23. (William Empson)

Of his drafting and redrafting process, he explained: “the careless ease always goes in last.” The ease was his affectation, an affectation in part of manners and class. Perhaps the affected ease was essential to the performance of Tory squire (Geoffrey Hill says he “liked the High Tory Empson very much”; Empson’s politics, however, were consistently strong left), inherited and cultivated in the familial residence, Yokefleet Hall, where Empson spent some of his earliest years playing out fantasies of Curdie (and maybe the Princess) and the Goblins through the labyrinth of cellars. Empson can also appear, at least through the myopia of a century, as a post-Victorian eccentric, an amateur enthusiast of science and letters, brought up in the remains of the culture in which George MacDonald, H.G. Wells, T.H. Huxley, and Julia Wedgwood built.

But the ease rests on something other than manners; for this reason, it hardly feels like genuine ease at all. Blistering in a letter to Rosamund Tuve, the American critic who had challenged his version of Herbert, Empson writes with breezy bluster:

I was rather shocked at your saying that I needn’t rewrite my bit posted to you because it always a nuisance to rewrite. I rewrite everything I print about twelve times, mainly in the interests of intelligibility, and I think you had much better do that too. Checking references always seems to me a trivial duty compared to checking style. I think your style has greatly improved in your last book but is still very bad, simply from failure of communication. I also think that if you tried to write more clearly you would find your own ideas are a great deal more muddled than you suppose. So I hope very much that you will write another book, but as a labour of love, intended to be agreeable in itself–the distinction between the writer and the reader becomes unreal (because the same thing pleases both) if you take your own style as seriously as you take the style of the authors you are describing. One can imagine this doctrine working out wrong, but it does seem what you need to be told.

Ironically, a second draft of these words (or an earlier draft; at any rate, this version was not posted) exists:

Please feel that making a book of criticism can be a thing you would like to do in your periods of leisure, for personal satisfaction, and yet that the enormous labour of re-writing twelve times is only aimed at making yourself intelligible or directly convincing to the ordinary tolerably informed reader. Unless you feel that you will not write decently at all. By good writing I mean directly yourself to the mind of the public you can reasonably expect, once you aim at getting outside your own clique…You cannot get from one clause to another of one sentence without spreading a complete fog all round any reader about what you are trying to say. This is a deeply respected style in America, highly paid for in subsidized magazines…The books you have printed so far seem to me hopeless stuff; the only hope for you is to promise yourself that you will never publish vast heaps of dirty cheating Heaven-raping totally meaningless…personal claims…in future. [Ellipses Empson’s] As in all such cases, I cannot tell whether you will think me insolent or a grateful source of release. But anyhow what I am saying is just ordinary world opinion. [P.S.] I underline on the typewriter some points when I read this over merely because I know the emphasis isn’t obvious to you.

Tuve was happy to count Empson a friend later in her life.

I don’t quote these letters only because I find perversely comedic Empson’s vitriolic tirade, but also because I think they show something that is fundamental to Empson’s work as a critic and a poet. The ease which he sought was an ease of intelligibility; the ease that would make his words please his readers as they pleased himself (a further irony, of course, in writing so clearly words of denouncement; would they please her as they pleased him, on account of the trouble he took to add proper emphasis by underlining on his typewriter?) is driven by a horror of isolation–and he is horrified that Tuve would in any way attempt to isolate herself from others.

