358. (William Empson)

Among those brilliant readers and critics, Johnson, Coleridge, Eliot, and Empson, the primary engine of productivity, whether in marginalia, publications, reviews, or letters, would seem to be not with literature itself, but with the prospect of dwelling in the world—not inhabiting, or thriving, but making a place and placing oneself; that, perhaps, is the concomitant of what Henry James thought to be among the most exquisite and supreme feats of the literary imagination: to place—whether feelings, perceptions, acts, or apprehension.

These critics, it might be said, read to dwell, and value what they read in so far as it discloses how variously, and how magnificently, some manage to dwell, to do more than bide their time, but to manage circumstance and contingency, pain and desire. Literature, for these critics, can represent heroes of dwelling, but also represent, in its being, the success at dwelling. The virtues they celebrate are in the service of staying balanced and poised as the earth shakes. (For Johnson, the truest expression of his understanding is probably found in his giving physical space and material support to those who would otherwise find no adequate dwelling place).

What this means is different for different critics. Empson is the most willingly, willfully peripatetic, restless, rebellious of the bunch, and also the critic who repeatedly praises those figures who manage to contain within themselves all of experience. In an off-hand remark about Proust at the end of a chapter in Seven Types of Ambiguity, he wonders whether for Proust it is not the case that more experiences lived simultaneously are not necessarily better:

You remember how Proust, at the end of that great novel, having convinced the reader with the full sophistication of he is genius that he going to produce an apocalypse, brings out with pathetic faith, as a fact of absolute value, that sometimes when you are living in one place you are reminded of living in another place, and this, since you are now apparently living in two places, means that you are outside time, in the only state of beatitude he can imagine. In any one place (atmosphere, mental climate) life is intolerable; in any two it is an ecstasy. Is it the number two, one is forced to speculation, which is of this encouraging character? Is to live in n + 1 places necessarily more valuable than to live in n?

And repeatedly, in the most quick-glancing and obliquely-penetrating of his works, Some Versions of Pastoral, he praises the Orpheus figure and others because they contain all of nature within themselves:

The vehemence of the couplet, and this hint of physical power in thought itself (in the same way as the next line gives it colour), may hint at an idea that one would like to feel was present, as otherwise it is the only main idea about Nature that the poem leaves out; that of the “Hymn to David” and “the Ancient Mariner,” the Orpheus idea, that by delight in nature when terrible man gains strength to control it. This grand theme too has a root in magic; it is an important version of the idea of the man powerful because he has included everything in himself…

And in his stunning, stunned analysis on the close of King Lear in The Structure of Complex Words, he admires the exhausted figure:

Where there does seem room for a religious view is through a memory of the Erasmus fool, that is, by being such a complete fool Lear may become in some mystical way superlatively wise and holy. It seems hard to deny that this idea is knocking about, and yet I think it belongs to the play rather than the character. The idea is already present, in its flattest form, if you think “it is very sad, but after all I am not really sorry it happened, because it teaches us so much.” And the scapegoat who has collected all this wisdom for us is viewed at the end with a sort of hushed envy, not I think because he has become wise but because the general human desire for experience has been so glutted in him; he has been through everything.

Empson would not have disapproved of a biographical reading of his life’s work, and it is worth remembering that these three works inaugurate and see come to a close his most untethered stretch of years, when he was repeatedly in expatriated motion; these are years when Empson would have felt how valuable a thing it would be if he himself could contain as many experiences as possible, in order to master himself and manage whatever storm-surges might arise. His curiosity and openness to the world beyond Europe propelled him to explore, but the particular paths his explorations followed are in pursuit of exemplars of those who, like the statues of Buddha he knew well, can (or must) stay in place. With those final words on Lear, Empson was writing a work that he described as his “nunc dimittis,” his own mind coming to a rest, perhaps feeling himself to be glutted, at last.

It doesn’t take Heidegger to show us that language is among the resources that not only allow us to dwell in and disclose the world, but that are the stuff in which we dwell and effect the very disclosing, of what it means to dwell, among other things. And each critic and author will arrive at their own sense of what dwelling involves and requires.

And we can turn with a sense for Empson’s distinct sense of dwelling to one of his finest poems, a translation (word for word, he said), “Chinese Ballad,” originally written in 1945, published by Empson in 1952:

Now he has seen the girl Hsiang-Hsiang,

Now back to the guerilla band;

And she goes with him down the vale;

And pauses at the strand.

