contains papers on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as well as the poetry of William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, and Joyce’s Ulysses.

Literary criticism

Empson was styled a "critic of genius" by critic Frank Kermode, who qualified his praise by identifying willfully perverse readings of certain authors; and Harold Bloom has stated that Empson is among a handful of critics who matter most to him, because of their force and eccentricity. Empson’s bluntness led to controversy both during his life and after his death, and a reputation in part also as a "licensed buffoon" (Empson’s own phrase).

Style, method, and influence

Empson is today best known for his literary criticism, and in particular his analysis of the use of language in poetical works: his own poetry is arguably undervalued, although it was admired by and influenced English poets in the 1950s. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was an acquaintance at Cambridge, but Empson consistently denied any previous or direct influence on his work.Cf. William Empson, The Complete Poems. John Haffenden, ed. London: Penguin, 2000. xiv-xv, 257-61 (for the reference to Wittgenstein in his 1930 poem, "This Last Pain"). Empson’s best known work is the book Seven Types of Ambiguity which, together with Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words, mine the astonishing riches of linguistic ambiguity in English poetic literature. Empson’s studies unearth layer upon layer of irony, suggestion, and argumentation in various literary works—a technique of textual criticism so influential that often Empson’s contributions to certain domains of literary scholarship remain significant, though they may no longer be recognized as his. The universal recognition of the difficulty and complexity (indeed, ambiguity) of Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 94" ("They that have power…"), for instance, is traceable to Empson’s analysis in Some Versions of Pastoral—a virtuosic display of the riches a critic might unearth from a close reading of a poem. Empson’s study of "Sonnet 94" goes some way towards explaining the high esteem in which the sonnet is now held (often being reckoned as among the finest sonnets), as well as the technique of criticism and interpretation that has thus reckoned it.