A chief glory of literature, for Empson, is that it represents the most successful act of communication possible. Eric Griffiths in his Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry dissents, remarking on the absence of tone, facial features, inflection, gestures, from the printed page. But Empson might have taken all of this into account: for Empson, the poem depends on its existing apart from immediate context; even when read aloud, when performed, it is felt to exist elsewhere, in another performance, another reading that might take place elsewhere, at another time. In the possibility for various gestures and inflections, poetry permits the possibilities of feeling and sense (the ambiguities and ironies) that Empson could root out like nobody else. The governing assumption of Empson’s criticism is that authors of successful and moving must have felt, intended, and stumbled into a great many more thoughts and feelings than would seem at first apparent. A poem is successful because its simplicity permits the communication of a complex mass; Empson is not a New Critic who believes that the balance of a poem as an object unto itself is of prime value; what matters is that a poem reconciles into a transmittable unity a mess of feelings and judgments that otherwise would have remained with, and isolated, the poet or author–and this not despite, but because these feelings and judgments are, in the person or mind of the poet, drawn from the distant reaches of the society, or world, of which he or she is a part (and from which, in the complexity of mind of which she is possessed, she is apart). A poem, for Empson, confirms the isolation of whoever wrote it, but also overcomes that isolation; hence also Empson’s sense of the stupidity of a criticism that is not in some sense biographical, that shuts off the human experience, or, in a phrase he preferred, “human situation,” at the other side of the wall of words. To leave the poet out of the picture is not only an injustice by principle but, what mattered more to Empson, a cruelty: a imposed isolation where isolation ought to be—and can be—overcome. His extraordinary historical imagination resurrected the dead, and bore responsibilities to them. In light of all of this, the ease of a poem should not be taken for granted, but should be appreciated as the means that allows us steady and ready access to the life-sustaining and life-depleting conflicts raging within. “So straddling a commotion, so broad a calm”: words from Seven Types of Ambiguity.

That poetry can, should, and does communicate is so basic a foundation of many divergent critical positions that it can be forgotten how wonderfully solid and broad and sturdy a foundation it is—when Larkin echoes Wordsworth and insists on the virtues of the common reader, explaining that “poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation, a skilled recreation of emotion in other people,” and when Eliot asserts that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” neither is out of line with Empson; but as is often the case, Empson seems to have seen further possibilities and complexities in the simplicity that Larkin and Eliot enjoy.

His criticism, like all criticism, is, in a different sense, biographical. Not all biographies yield criticism of equal value; we are saddled with our interests, with our proclivities, and above all, with our needs, just as much as we are with our capacity of insight, memory, and articulation. Learning how to read literature can take years of a life; and reading great critics can take nearly long. Some will appeal to us immediately, adolescent infatuations, or adolescent loves to last through life; what we derive is not only a wonder at another’s generosity and breadth of understanding, their magnanimity of mind, but also a sense that, having read them, we ask different questions of literature than we would have asked before, and we ask them in a different accent; these critics are exemplary in their attitudes, in their address, in their voices, which we hear in our heads as we read, whether we will or not. And maybe, since they are the first critics we love, they are also the ones we will return to, old friends, old habits, occasionally bad habits. It might be that not many are inclined to deeply enjoy–but loving literature, I have critics whose work I enjoy profoundl, since in it, I find companionship, and candid, humane voices to trust, not in their particular judgments, but in their candor and the seriousness with which they speak about what matters to me and to, in the world as a whole, few others. But there are other critics whose work inspires respect, admiration, and an intuitive yearning, but who are inaccessible for years; or who are accessible for fleeting minutes, or hours, but who are not readily taken on as companion–or rather, who do not readily take one on as a companion. The trick for those of us who read certain critics with something like love is to remain polyamorous; to let in enough voices so that they can correct and debate one another, or supplement one another, or bail one another out when they meet with a challenge or work to which their approach is not suited.

The Victorian critic R.H. Hutton opens his review of Leslie Stephen’s biography of Samuel Johnson with a distinction: Most men of letters, like most men of science, have gained their reputation by their power of entering into and understanding that which was outside of them and different from them. Johnson gained his reputation by his unrivalled power of concentrating his own forces, of defending himself against the aggression of outer influences,–and striking a light in the process. Of course Johnson was a man of very strong general understanding. Had he not been so, he could not have commanded the respect he did, for those who do not in a considerable degree understand others, will never be themselves understood. Still, admitting freely that it takes a man of some character as well as insight, to understand distinctly what is beyond his own sphere, and a man of some insight as well as character, to teach others to understand distinctly what is within himself, it is clear that Johnson’s genius lay in the latter, not in the former direction.

I think what Hutton says is true for (almost?) all of the great critics. When we read these critics, we are of course permitted new insights into authors we know already; but what is more powerful is their effect upon as we learn to understand literature in new ways, to put new questions to works, to address them in a new voices; we learn how to speak to literature, just as we learn how to speak to others, by imitation and modification. Learning to read a great critic means learning to understand what is within that critic.

