William Empson

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William Empson : biography

27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984

Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre – Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting"… (Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon)

Milton’s God

Empson’s Milton’s God is often described as a sustained attack on Christianity and defence of Milton’s attempt to ‘justify God’s ways to man’ in Paradise Lost. Empson argues that precisely the inconsistencies and complexities adduced by critics as evidence of the poem’s badness, in fact, function in quite the opposite manner: what the poem brings out is the difficulty faced by anyone in encountering and submitting to the will of God and, indeed, the great clash between the authority of such a deity and the determinate desires and needs of human beings.

…the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton’s God (1965), p. 13)

Empson claims that it is precisely Milton’s great sensitivity and faithfulness to the Scriptures, in spite of their apparent madness, that generates such a controversial picture of God: thus Empson reckons that it requires a mind of astonishing integrity to, in the words of Blake, be of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

[Milton] is struggling to make his God appear less wicked, as he tells us he will at the start (l. 25), and does succeed in making him noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one; though, after all, owing to his loyalty to the sacred text and the penetration with which he make its story real to us, his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy… (Milton’s God (1965), p. 11)

The tendency in surveys of Empson’s achievement in Milton’s God is, depending on one’s politics, to marvel or bristle at the audacious perversity of his central thesis—though something of the same perversity was tidied-up and reinterpreted in Stanley Fish’s much lauded work on Milton (e.g., Surprised by Sin). This eclipses some of Empson’s insights and his intelligence, humanity and humour in reading the poem, and ignores the significance of the work as one of the few efforts to immunize the aesthetic achievements of the poem from its theological or more widely religious achievements (see also the work of Balachandra Rajan).

Although perhaps not as influential in academic circles as, for example, Fish’s work, Milton’s God remains of great significance to any critically minded reader of Paradise Lost as a presentation of some reasons for the centrality of the work in the English literary canon. Empson portrays the work as the product of a poet of astonishingly powerful and imaginative sensibilities and great intellect who had invested much of himself in the poem. Despite its lack of influence, certain critics view Milton’s God as by far the best (that is to say, the most valuable) sustained work of criticism on the poem by a 20th-century critic. Harold Bloom includes it as one of the few critical works worthy of canonical status in his The Western Canon (and the only critical work focusing solely on a single piece of literature).

Select books on Empson