The mud is yellow, deep, and thick,

And their feet stick, where the stream turns.

‘Make me two models out of this,

That clutches as it yearns.

Make one of me and one of you,

And both shall be alive.

Were there no magic in the dolls

The children could not thrive.

When you have made them smash them back:

They yet shall live again.

Again make dolls of you and me

But mix them grain by grain.

So your flesh shall be part of mine

And part of mine be yours.

Brother and sister we shall be

Whose unity endures.

Always the sister doll will cry,

Made in these careful ways,

Cry on and on, Come back to me,

Come back, in a few days.’


The poem is remarkable for many small touches: the “stick”/”thick” rhyme through half a line, the rhyme itself sticking; the echo of “apart” and “depart” in “be part” and “And part”;  the leap of the heart in the “yet” before “shall live again”; “clutches as it yearns” displacing the feelings to the mud, suggesting it is the riverbed that would yearn to have him stay; the steady return to “make”; the simultaneous faith that time will bear out their unity(in the repeated “shall be”), and the realization that time will sunder and inflict pain, felt in the progression from “now” to “always” to the mundane, “in a few days.” It is evidently a poem about dwelling with one another, and why that cannot be.  But the poem succeeds because it is occasioned by Empson’s dwelling in the words of another, and dwelling also within a single voice, inhabiting a life and cadence that is foreign than his own. As a translation, it is itself a compounding of the flesh of one poet and another, of one experience than another, and its restraint is stopping there.

Empson on Proust, again: “In any one place (atmosphere, mental climate) life is intolerable; in any two it is an ecstasy. Is it the number two, one is forced to speculation, which is of this encouraging character? Is to live in n + 1 places necessarily more valuable than to live in n?”

For Empson, sometimes, the answer to that last question would have seemed to be yes; to include more possibilities, to adjudicate between more claims, to get in more of the value judgments of the world, was more valuable for achieving a balance that straddled life’s possibilities. But here, in this translation, we find Empson aspiring to something less, something that is occasioned by being rooted in a place, as Empson himself does not often seem to have been. The final cry, “come back to me” can only be made if he will know where she will be; if she will remain in place, and if their being together means being together there; the mud of that riverbed, that specific place “where the stream turns,” is already placing the poem, as the first two lines, disorienting to some degree, do not; and being placed it gives place to her voice, where Empson can allow himself to dwell, in the sorrowed, hopeful cadences of another.

The most beautiful touches of the poem are in the final stanza, where “will” takes the place of “shall,” the sister doll granted intention and the capacity to will, but also the tacit acknowledgment that she, the speaker, has already determined to cry on and on herself;
here, the imperative of “make” gives way to “made,” with the light echo of “maid,” but also both containing and precluding an “if.” Containing an “if” in so far as the “made” is conditional on the earlier instructions; precluding an “if” in so far as the words themselves have effected the magic already, have done the binding by confessing the depth of her love; precluding an “if” also if the making is the making of poetry, the fashioning of the sister doll having happened in the ballad. Most curious is “careful,” for although the instructions require care (“grain by grain” especially), the word seems to be a euphemistic understatement: full of care for her, but that care being the deepest care possible for another; “Ways” suggests the instructions, but also intimates pathways, the careful ways are the ways he and she have walked to reunite, and the ways that he will leave upon, and is leaving upon; “On and on” is the only instant in the poem where the speaker dramatizes, and yet the duration of “on and on” is cut against by the wonderfully impatient, longing, and modest “in a few days,” which grants both the depth of her love, which cannot bear even so short an absence, and also allows that he is in fact expected to return in a few days, and that the story itself, so cosmic and grand, is occasioned, as in a poem by Donne, by less momentous a departure than we were led to believe. The comma before “in a few days” is a deft touch here, the pause needing to be heard, for the range of effects to land, with one extreme being a pause of modesty as she asks more than she knows to be possible (knowing, that is, that he cannot come back in a few days) and the other being a pause of comedy, where we learn that, in fact, the absence will not be so long.

Empson rarely let himself write poems that live so locally, in one place, and that find the universal by not bothering whether they are worried where in it they reside.


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