For Empson, the task is especially difficult, not only because of his guarded style, but because Empson prizes above all the possibilities of containing a whole world of values within a single space, be it a poem or a mind. Empson purports to be a critic of the sort who enters into and understands all that is outside of him; all of his energies and performances strain this way, resisting efforts at asking what is inside of him to motivate the strain, or else providing an answer: all that he can possibly contain, he does. His criticism embodies (an appropriate word given his own metaphors) and enacts the essential metaphysical problem, as James Smith, to Empson’s admiration, described it: getting the many into the one. And his poetry does the same. Poetry, Empson reminds us, asks us to understand what is in itself–but this means understanding everything, since a great poem straddles and holds in place so many unresolved contraries. Empson’s criticism does the same. The vision of inner and outer, of one and many, that Hutton offers, seems no good at all.

But it’s this desire for no such division to exist that matters to Empson; and its the consequence of collapsing the division that terrifies him. To contain everything within oneself means to waste nothing; but to contain everything within oneself entails an isolation from the rest of society which represents a waste of another sort, a failure to participate, communicate, and contribute to the world.

Isolation and waste: hand in hand, Empson’s central themes. They are there in the most stunning readings of Seven Types of Ambiguity, and they most obviously, and movingly (it’s rare to speak of being moved by criticism–but great criticism has the hallmark of freshly discovered feeling), in Some Versions of Pastoral. They do not fade either from the later works, where Eve, for instance, is defended for wanting to know more. And with isolation and the waste it entails, the central virtue of Empsonian living: fearlessly skeptical, pugnacious independence, rescuing isolation from its grange.

Reading Empson, it is so easy, amidst the barrage of analytical fireworks, to miss out on the passages of true feeling–it is easy to forget what Empson himself said, that he does not know how much of his mind was “invented” by T.S. Eliot—Empson, for all of his immediate apprehension of the judgments and codes of value and beliefs tearing through the synapses of verse, would have agreed above all with Eliot’s insistence that the force of poetry lies in its feeling, itself essential to intelligence, “of which,” in Eliot’s words, “an important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation.”  As a critic, Empson, more than Eliot—and to me a the greater reader as a consequence, the voice to summon when in a tight spot—does more explicit justice to, offers more overt analysis of, that given situation (broadly historical and immediate), the values, beliefs, and motives, apart from which the precise measure of feeling cannot be understood. Empson’s search for complexity is motivated not only by the desire to find in others the same resolution of diversity into unity, and complexity into simplicity, that he sought within himself—but also to feel attuned to, in contact with, the feelings that compelled others to seek the same resolution. He is best in understanding the feelings of resolution, and the feeling a need for it, in so many situations, so many circumstances, lives, and works.

For this reason, he is moved to offer a sympathetic judgment of Gray’s Elegy, one of his most famous critical statements, exceeding critical analysis—as great criticism can—and moving through engagement with a poem to criticize life:

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.

For this reason, he can write of Pope as few others can:

When Pope prophesies the destruction of the building his language takes on a grandeur which reflects back and transfigures it:

Another age shall see the golden ear
Imbrown the slope, and nod on the parterre,
Deep harvests bury all his pride has plann’d,  
And laughing Ceres reassume the land.

These lines seem to me to convey what is called an intuitive intimacy with nature; one is made to see a cornfield as something superb and as old as humanity, and breaking down dykes irresistibly, like the sea. But, of course, it “embrowns” as with further, more universal, “gilding,” and “nods on the parterre” like a duchess; common things are made dignified by a mutual comparison which entirely depends on the dignity of Canons. The glory is a national rather than a personal one; democracy will “bury” the oligarch; but the national glory is now centered in the oligarch; and if the whole people had been made great, it is through the greatness of the Duke of Chandos.

This seems to be rather a curious example of the mutual comparison which elevates both parties; in this case, it is the admiration latent in a sneer which becomes available as a source of energy for these subsidiary uses: and also an example of how the Wordsworthian feeling for nature can be called for not by an isolated and moping interest in nature on her own account, but by a conception of nature in terms of human politics. I hope, at any rate, you agree with me that the lines convey this sort of sympathy intensely; that there is some sense of the immensity of harvest through a whole country; that the relief with which the cripple for a moment identifies himself with something so strong and generous gives these two couplets an extraordinary scale.

