William Empson


William Empson : biography

27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984

On Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night from Some Versions of Pastoral:

Voyage au Bout de la Nuit…is not to be placed quickly either as pastoral or proletarian; it is partly the ‘underdog’ theme and partly social criticism. The two main characters have no voice or trust in their society and no sympathy with those who have; it is this, not cowardice or poverty or low class, which the war drives home to them, and from then on they have a straightforward inferiority complex; the theme becomes their struggle with it as private individuals. … Life may be black and mad in the second half but Bardamu is not, and he gets to the real end of the night as critic and spectator. This change is masked by unity of style and by a humility which will not allow that one can claim to be sane while living as part of such a world, but it is in the second half that we get Bardamu speaking as Celine in criticism of it. What is attacked may perhaps be summed up as the death-wishes generated by the herds of a machine society, and he is not speaking as ‘spokesman of the proletariat’ or with any sympathy for a communist one. …before claiming the book as proletarian literature you have to separate off the author (in the phrase that Radek used) as a man ripe for fascism. (Note this was written 2 years before Celine’s first anti-semitic pamphlet and 9 years before he fled to Germany.)

From "The Variants for the Byzantium Poems" in Using Biography:

...she appears to end her penultimate chapter 'Was Yeats a Christian?' with the sentiment that he must have been pretty Christian if he could stay friends with Ezra Pound. 

From "Ulysses: Joyce’s Intentions" in Using Biography:

When I was young, literary critics often rejoiced that the hypocrisy of the Victorians had been discredited, or expressed confidence that the operation would soon be complete. So far from that, it has returned in a peculiarly stifling form to take possession of critics of Eng. Lit.; Mr. Pecksniff has become the patron saint of many of my colleagues. As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good. The study of English authors of the past is now centred in the universities, and yet there must be no censorship - no work of admitted literary merit may be hidden from the learners. Somehow we must save poor Teacher's face, and protect him from the indignant or jeering students, local authorities or parents. It thus came to be tacitly agreed that a dead author usually hated what he described, hated it as much as we do, even, and wanted his book to shame everybody out of being so nasty ever again. This is often called fearless or unflinching criticism, and one of its ill effects is to make the young people regard all literature as a terrific nag or scold. Independently of this, a strong drive has been going on to recover the children for orthodox or traditional religious beliefs; ... and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion. The concordat was reached over his dead body. 


Empson was the son of Arthur Reginald Empson of Yokefleet Hall, Yorkshire. His mother was Laura, daughter of Richard Mickelthwait J.P., of Ardsley House, Yorkshire. He was a first cousin of the brothers John and Richard Atcherley.

Empson first discovered his great skill and interest in mathematics at his preparatory school. He won an entrance scholarship to Winchester College, where he excelled as a student and received what he later described as "a ripping education" in spite of the rather rough and abusive milieu of the school: a long standing tradition of physical force, especially among the students, figured prominently in life at such schools.

In 1925, Empson won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read Mathematics, gaining a First for his Part I but a disappointing 2.i for his Part II. He then went on to pursue a second degree in English, and at the end of the first year he was offered a Bye-Fellowship. His supervisor in Mathematics, the father of the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey, expressed regret at Empson’s decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, since it was a discipline for which Empson showed great talent.