William Empson


William Empson : biography

27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984

I. A. Richards, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson’s first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:

At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’ Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by ‘You could do that with any poetry, couldn’t you?’ This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, ‘You’d better go off and do it, hadn’t you?’

But disaster struck when a servant found prophylactics among Empson’s things and claimed to have caught him in flagrante delicto with a woman. As a result, not only did he have his scholarship revoked, his name was struck from the college records, he lost his prospects of a fellowship and was banished from the city.Haffenden, John: William Empson, Vol. 1: Among the Mandarins. Oxford University Press, 2005, 38% Kindle


After his banishment from Cambridge, Empson supported himself for a brief period as a freelance critic and journalist, living in Bloomsbury until 1930 when he signed a three-year contract to teach in Japan after his tutor Richards had failed to find him a post teaching in China.

He returned to England in the mid-1930s only to depart again after receiving a three-year contract to teach at Peking University. Upon his arrival, he discovered that due to the Japanese invasion of China, he no longer had a post. Empson joined the exodus, with little more than a typewriter and suitcase. He ended up in Kunming, with Lianda (Southwest Associated University), the school created there from student and professor refugees from the war in the north. He arrived in England in January 1939.

He worked for a year on the big daily Digest of foreign broadcasts and in 1941 met George Orwell, at that time the Indian Editor of the BBC Eastern Service, on a six-week course in what was called the Liars’ School of the BBC. They remained friends but Empson recalled one clash: "At that time the Government had put into action a scheme for keeping up the birth-rate during the war by making it in various ways convenient to have babies, for mothers going out to work; government nurseries were available after the first month, I think, and there were extra eggs and other goodies on the rations. My wife and I took advantage of this plan to have two children. I was saying to George one evening after dinner what a pleasure it was to cooperate with so enlightened a plan when, to my horror, I saw the familiar look of settled loathing come over his face. Rich swine boasting over our privileges, that was what we had become…".William Empson, Orwell at the BBC, p.98 The World of George Orwell, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1971

Empson went back to China soon after the war. In the late 1940s, he taught at The Kenyon School of English at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio -a summer program for the intensive study of literature. According to Newsweek, "The roster of instructors was enough to pop the eyes of any major in English." Faculty, in addition to Empson, included many of the most prominent writers and literary critics of the period, among them Jacques Barzun, Eric Bentley, Cleanth Brooks, Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell, Arthur Mizener, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Yvor Winters.

In 1953 he was professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London for a year. He later became head of the English department at the University of Sheffield until his retirement in 1972. He was knighted in 1979, the same year his old college, Magdalene, awarded him an honorary fellowship some 50 years after his expulsion.

Prof. Sir William Empson died in 1984.