“The cripple” is not cruel, but is a reminder that Pope’s isolation is not only the isolation of the lines that reconcile politics and nature, satire and generosity, but also of a life burdened by (not ennobled by; Empson doesn’t sentimentalize pain) suffering of several sorts. To take one last instance, there is the moving close to Empson’s essay on Marvell, collected in Using Biography, where Empson shows us Marvell’s final evening:

Marvell was a stocky fighting type, though a deskworker of course, and had been threatened with trouble on the tour to Russia for hitting out; but he genuinely wanted peace, and would prefer to walk away from a duel if the rules permitted. I suggest that he walked out from an evening party at a house in Hull, and used his eminence to walk out through a gate of the city, and walked for what remained of the night, indifferent to the fatal marshes; and returned at dawn to take the first coach back to London. As the coach jolted slowly on, and he got more and more feverish, he would reflect on how thoroughly tricky his situation had become, on every side. When he at last got home, irritated all over, and his doctor suggested a risky medicine, as the ‘tertiary’ returned, warning that it would case a long deep sleep, he accepted that eagerly. Nobody expected to die from the familiar ague, tiresome though it was; that was no problem. But from a real deep sleep he would expect to wake up, as often before, suddenly seeing a way out, knowing what to do.

The need to see a way out; the need to let a great deal in. These are the contrary but cooperating movements, of Empson’s mind, of his criticism, of his poetry; they are, Empson would likely say, the contrary and cooperatively dissonant movements of all minds. Life has so many sides; they must be balanced if one is to stay sane, to see a way out of the dilemmas; seeing a way out means taking the contraries in hand; only by accepting and admitting them can one find the balance between them; but one cannot always choose between them, and the balance must involve waste on one side or the other; the poignancy of the final line of the Marvell essay (Marvell having occasioned, between this essay and Eliot’s, two of the great closing lines in English literary criticism) a sympathetic understanding of how tiring, trying, and at times rationally hopeless arriving at such a balance can seem; it is at one with the fatigue and desperation that hides in the shadows of Empson’s characteristically brash, brusque and jaunty verse. Take “Homage to the British Museum”:

There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section;

A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.

He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,

Which is inserted through a hole behind.

At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,

Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,

His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.


Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations

And dissolve into our judgment all of their codes.

Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation

(People are continually asking one the way out),

Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.

Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,

Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;

Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,

And grant his reign over the entire building.

The god admits so much into himself; the museum denies its patrons an easy way out.  This is, on the face of things, Empson the anthropologist; he reads literature as one, or as a historian, remarking once that we should read novels as if they are histories, keeping his criticism in abeyance and his curiosity in control of his instincts. He is the poet in the museum, not the imaginary museum, all of the world’s cultures and codes at his fingertips, and his reach as nimble as it is, he sees no reason that he might not curate them all, and worship the god as his own personal deity. His poems, unlike Pound’s Cantos, are not the exhibitions; they are rather the notes from a life that are guided by a massive depth and range of documents, artifacts,and codes. When they appear, it is through short-hand, which is one reason that the poems are challenging, why the notes are necessary; they are metaphysical not only because they lean on highly local conceits, but because they are, like Donne’s poems as Empson saw them, the effort to make sense of the depths and aches of mundane experiences–love, abandonment, loneliness, filial duties–through the range of knowledge exploding around him, which for Donne meant the new science, and for Empson still newer sciences yet, and because they see likeness, and claim unity, between these domains of knowledge and experience.

The poem, Christopher Ricks writes, moves with a “shrewd calm,” but the calm is not ease (as the word “shrewd” alerts us; it is a calculated, planned calm, just as the “ease” in Empson’s writing is the final touch, and so often does not feel like genuine ease at all; the shrewdness of a tiger feigning calm)—neither ease for the reader nor ease for Empson. Among all that Empson’s poems communicate is the strain that he has undergone to bring the materials together, and at their best, the poems are taut not because Empson is reaching to prove the point that the disparate piles of knowledge and discovery are relevant to one another, and provide correlatives for emotional experiences and fundamental truths of life, but because the poems want for us to feel the urgency of the scramble itself—Empson’s poems do not, in other words, simply use a vast array of materials to communicate, but they communicate what it means to need to use that vast array: the need to absorb so much of life so as not to let it run to waste. (Empson remarks, after Louise MacNeice read one of his poems for a BBC radio program, that “I always feel other people don’t read them rigidly enough”; his hearing them as rigid I take as his hearing them braced against the strain).

