William Empson’s brilliance as a reader is more immediate than his brilliance as a critic. The line between the two is hardly fixed, but to speak of his readerly genius is to appeal to his eye for detail, his exegetical ingenuity and imagination, and his dexterous hermeneutic grasp of authors and readers in worlds very different from his own. Obviously, some of those same qualities sustain the best criticism, but criticism is also sustained and distinguished by a focus elsewhere, on what might loosely be called “technique.” It is difficult to say, T.S. Eliot pointed out, where technique begins and where it ends, and in his description of “technical” criticism, Eliot himself seems to confine the notion to a set of edicts and devices that might be transferred not only from master to apprentice, but in a manual of instruction:
The purely ‘technical’ critic—the critic, that is, who writes to expound some novelty or impart some lesson to practitioners of an art—can be called a critic only in a narrow sense. He may be analyzing perceptions and the means for arousing perceptions, but his aim is limited and is not the disinterested exercise of intelligence…There is always a tendency to legislate rather than to inquire, to revise accepted laws, even to overturn, but to reconstruct out of the same material. And the free intelligence is that which is wholly devoted to inquiry.
Empson, who, like many others in his generation, credits to Eliot the invention of his mind, by way of both influence and reaction, would have felt the force of Eliot’s admiration for the “free intelligence.” More than any other critic of his time—including, over the long run, Eliot—Empson demonstrates what a free intelligence wholly devoted to inquiry might be.
Eliot’s warning is against the critics of the 17th and 18th century who would legislate and lobby rather than examine (not, though, Samuel Johnson, whose freedom of mind is commensurate with its strong lurches from side to side). His words bear a caution also against those who would reduce technique to a jargon of devices and categories of methods, who assume an order inimical to a fully human and humanly intelligent response to literature.
His words suggest also that though a critic’s response to art is perforce an investigation of technique, albeit not only that. Whatever Eliot’s intentions here, the an investigation of technique seems essential to criticism, if only because technique is, in the broad sense, a generalizable shaping of materials and methods to a challenge at hand; there’s no saying whether a work of literature succeeds, or how, without bringing technique into focus. At the same time, it is easy for critics to narrow their horizons as to what constitutes technique; most critics write about techniques that other critics have already recognized and discovered. If there is progress in criticism it depends not only on the renewal of the past made possible in the creativity of the present, but also on critics successively making new discoveries as to what constitutes a technique at all, and then how variously and expertly those techniques might animate works. In a small example of such a discovery, I would point to Ricks’ “anti-pun”; among critics, Arnold establishes the vitality of touchstones as a technique of critical appreciation itself.
The recognition and articulation of a technique is not as dry, neat, or pseudo-scientific as the introduction of jargon; it instead resembles a principle (generalizable but not universally, absolutely true) elaborated out of the analysis of telling details and passages within works. Sometimes, such an analysis, or even selection of passages, may come into contact with a technique without explicit knowledge. Such a critical task might seem parasitic and dreary, except that it is itself a response to the life of a work of art; and the assumption guiding the work is that an artist’s techniques are valuable because they constitute responses to the complexity, perplexities, and difficulties of living in and imagining the world.
On such grounds, I believe it becomes possible, and necessary, to clarify that Empson is a technical critic: ambiguity, pastoral (or the mode of “simple” or “naïve” seeing and judging), and complex words are themselves techniques whose extraordinary power he discerns throughout literature.
The stumbling block to appreciating Empson’s as technical criticism lies in his never seeming to offer those evaluative judgments, except in passing, that we expect of critics of his time and place. That, I think, reveals something crucial about the techniques that themselves gain Empson’s attention: they are techniques by which authors accommodate multiple judgments, and not techniques by which they place, order, and balance those judgments (this might explain some of Empson’s resistance towards Henry James, whose novels are dramatizations of the latter sort of judgment, albeit their representation of “experience,” as that which can only be accommodated by certain people, under certain circumstances would seem to speak to Empson’s interest) . In other words, it is the technique for letting the world’s complexity in, rather than for creating a balanced whole, that fascinates him; the assumption behind the selection of texts is that they do in fact represent such balanced wholes (“so deep a commotion, so straddling a calm”), but it is not the relation of judgments in such a whole that attracts and holds his critical eye. That difference is not minor, explaining, I think, a crucial distinction between Empson and the New Critics: the biographical emphasis. If the relation of judgments is the chief concern, it is easier to invoke metaphors of structure and unity that do not depend on an author’s mind; but if the challenge is to discuss and recognize the techniques that permit multiple judgments in the first place, the first-person understanding is more difficult to evade. And ‘evasion’ it is in both cases, since the relation of judgments is no less than the formation of judgments itself an act of the mind.
I suspect that Empson’s capacious sense of technique, and the breadth of his inquiry into it, remains unappreciated, and even undiscerned except by those for whom it is too obvious to bear commenting; as an exemplar, though, it can restore us not only to a criticism that embraces technique, but to a recognition that technique is inseparable both from the forms it generates and the complexities of the world it confronts and the medium in which it confronts it.