140. (William Empson)

William Empson’s poetry has, until very recently, and despite years of trying to read it with some genuine appreciation, been inaccessible to me. I had thought that the trouble was with the density of conceit, the range of reference in the analogies, and the feeling that readers are being asked to sort out crosswords in verse; but the notes in the Haffenden edition cover that and more, and the problem persisted even when the requisite facts, clues, and answers were possessed. At its root was my not knowing why the facts, clues, and crosswords were there in the first-place.

In an interview, Empson bundles together some of the early poems as “boy loves girl” pieces, which seemed well and true enough, but did not justify the byzantine puzzles. I could not see how the feelings or human situations were manifest or explored. Christopher Ricks reads the poems with devotion, valuing them for their expression of sanity under pressure; and I could see the moments of sanity, but without understanding the nature of the pressure could not feel it to be an accomplishment. Quoting the poetry’s steadying affirmations, or affirmations of steadiness, seemed too like quoting excerpts from the prose.

A way out was suggested to me by Ricks, inadvertently; he suggests students read C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet as an entryway to Paradise Lost, taking seriously the relationship of the epic to science-fiction. Empson had read Donne similarly, in his essay “Donne the Space-Man,” arguing that Donne took seriously the possibility (taken up by Milton and Lewis) of life on other worlds; the poems are not only about unity and diversity, but about centrality and distance, isolation and communication; they are poems about the human perspective as one perspective among many.

I confess that Empson’s view has not been especially helpful for me as I read Donne, but that perhaps was because I did not understand its full implications; Lewis’ sci-fi novel has helped me do so, and even if it does  not cast a sudden light on Donne’s, it does cast a sudden light on Empson’s poetry.

To say of a  poet that he writes about “mankind’s place in the universe” is so vague and so often trotted out as to be nearly empty; but not entirely. It needs deepening and expanding. Empson writes about mankind’s place in a  universe that is material, vast, and possibly filled with intelligent life forms very unlike us–what is more, Empson writes about mankind as a species that, through its history, has come up with a whole sets of beliefs, often social, ideological, and held without question or full consciousness, that permit individuals to get on with life, enjoying one another and the pleasures that are to be had.  That might not be enough, though, because it does not explain much about why Empson writes the way that he does, with the sorts of clues, the sorts of facts that set his poems in motion.

A key is to think generically: Empson writes poems about mankind’s place in the universe as if he were writing science-fiction. He writes science-fiction lyrics; moreover, in contrast with Lewis or Milton, he writes science-fiction humanism lyrics. What might such a genre of entail for lyric? The pressure placed on the speaker of the poem, and the pressure that requires an exertion of sanity, derives from a world and universe that ought to be understood as fundamentally materialistic, accessible to empirical inquiry, and inexplicable apart from advances in technology that work on its natural properties, however they are explained; science-fiction, more than fantasy, is deeply historical; it is an inversion of the genre of historical literature, in so far as it takes seriously history as a process of change in which life happens, but looks expectantly to the future, and to the possibilities latent in the latest technology and scientific understanding; unlike historical fiction, however, which attempts to inhabit a foreign, disused, or obsolete set of beliefs from within, science-fiction projects itself forward to a  perspective beyond the past and even the present, to view side-on or in a rear-view mirror the whole series of human beliefs which, though thought natural at the time, and often thought natural at the time in which the science-fiction is written, are seen to have been curious evolutions of understanding, necessary at the time, but later surpassed; science-fiction will view human attitudes, beliefs, and codes of conduct as equivalent to and partially dependent on technology; beliefs were helpful at the time in making life possible, in the same way as lead-piping for some civilizations; without necessarily holding a functionalist account of belief and ritual, science-fiction views cultures and their structures as making life possible, even where trade-offs are involved.

As a genre, science-fiction probably owes as much to late-Victorian anthropology as it does to late-Victorian science; it may have blossomed when it did only because anthropology had developed as a field; at any rate, Empson’s own anthropological leanings are better understood within the frame of science-fiction than within the frames of anthropology, since he is not usually writing about other cultures, but writing about their beliefs as technologies of the mind. He is not the only author whose work attests the connection between science fiction and anthropology: Ursula K. LeGuin’s major novels do the same.

Finally, Empson’s science-fiction perspective, once again analogous but distinct from a perspective offered anthropology, imagines a genuine problem for humanism posed by a material universe of which humans are only a small part: how can we imagine ourselves as a center (in anthropology the problem is real, encountered by the ethnographer)? Relatedly, given the scale of the universe, the various shifts of perspectives, magnitude, and proportions required to understand it, and the dizzying abyss between our sense of ourselves as distinct individuals and the knowledge of ourselves as small parts in a greater, largely unknown web, how can we bring ourselves to act and live, and what strength or comfort is given us in the face of impulses to obliterate one another in war and catastrophe?

The poems address especially the second of these questions. At times, they suggest love between two people as an answer; the isolation of the universe, the distances that are possible when imagining other worlds, are analogous to the love felt by “boy for girl,” but that love also puts the disorientation into perspective, subordinating it to its immediate ends.

At times, he provides accounts of how people have managed to get through life, despite the staggering heights and depths into which we can see, and the awful violence people threaten one another with; the poems are a reminder that it is possible, and implicitly an explanation of how; they argue that there is a way forward, provided that we see through the maze properly (the figure of Theseus and the minotaur figures prominently in the poems). The latter sort of poems, the “way forward” poems as it were, might reckon with beliefs that, though wrong-headed, have served some purpose, clashing these together in rapid series of analogies; or else they might argufy more directly, Empson reasoning through the choices with the tools of metaphor and wit as well as scientific and mathematical erudition.

In either case, the poems impress on us the necessity of technologies of belief, as well as love, and art, if we are to cope and remain sane. The rainbow appears frequently in the poems, an image with a rich symbolic heritage: the promise of God, the messenger of the gods, the product of the Newtonian prism, the light crossing space to strike the eye with the coincidence of beauty and the immediacy of color; it spans two points, it contains an entire spectrum of possibilities, it invites interpretation and discovery alike. A chief feat of the poems is to model the potential for the technologies, art, and learning we possess, while also drawing upon them to present the circumstances of life and existence that make us cling to their potential. The assumptions and vision of science-fiction is built into the poetry, and it grounds and surrounds their moral reasoning and depths of love.

Having prefaced the poems with all of that, I will end by quoting a few poems, with a few comments to follow; I think they bear out what I’ve said. The first I take to be among Empson’s most beautiful love poems.

Letter V


Not locus if you will but envelope,

Paths of light not atoms of good form;

Such tangent praise, less crashing, not less warm,

May gain more intimacy for less hope.


Not the enclosed letter, then, the spirited air,

The detached marble, not the discovered face;

I can love so for truth, as still for grace,

Your humility that will not hear or care.


You are a metaphor and they are lies

Or there true least where their knot chance unfurls;

You are the grit only of those glanced pearls

That not for me shall melt back to small eyes.


Wide-grasping glass in which to gaze alone

Your curve bars even fancy at its gates;

You are the map only of the divine states

You, made, nor known, nor knowing in, make known.


Yet if I love you but as Cause unknown

Cause has at least the Form that has been shown,

Or love what you imply but to exclude

That vacuum has your edge, your attitude.


Duality too has its Principal.

These lines you grant me may invert to points;

Or paired, poor grazing misses, at your joints,

Cross you on painless arrows to the wall.


The mistake I made earlier about the poem, and no longer have, is to think that Empson brings in the baggage of modern science out of a sense that if one is to re-write metaphysical poetry, one has no choice but to use the latest knowledge, since that will allow the conceits to be novel and fresh; true, but that is because, for him, the situation of love only occurs in a  universe that is modeled and characterized by the stuff of those conceits; they show us the world in which love happens, and showing it thus, they make the human love seem at one with impersonal forces and states, and also make impersonal forces and states seem a part of human love. Something similar happens in “Camping Out”:


And now she cleans her teeth into the lake:

Gives it (God’s grace) for her own bounty’s sake

What morning’s pale and the crisp mist debars:

Its glass of the divine (that will could break)

Restores, beyond nature: or lets Heaven take

(Itself being dimmed) her pattern, who half awake

Milks between rocks a straddled sky of stars.


Soap tension the star pattern magnifies.

Smoothly Madonna through-assumes the skies

Whose vaults are opened to achieve the Lord.

No, it is we soaring explore galaxies,

Our bullet boat light’s speed by thousands flies.

Who moves so among stars their frame unties;

See where they blur, and die, and are outsoared.


The poem is a secular adoration–hence Madonna is brought in, for a contrast; her starry blue veil, seen in medieval paintings, is a reference, perhaps. But here the woman is adored by containing, and so giving order to, the entire cosmos; but the cosmos is adored because it contains her, and can be known through her and with her at his side.

Another poem, “The Scales” does not look to the heavens:


The Scales


The proper scale would pat you on the head

But Alice showed her pup Ulysses’ bough

Well from behind a thistle, wise with dread;


And though your gulf-sprung mountains I allow

(Snow-puppy curves, rose-solemn dado band)

Charming for nurse, I am not nurse just now.


Why pat or stride them, when the train will land

Me high, through climbing tunnels, at your side,

And careful fingers meet through castle sand.


Claim slyly rather that the tunnels hide

Solomon’s gems, white vistas, preserved kings,

By jackal sandhole to your air flung wide.


Say (she suspects) to sea Nile only brings

Delta and indecision, who instead

Far back up country does enormous things.


Empson said that the poem was written as an excuse for not showing “enough love to a girl.”  It feels, in its sexual imagery, its attempts at persuasion, like a poem by Donne to a woman. The poem’s motive is fairly standard lyric stuff; the imagery is drawn from boy’s adventure fiction, and especially Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines); but the spirit of the poem is once again science-fiction (hardly mutually exclusive with adventure fiction), taking as it does a perspective that the world is to be mastered by technology, susceptible to discovery and understanding through observation and empirical means, just as, he thinks, another person might be; the effect is once again double, so that a person is approached as a world, but also a world, and an approach to that world, is brought into new significance by being compared to a relationship. The relationship of the poem depends upon a world where a science-fiction adventure could be set.

Finally, I will end with two of the “way forward” poems. The first is “Legal Fiction”:


Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men.

Your well fenced out real estate of mind

No high flat of the nomad citizen

Looks over, or train leaves behind.


Your rights extend under and above your claim

Without bound; your own land in Heaven and Hell;

Your part of earth’s surface and mass the same,

Of all cosmos’ volume, and all stars as well.


Your rights reach down where all owners meet, in Hell’s

Pointed exclusive conclave, at earth’s centre

(Your spun farm’s root still on that axis dwells);

And up, through galaxies, a growing sector.


You are nomad yet; the lighthouse beam you own

Flashes, like Lucifer, through the firmament.

Earth’s axis varies; your dark central cone

Wavers, a candle’s shadow, at the end.


It is nearly a scenario for science-fiction, because it takes seriously the attempts of that have been made to master by belief and culture life on a planet spinning through space.

Finally, “Doctrinal Point”


The god approached dissolves into the air.


Magnolias, for instance, when in bud,

Are right in doing anything they can think of;

Free by predestination in the blood,

Saved by their own sap, shed for themselves,

Their texture can impose their architecture;

Their sapient matter is always already informed.


Whether they burgeon, massed wax flames, or flare

Plump spaced-out saints, in their gross prime, at prayer,

Or leave the sooted branches bare

To sag at tip from a sole blossom there

They know no act that will not make them fair.


Professor Eddington with the same insolence

Called all physics one tautology;

If you describe things with the right tensors

All law becomes the fact that they can be described with them;

This is the Assumption of the description.

The duality of choice becomes the singularity of existence;

The effort of virtue the unconsciousness of foreknowledge.


That over-all that Solomon should wear

Gives these no cope who cannot know of care.

They have no gap to spare that they should share

The rare calyx we stare at in despair.

They have no other that they should compare.

Their arch of promise the wide Heavyside layer

They rise above a vault into the air.


A naturalistic union of life and existence; an envy for a life form that does not need to resolve the split between consciousness and material being; it dismisses monotheistic religions, dissolving them in its approach to a magnolia bloom; it is as assured (in its rhythm, but also its intellectual activity) as any poem Empson wrote, and without being a piece of science-fiction, it sustains its fictions on science, and imagines, in human terms, a life-form that is not human but that is real. It might be an Angel he describes.




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