“He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,” Empson writes of the toad. The cornerstone is “needs.” It lands squarely, without fuss, and yet it clashes with the stoicism of the god, with the stoicism even of the statement in which it is delivered: it is simply fact of his existence that he cannot go on without it.

The consequence of the massive absorption is isolation; “clogged with hesitation”, uncertain which way to move, how to act, when hemmed in by so many possibilities (like Marvell, needing to trust to a good night’s sleep), there is no road forward, out of the museum, and the life in a museum is not a life at all; but to include everything is to be something at least, even when set apart, containing everything in oneself.

The need to preserve and absorb not only entails the pain of isolation, but may depend on, motivate, it—the escape of a schoolboy, alone at night, escaping the loneliness of his bed, his life, by the reminders, found in the illustrated encyclopedia of science, of just how much else there is thriving around him; his anonymity and insignificance a liberation as he is lost in it all.

Thus Empson, in Milton’s God, words hungering for consolation in the world’s diversity, to be found, once again, in a museum: When I first went to teach in Sheffield one of my colleagues kindly took me round a local museum, and we passed through a sheer hall containing nothing but Sheffield Plate. This caused intense depression; then we turned a corner and faced two huge ivory tusks, carved all over for the appalling and splendid court of Benin; not a surprising thing to find there, as Benin artworks were distributed widely over the sack of the capital (1897). They raised my spirits no end. I report this elementary reaction to point out that it is not an affectation or perversion to feel so; we cannot help doing it; chiefly because we need to feel that, whatever we do with our own small lives, the rest of the world is still going on and exercising the variety of its forces.

One of the most successful poems that shows Empson reaching broadly out of an inescapable isolation, reaching to make sense of, and find comfort in, that isolation, is “To an Old Lady.” Its closing stanzas:

Years her precession do not throw from gear.

She reads a compass certain of her pole;

Confident, finds no confines on her sphere,

Whose failing crops are in her sole control.


Stars how much further from me fill my night.

Strange that she too should be inaccessible,

Who shares my sun. He curtains her from sight,

And but in darkness is she visible.

The poem follows the standard Empson procedure; the speed with which Empson turns the kaleidoscope crystal, moving from one figure to another, is difficult to keep up with; but it is the rapidity that it is the point, a rapidity that we find in so much of Empson’s poetry because, like so many poets, he was preoccupied with one nettlesome bundle of feelings to which he was compelled to return. The mother’s isolation from him, and his isolation from her, their inaccessibility to one another, is assuaged not only through any one of the figures to which Empson has recourse, but also through there being so great a range, and on such a massive scale as interstellar space provides. The poem does not claim for the mother any special detachment, and it does not claim that she has absorbed any special quantity of codes and cultures, as the god at the museum had done; but it does find in the possibility of thinking broadly, in terms of the “variety of forces” that her isolation can be made tolerable. “Do not presume her wasted,” the second line decrees. Yoking as heterogeneously as it does, the poem’s conservation affirms her own.

But the poet-critic who saw all others as myriad-minded (and not just Shakespeare), and who was myriad-minded himself, knew that even in matters of straddling and containing alternatives, one might go too far. The one possibility that “Homage to the British Museum” contains only with the extra-ordinary force of a parenthetical—containing it by setting it apart from the rest of the poem—is the urge to leave: “(People are continually asking one the way out)”  No road, being something in everything, is not enough for some; for most.

And the other great line of thought in Empson’s poetry–and in the criticism–is the need for action, for assertion, for escape. And this means choosing, and running: “Courage Means Running,” the title of one poem; “It seemed the best thing to be up and go,” the opening of another. “Clogged with a natural hesitation” because clogged with the world’s conflicting codes and creeds, the best one can do at times, Empson knew, is, rather than absorbing more, to “Let it Go.” The poem with that title itself lets go; lets go of erudition, lets go of knots, would avoid the isolation that is insanity:


In this deep blankness is the real thing strange.

   The more things happen to you the more you can’t

      Tell or remember even what they were.


The contradictions cover such a range.

   The talk would talk and go so far aslant.

      You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.


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