181. (William Empson)

Empson’s final words on the poem “Bacchus,” a poem about drink, in one of his statements on it: “I think it sufficiently intelligible to sympathize with.”

The trouble, with the poem and with Empson’s apologetic, uneasy defense, is that the relationship between intelligibility and sympathy is not as direct as this. A middle term, “understanding,” is missing, and what “understanding” requires is what Empson in the criticism so abundantly provides, and that his poems at times offer too little ground for forming: a theory of mind. Or rather, a theory of other minds; not a theory about all other minds, but a theory about the mind behind and within a work of art, living in and produced by a history, a society.

“Bacchus” is, Empson tells us, about drink, and also about four orders of politics and four political leaders, each compared to a mythological figure. That much is intelligible from the poem, at least once we have been told, but it does not make it easier to sympathize with the poem because it does not make any easier the task of figuring out or imagining the sort of person who would write a theory of politics in this particular way.

In such a case, the critic is forced to turn intellectual historian: the best we can do to imagine the “mind” of a  poet is to imagine the “mind” of a public, albeit institutionally marginalized, intellectual at the time of the poet’s writing, situating the references to myth, the types of political leader, and the metaphysical style of the poem to a historicized account of myth as a device for twentieth-century poets, theories of political types, and the ubiquity of such theories, and the reception history of the metaphysicals; such an account would be an account of the poet’s mind in some of its crucial dimensions. It would be a marriage of intellectual history and a history of ideas-in-literature.

But that is not a theory of the mind that will help us understand why a person wrote a particular poem; it does not justify or help us to justify the poem’s having been written–and it is a strangely consistent effect of good poems, their giving the impression that they were necessary, not in their internal unity, but in being created at all.  To arrive at that feeling of necessity, a feeling that precedes and grounds any claims of internal unity, any hunt after cunningly jointed ambiguities, some theory of a poet’s mind is necessary, and it is at such theory-making that Empson excels, which is why the critical analysis is rarely aridly dependent on verbal patterns alone.

Empson’s theory of minds are sometimes more, sometimes less concerned with the beliefs or philosophies of authors; consistently, though, they assume that someone has experienced something that merits the creation of the poem; they are theories of a mind in need of a poem, which means, for Empson, in need of the steadiness and equilibrium, the calm mastery, the achievement of harmony, or at least the dissolution of isolation,  that poetry brings about.

In the most rapidly dazzling of the criticism–dazzling in part because of the rapidity of examples, rapid in the abrupt succession of dazzling readings–Seven Types of Ambiguity, the theories of mind almost always emerge at the close of the verbal analysis, though one feels that they must have been present if Empson were to have selected the details and pressed on them as he does.

After paragraphs on the revived stock symbols of Herbert’s “The Temple,” we have the following:

I am not sure why the “prayer-book” was “old”; it was a traditional and venerable thing, he had himself lived according to its rule, or wanted to use it in marriage, for a long time; and there may be a hint at the religious controversies with which the life of secular ambition was then so closely concerned. But it is also used to give a sort of humility and reality, something of the conviction of steady prose, to this flat and as it were pastoral exchange of gifts. 

This is not fully elaborated theory of mind, but the speculation and uncertainty are sustained on a sense of the mind that motivated the poem, that would have needed to give humility and reality to the “pastoral exchange of gifts.” We are made, Empson writes, to “accept” words “soberly” in Herbert’s poems; we are put into another state of mind ourselves, but that depends on an appreciation of Herbert’s mind.

Shortly after (these are both ambiguities of the third type), Empson defends Gray from Samuel Johnson, on the grounds of why and what a poet would like to understand, rather than on thinking of the words and word-puzzles in isolation from a poet’s need to make sense of the world:

This ambiguity enables him too give advice about the pursuit of happiness with the sort of reality and good sense which belongs to advice about the pursuit of pleasure; he assumes a charming humility in the more spiritual jumps, and implies that the happiness which they seek is a genuine one. I am not sure that pleasure and happiness give the right antithesis, but after all he was a Christian trained in Pagan literature; he is playing off against one another two different notions of love, two different standards of morality, and it is precisely the achievement of this which produces the nonsense of which Johnson complains.

Johnson’s good sense (a quality urgent for literary critics) was, I think, too harsh in this way only, that he would not allow such implied comparisons as require to be observed. A comparison, in his view, must either be overt or such as could be ignored without making nonsense; this is unreasonable, because it ignores the way people’s minds in fact work; and as long as the Romantics stuck to this issue they could score points off him.

A rough and capacious theory about how “minds in fact work” is, in the particular readings of Empson’s book, a means for positing how the mind of an individual author might work. As Seven Types of Ambiguity progresses it becomes less about what Empson calls “logical ambiguity,” and more about “psychological,” more about what happens in the minds, and how the words brings that to view; more about how sympathy with a poem might lead to an understanding of a mind, which in turn makes intelligible the words–or how the effort to make words intelligible will yield an understanding of another mind, which in turns makes sympathy possible.

Empson’s poetry is peculiar in this: the intelligibility of words yields an understanding of the author’s mind only inconsistently; there are poems when no understanding of a poet’s mind that would make the words more intelligible seems possible, when the intelligibility of the words seems entirely independent of any theory of mind, so that it does not feel necessary to have one, and does not feel like the poem is a result of a mind’s feeling of necessity. “Bacchus” is one of them.”

But elsewhere, the poems do invite, encourage us even, to imagine the poet’s mind–to imagine the urgency of the poem’s being written. They are not, though, the poems in which Empson comes closest to the metaphysical intricacies and games that he takes apart to such startling effect in the earliest chapters of Seven Types of Ambiguity. When he approaches the metaphysicals at their purest, he writes “Bacchus.” Instead, Empson’s own poetry is most moving and, I think, successful, when it accords to a standard of ambiguity that he associates with the half-baked or impure or decayed metaphysical poetry. In the chapter on the fifth type of ambiguity, Empson writes about Marvell’s early “Elegy for the Death of the Lord Hastings.” Here, interestingly, Empson leads with his theory of mind:

An extreme, a direct, an unambiguous beauty wells up in these lines; the young man has died on the eve of his wedding; night has fallen. But apparently this is conveyed by comparing some funeral custom with something, possibly astronomical, seen in the sky; the mood of comparison is caught before it has worked itself out; instead of the sharp conceit at which Marvell excelled we are given the elements which were to have been fitted together, but flowing out, and associated only loosely into an impression of sorrow; something, perhaps something very apocalyptic and reassuring, seems to have been meant, but we cannot think of it; and a veil of tenderness last over the dissatisfaction of the mind.

Concluding his reading, he returns:

I feel  some word of apology or explanation is needed as to why such a particularly fantastic analysis has to be given to lines of so direct a beauty, which seem so little tortured by the intellect, which are, in fact, early work, and rather carelessly phrased. The fact is that it is precisely in such cases, when there is an elaborate and definite technique at the back of the author’s mind but he is allowing it to fall into the disorders that come most easily, when he has various metaphors in mind which he means to fit in somewhere, when the effect is something rather unintelligible but with a strong poetical color, when the  mere act of wondering what it means allows it to sink, in an uncensored form, into the reader’s mind; it is in just such cases that fifth type ambiguities are most likely to be found, and are most necessary as explanations.

It is in just such cases, I think, that Empson’s best poems were written; when he is willing to say something “rather unintelligible,” and when, instead, the necessity of an explanation that posits the poet’s mind, that posits the human reality of the poet needing to write, is pressing.  I do not mean there is in general a tradeoff between writing an intelligible, pure metaphysical poem of great complexity and writing a poem that allows us to imagine the need to write; but for Empson maybe there was.

Maybe–here obviously the speculation is thick–it has to do with the sort of process of thought Empson felt went into some poems, and not others. Introducing the fifth type of ambiguity, he writes:

An ambiguity of the fifth type occurs when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all in his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things when the author is moving from one to the other.

For many fine critics, the assumption is that a poet will be “discovering his idea in the act of writing” no matter the poem–and perhaps Empson would have agreed, and pointed out that all poems might contain such moments of discovery, but not all discoveries entail or coincide with ambiguities. I wonder, though, whether Empson himself sometimes wrote, and sometimes did not write, poems that allowed him to “discover his idea in the act of writing,” that left him “half-way between two things.”

The classic example of such a poem would be “Let It Go.” But it is always quoted, so I will quote instead another poem, “The Teasers” that Empson in part disliked because of its closing moral, which he felt was unearned:


Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,

Not but they die,

                                and tell the careful flood

To give them what they clamour and why.


You could not fancy where they rip to blood,

You could not fancy

                                      nor that mud

I have heard speak that will not cake or dry.


Our claims to act appear so small to these,

Our claims to act

                              colder lunracies

That cheat the love, the moment, the small fact.


Make no escape because they flash and die,

Make no escape 

                                build up your love,

Leave what you die for and be safe to die.


The blanks spaces in the stanza–that modernist lineation and layout–is unusual (unique, I think) for Empson’s poetry; it is a blank in the thought, in the certainty of connection; in the blank, something is given space to live that, in a poem like “Bacchus,” is denied life: a mind.


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