352. (William Empson)

            Aristotle, frustrating some, claims that “a life of virtue is a life of flourishing.” The statement can be variously understood, with one line of understanding reducing that statement to the thought that “a life of excellent action is a life in an excellent state.” But even on so flattened an account of what Aristotle writes, we can imagine a nascent inquirer posing questions about both halves of the statement: first, “how is excellent action possible? What makes it possible, on the one hand, to conceive of and, on the other hand, to bring about acting in right ways?”; “what does an excellent state of life look or feel like? how often does it occur? is it an ideal or fuzzy range of possibilities?”  And more questions soon follow.

            Various poets have variously thought and felt about each part of Aristotle’s insight—without having to recognizing it as Aristotle’s, only needing, perhaps, to stumble on the seeming-tautology: “doing something good means being something good.” Or “Acting well is living well.” After all, different versions of those tautologies are alive and well across cultures and situations. I suspect that the most fiercely original creative minds, as they represent life and action, doing and being, and as they themselves aspire to create works of art that both do something and are something, and as they, in turn, as artists both act and are—I suspect that these original talents often perceive something new in the one or the other or both, at any rate establishing a new sense of how they relate to one another.

            The relationship is crucial, and when a poet invests too neatly in one half or the other of the matter, the poetry is liable to become clotted or stuck on its own premises. William Empson is an especially clear case of the threat, since Empson was so alive to the world’s variety and abundance of codes of value and feeling, and so persuaded, the criticism suggests, that a state of happiness must accommodate, or absorb, their conflicts in some way; he thinks Lear a saintly figure by the end of the play because he has taken on all that can be experienced, and so is complete, perfect, as a person, despite and within his terrible misery (this in the essay on “fool” in King Lear in Complex Words).

            For Empson,  poetry is most vexing when action is left out, as if not vexing enough for the poetic puzzle; in “High Dive,” for instance, the matter of action is quite simple, whether to dive or not, and a part of the poem’s confusion lies in that decision being lost in the dizzying account of the surface of the pool into which the dive is to happen; it is the water rather than the jumping that overwhelms the poem, even though the poem’s subject is, in fact, the decision to jump into that water. In “Bacchus,” it’s not clear what actions the poem centers upon; they are tangled in the confusion of the symbols. But consider poems like “Missing Dates” or “Let it Go.” There, the maddening, irreconcilable, entropic state of the world is rendered in colloquial short-hand, “the waste,” “this deep blankness,” or “real thing strange.” Rather than dramatize chaos (almost incomprehensibly), the poems dramatize the prospect of acting before such a world, and they render the heroism of such a stance: costive, baffled, defiant. “Homage to the British Museum” turns on the action of balancing and resolving the world’s plural values and creeds into single entity:

There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

The syntax is clear first because Empson is writing about what is doing what: the lice, the creeds, the spectators judging. And then it is clear because Empson is writing about what to do when there is no doing anything: it is a poem about the heroism to be had when we must admit “that we have no road.” What’s more, the poem’s ambiguity, which is properly ambivalence, owes to the double tones of the last lines: Is this an honorable act of honoring, or is it a mockery? Is this heroic or is it mock-heroic? Or, as Empson said of The Beggar’s Opera, is it the case that the mock-heroic itself preserves the vitality and essence of the heroic sufficiently to create grounds for admiration? However the questions are settled, they can be asked because the poem finds, within the context of Empson’s perplexity, the relation of an impossible state of completion and all-inclusive apprehension (which might be thought Empson’s secular beatitude) and right action.

            And in what is probably Empson’s best poem, “Aubade,” action is the central problem with the outcome being not a life of completion so much as a life at all:

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guardest tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go


Up was the heartening and strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

The horrible activity of war, rather than the amazing diversity of the world’s cultures, proves the clotting agent here, but also the agent that dissolves the clot. The problem of communication, of translating and understanding across languages, is not theoretical, but takes on importance, and becomes surmountable, or at least resolvable, within the earthquake; and that prevents Empson, in the poem, and writing the poem, from seeking a rabbit’s hole about dictionaries that might otherwise have preoccupied him. He is excellent on inaction in the face of what cannot be faced squarely with any full comprehension, and on the need to comprehend what actions are possible when the world cannot be understood; in a state of things that is unhappy, unsettled, and impossible to order, that affords him some relief and release into heroism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s