Curiously, coming as late in the book as it does, the chapter on Bentley and Milton in Some Versions of Pastoral cuts through the muddle and makes the central aim of the book clear as none of the other chapters quite do. We hear about resolving complexity and simplicity, about being better in some ways and not so good in others, and the waste of life because one must not prostitute one’s values in the earliest chapters; but in the figure of Bentley and Milton do we see the skeletal pastoral interplay: instances where the low, uncouth, less refined, simpler figure is shown to have an essential insight into what is refined,civilized, seemingly superior. It might seem out of place to have a chapter on the 18th-century reception of Milton in the book, except that it speaks to another of the work’s central concerns: that the book is very much about criticism. Ingeniously, Bentley, learned as he is, could be said, and would most obviously I think, be said to figure as the pastoral rustic, unable (says the critical consensus) to appreciate Milton’s subtleties, but wise, Empson counters, in perceiving what other critics would neglect.
That as learned a man as Bentley should stand in for the swain suggests that the book has two implicit messages. One, the critic (Bentley was not a critic, but an editor-critic) stands relation to the creator as the low-figures in pastoral stand in relation to the high, and that the critical faculty, though less in some ways, is greater than the creative in others. Two, that the critic ought to adopt an attitude of pastoral simplicity towards the works she reads, so that, even when learned, she asks the obvious and naive questions towards the word. The first implies an arrogance not foreign to Empson, but it would not mean, that Empson would follow Pater and claim to invert the critical-creative hierarchy; it might just mean that there is something to be said for a life of the critic, enjoying the fruits of others’ creativity, discerning between them. The second point, I think, pertains quite obviously to Empson, whose work contains extraordinary sophistication.
And as always in Empson, figures beget figures, possibilities beget possibilities. A third possibility exists Bentley might represent, within his own figure, both the poles of the pastoral: the erudite alongside the naive; the dominant alongside the helpless. It would be the balance in one man of the qualities balances so beautifully in pastoral that would lead Empson to return to him. On this third possibility, the chapter represents the book’s turn on itself. In a book concerned with criticism in its broadest senses, it asks us to consider literary criticism, and to recognize the virtues of a pastoral critic.
And a fourth possibility: that Bentley represents the learned, high figure and his eighteenth-century interlocutors, with the exception of Bishop Zachary Pearce, represent the low; or vice-versa. In which case chapter takes pastoral also to represent a model for critical conversation, an ongoing process in which lesser figures are in some ways better than the towering, in whose shadows they read and live.
Criticism matters deeply to the book because it is, as all of Empson’s books are, about values. “Codes of values” is a favorite Empson phrase, and it might ring hollow, a folk anthropological acknowledgement of the world’s variety; but to hear it thus would do Empson little justice. He was genuinely concerned in what courses of actions and beliefs individuals and societies valued, as a means for them to realize the value of the world around them, and to lead happier lives. The final calculus was utilitarian, but the variables were anthropologically diverse. It is Empson’s version of the imaginary museum. Some Versions of Pastoral covers a range of critical positions, operating on a number of fields, but it concerns finally the necessity of mutually sustaining, hierarchically opposed critical vantage points; they are both necessary if the world and the people in it are not to feel that the possibilities of life have been wasted, though the excess of possibilities it admits, some conflicting, makes also the inevitability of waste. It leaves one in life with the sense of richness that is a matter of paths not pursued, just as it leaves one, reading a work of criticism or literature, with a sense of richness that is, to use Empson’s actual words, the “readiness of argument not pursued.”
He is not as overtly evaluative a criticism as his contemporaries Eliot or Leavis; but he is as concerned with the function and necessity of criticism as they are. His defense of its necessity in the world is profound, and his discernment of the critical virtues nowhere better articulated than in Some Versions.
Empson has opened up to me, as a critic and a poet, at the same time as I’ve worked with a student on an independent study on Paradise Lost. It is not, I’d guess, a coincidence. Slowing reading Milton’s poem, and seeing it anew, for what feels like for a first time in many areas of the poem, has unexpectedly suggested to me what Empson is often about. Readers of Empson’s poetry think immediately of Donne: he is the obvious and professed precursor of Empson’s method, a hero of several essays, and the star of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Coleridge famously remarked that novice readers of poetry ought to learn to read Donne first, for the sense, the drama of reason and movement of thought, and then Milton, for the music. To understand Empson, however, the reach and grasp of Milton’s thought, feels more relevant. The grandeur of many of the poems, especially in their opening lines, felt in the sublime scale of imagery, their rapid descent and ascent, to and from the minute to the cosmic, the human to the divine, the animate to the inanimate, is a lyric flight to Miltonic heights. The desire to get outside of the human to better understand it–the ideal of the science-fiction novelist and the modern scientific enthusiast no less than the anthropologist–is central to both poets. Finally, the instinct for non-conformity, the combative and argumentative boldness, tending towards arrogance, unafraid of courting charges of hypocrisy, confident in the strength and depth of resources, from sheer intellect and broad learning, on which they can draw–these are common to both. Paradise Lost does not feature in Empson’s study directly, but reading the chapter on Bentley, we are reminded that it might: the balance of scale, of human and divine, of naivety and knowledge, and the magnanimity of Milton’s imagination as he sets them evenly on the scales of the poem’s judgment, represent the ideal of the book. Later, in Milton’s God, Empson asks his readers to recall that “all characters are on trial in any civilized narrative”–knowing full well, as Christopher Ricks reminds us, that the poet is on trial too. The critical faculty, arbitrating value, is implicit in the author’s work; the greatest of authors must be the greatest of critics because he must contain within himself the poles of pastoral judgment, or at the very least recognize them in the characters he represents, not wasting their strength even when they would be wasted by the world.
The greatness of Empson’s criticism is Miltonic too; containing within itself both poles of the pastoral scale, even at the risk of occasional incoherence; refusing to cede a possibility, and coming to rest in periods of majestic, calm survey.