William Empson

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William Empson : biography

27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984

Empson’s technique of teasing a rich variety of interpretations from poetic literature does not, however, exhaustively characterize his critical practice. He is much interested in the human or experiential reality to be discovered in great works of literature as is manifest, for instance, in his discussion of the fortunes of the notion of Proletarian literature in Some Versions of Pastoral. Indeed, it is this commitment to unravelling or articulating the experiential truth or reality in literature that aligns Empson so perfectly with Dr. Johnson and that permits him unusual avenues to explore sociopolitical ideas in literature in a vein very different from contemporary Marxist critics (e.g., Fredric Jameson) or scholars of New Historicism (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt). Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that:

Gray’s is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. … By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. … The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death.

Empson goes on to deliver his political verdict with a psychological suggestion:

Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the ‘bourgeois’ themselves do not like literature to have too much ‘bourgeois ideology.’

Should one be in doubt of Empson’s estimation and understanding of Gray’s achievement, in the face of a tradition of canonization and study of the poem, Empson routs all political quibbles and ideological concerns with some remarks reminiscent of Dr. Johnson in their pained insistence:

And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way ‘bourgeois’, like this one; they suggest to readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree.

Despite the complexity of Empson’s critical methods and attitude, his work, in particular, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had a significant impact on the New Criticism, a school of criticism which directed particular attention to close reading of texts, among whose adherents may be numbered F. R. Leavis, although, as has been noted, Empson could scarcely be described as an adherent or exponent of such a school or, indeed, of any critical school at all. Indeed, Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy formulated by William K. Wimsatt, an influential New Critic. Indeed, Empson’s distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in a distinctively dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism (which he ironically labels "the new rigour") as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, p. 122). Similarly, both the title and the content of one of Empson’s volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the Death of the Author, despite the fact that some scholars regard Empson as a progenitor of certain of these currents of criticism, which vexed Empson. As Frank Kermode stated: