William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is an acknowledged classic of literary criticism, but it is also among the most difficult to approach and appreciate as a whole, as a coherent statement of intellectual intent, and not just as a bundle of brilliant analyses.
The seven types of ambiguity, Empson tells us, are as follows: first, when words can have several possible meanings contributing to a single meaning; second, when a phrase has two meanings that can be resolved or subsumed under a single whole; third, when a word possesses two divergent senses, fracturing the meaning of a phrase or line (as with puns); fourth, when two different meanings are possible, but not resolvable into a unity, and so present a fractured state of mind; fifth, when an author has worked only part way through a metaphor or simile, and is discovering an idea in the act of writing, so that the simile or metaphor looks in two directions at once within a unit of language, and is suspended between them; sixth, when an author presents a tautology or contradiction, which then must be worked out by a reader supplying additional terms, which may introduce a conflict into the reading; seventh, when one of a word’s meanings is entirely opposed to another, showing a fundamental division in an author’s mind, which the text holds in order.
It has been said that it too difficult, and not all that important, to keep track of the different categories. In practice, that might be the case, but in theory, they reveal something about the nature of what Empson is about, beneath the brilliance of individual analyses.
Early on he explains that the types increase in logical disorder. What he means by this—he mentions grammatical order, psychological complexity, and degree of awareness of the ambiguity as three scales pertinent for understanding what he means—is not, even with the scales, clear. Nor is the profound nature of the enterprise itself.
Here is how to misread what Empson does: brilliant close readings that demonstrate how syntax and grammar and verb forms can be put together in more than one way, despite punctuation and other conventions; this demonstration, which appealed so much to the deconstructionists, is in fact somewhat tiresome to read. As a party trick, it is not too hard to master, depending as it does on a fairly set repertoire of interpretive tricks. One could imagine a checklist in which one went through ten questions about syntax, grammar, and so on, until one had an account of what possible readings might be squeezed out of a line. And looked at like this, the enterprise is somewhat trivial. Who cares if many readings are possible? What would matter is what readings are justified?
Empson does, I think, provide clues to how to read him right, but they are frequently indirect. To put it directly, we could say that Empson is concerned first and foremost with the frequently divided nature of any intelligent and sane human judgment of the world, and concerned to demonstrate how the inherent disorders and fissures in any expression can be made to express those judgments, in a good work of literature. That, in fact, accounts for a great deal of its goodness. The word “judgment” is central to the book, so central perhaps that Empson took for granted that readers would all see what it was about:
116: the humility of the last line then acts as evasion of the contradiction, which moves it out of the conscious mind into a region of the judgment which can accept it without reconciling it.
133: in the fourth type the subtlety may be as great, the pun as distinct, the mixture of modes of judgment as puzzling, but they are not in the main focus of consciousness because the stress of the situation absorbs them, and they are felt to be natural under the circumstances.
199: Dryden is not interested in the echoes and recesses of words; he uses them flatly; he is interested in the echoes and recesses of human judgment. [This an essential critical point about Dryden]
225-6: [on Hopkins’ “The Windhover”]: Thus in the first three lines of the sestet we seem to have a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites, where two things thought of as incompatible, but desired intensely by different systems of judgments, are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both
But what these quotes demonstrate about one central subject of the book—the “judgments” that ambiguities in grammar and language make possible and sustain—imply something also about its other, deeper subject. And it is this second subject that is the occasion of Empson’s most dazzling and brilliant thoughts; we can grasp it by looking at a passage in which Empson turns not to “judgment” but to its shadow, “justified.”
83: One must consider, before dismissing this second ideas as absurd, that the Elizabethans minded very little about spelling and punctuation; that this must have given them an attitude to the written page entirely different from ours (the readers must continually have been left to grope for the right word); that from the comparative slowness, of reading as of speaking, that this entailed, he was prepared to assimilate words with a completeness which is now lost; that only our snobbish oddity of spelling imposes on us the notion that one mechanical word, to be snapped by the eye, must have been intended; and that it is Shakespeare’s normal method to use a newish, apparently irrelevant word, which spreads the attention thus attracted over a wide map of the ways it may be justified.
The real subject of Seven Types of Ambiguity, and the true explanation for the arrangement of its chapters, is not judgment, but the relation of those ambiguous judgments to the conditions (the justifying circumstances) that they contain and imply. Here I’m arriving at what I’ve already articulated over the last few blog posts, but I do so with a sense of certainty that there is no other way to appreciate what Empson is really about: the types of ambiguity are only more logically complex as they demand, from chapter to chapter and type to type, greater ingenuity in teasing out the condition of judgment that justifies and surrounds the ambiguity in the first place. Hence the last three chapters, and last three types, are on ambiguities arising from thought-in-motion, a phrase looking ahead and behind at once; ambiguities from apparent contradictions which the reader must resolve by imagining an additional term; and ambiguities so thoroughly splitting a word’s sense that they reflect a fundamental division in an author’s mind, and the most perfect balancing of seemingly opposite truths. Empson’s account for each of these sorts of ambiguous judgments depends upon increasingly imaginative, daring accounts of what occasioned and surrounds the judgment, in the world as the author views it (he calls it “psychological” but it is always “social” and historically localized too).
The most cross-word puzzling of the readings arrive, as a consequence, early in the book; the most monumental and inspiring appear late. After the sharp remark on Dryden’s relationship to language, and to the genuine object of Dryden’s poetic ambition, he quotes from Dryden’s King Arthur: “Wisely you have, whate’er will please, reveal’d. | What wou’d displease, as wisely have conceal’d.” And he writes: “The remark is sharp but not damping; is quite different from the generous depression of Johnson which is a development from it; shows a power of understanding a situation while still feeling excited; and is not the sort of thing any one would have the courage to say on an occasion nowadays.”
And the book, as all of Empson’s books are, is really a sort of historical anthropology by way of poetry, a study of the conditions of judgment that a judgment might contain with itself, justifying itself, and revealing as it does so, something fundamentally true about the human mind, its consciousness of itself and others. He is often worried about what the scientists and psychologists might say to what he proposes and at what point he admits that he might need a stronger metaphysics; I agree, since it might have cleared away the speculations about what we can expect a mind to do. But the real subject and aim, once seen, are unmissable, and put the psychological speculation into the appropriate place and proportion; it is no wonder he ends the chapter on the last type of ambiguity with the reading of Herbert that is, probably, the most generous of his interpretations of the Christian religion:
Thus in two ways, one behind the other, the Christ becomes guilty; and we reach the final contradiction:
Lo here I hang, charged with a word of sin
The greater world of the two…
As the complete Christ; scapegoat and tragic hero; loved because hated; hated because godlike; freeing from torture because tortured; torturing his torturers because all-merciful; source of all strength to men because by accepting he exaggerates their weakness; and because outcast, creating the possibility of society.
Between two theeves I spend my utmost breath,
As he that for some robberie suffereth.
Alas! What have I stolen from you? Death:
Was ever grief like mine?
Herbert deals in this poem, on the scale and by the methods necessary to it, with the most complicated and deeply rooted notion of the human mind.
Rosamond Tuve objected that Empson’s reading of Herbert’s poem ignored the history of Christian iconography (she disliked his claim that Christ going onto the Cross was like a person going up the tree to restore the fruit); Empson replied, in effect, that the history of iconography could not preclude other possibilities. And the range of judgments, in the lines, if really there as Empson says and shows them to be, and if really felt, instinctively, to work in the poem, demands the critic provide an account of religious beliefs that those judgments contain, and on which they could stand.
If there’s a reason to read Seven Types or other works by Empson nowadays, it shouldn’t solely rest on his being a herald of the new critics, or marking a shift in a critical tradition that has since shifted again, and in other ways; he ought to be worth returning to for increased stimulus and perspective, on individual poets and on the aims of criticism as a whole, even as the insights ought to be susceptible to revision and improvement to yield something distinct for which his arguments were indispensable; if he does so, I think, it’s by looking at his criticism as a novel investigation into the ways in which literature gets the conditions of judgments within the judgments themselves, but also, more fundamentally, a reminder of how judgments are bound up in language and history, refracted through a mind and text.