Teaching English in the Far East

William Empson

I am afraid this may prove rather a gossipy Inaugural Lecture but I feel it is the main thing I have to offer on this occasion. I could talk, instead, about my theoretical books, which have been mainly about double meanings in literature, and the mechanics of how they have a literary effect: but I haven’t found that that has much to do with teaching literature, in my experience so far, so it is perhaps not very relevant here. In fact, I have generally tried to put off my Far Eastern students from reading my books, which I thought would only worry and distract them. They have sometimes taught me something theoretical, or so I thought, when I had to consider why they found something difficult to learn; but that is another matter.

To flip around the world having a bit of a look round like, as we say in Yorkshire, and still be tolerably sure that you can earn a decent living and get home again when you like – a young man naturally wants to do that, even while he also takes himself seriously as an employable character; and there is no doubt that the great days for it, in the teaching profession, were between the two world wars. All you can say to a young man who wants to do it now is that, to a painful extent, the great doors have closed, partly for reasons of money and partly from immigration difficulties. If you ask me why I went to Japan when I was 25, though I took no more than a friendly interest in Japan and was determined to go on writing about English literature, the answer is that anybody would like to do it if it was so easy. During the Second World War, when I was employed in propaganda, there were a number of rosy schemes we occasionally put out on the radio, to the effect that after the Allies had won the war, when everything would be much better, there would be schemes for easy short-term exchange of teachers and students all over the world. This I am afraid is one of the propaganda promises which have markedly failed to come true, not through the fault of the British. Indeed I feel I am already a sort of extinct animal, like a dodo or diplodocus: there used to be plenty of us, but there aren’t now; and I think that this kind of animal ought to be revived if possible.

I must try to keep to anecdotes which really are about education, because clearly the flow of travel gossip could be tiresomely endless. As the Lady says in Comus, recognising the threat to her purity:

A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
And airy tongues, that syllable men’s names
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.

She goes on:

These thoughts may startle well, but not astound
The virtuous mind.

Indeed I also find myself reflecting rather sadly about a couplet of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is what has been so often attacked in later years as child-cult, the literary man pretending to be a child to make himself look sweet: but I think the people who attacked this didn’t recognise the merit of the child cult when it is good, and that is, basically, that every man has to be trained to do one thing or another, and there was more in his original nature than any social arrangement can reasonably be expected to develop in him, so that the child, even in a good society, can make the grown man feel ignorant and narrow – not sinful, spotted by the world and so on, which is a more obvious idea in a way, but actually ignorant and narrow. To realise the truth of this is the chief object of looking at a quite different society. And indeed, for that matter, it was Jesus who first talked in this way about children, and it has appeared to me that literary critics who attack what they call child-cult, though the example they are attacking often really is rather bad, never have enough nerve to go back and attack straight their first opponent in this matter. The couplet by Robert Louis Stevenson was merely this:

The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Now this is good because it follows the formula right on the line: it really ought to make the grown-up people feel ashamed to hear what the child says. But it is not a good thing for a man to accept blame for some profound reason when he is not literally at fault, and I think we are bound to reflect that there is a simple answer here. We could say: ‘The world is so full of a number of things that it does us a certain amount of credit if we behave decently and sensibly, instead of screaming our heads off, as children would if they knew.’ I do not mean that anything very alarming happened to me, but we are bound to feel a certain amount of alarm at the present spectacle of the world.

But first, before I embark on this programme of trying to describe my teaching experience, I want to say how pleased I am to be here. Two years ago, in Peking, it became clear that the British Council would soon be deciding to take out all its personnel from China, and anyhow our own kids ought to be getting back to school, so my wife and I started planning to come home before we had to. It then seemed obvious to me that I should much prefer to come home properly, and be in my own county, where I was born, which is Yorkshire, if I was to be working in England at all. So I wrote my application to Sheffield University from Communist Peking. It is a great satisfaction to me that it succeeded; it makes my previous life seem more sensible somehow. And then again, though it would be very absurd for me to congratulate this institution for appointing myself, I think I can decently point out that Sheffield University showed a certain amount of nerve when it appointed a professor from Communist Peking. Perhaps I ought to add, in case it seems too much nerve, that there had to be a year’s lapse in the Chair because they had to have a look at me after I had come home before they would appoint, but that is only good sense.

I ought also to say something about my predecessor in this Chair, Mr L.C. Knights, and I can praise him very sincerely. So far as I can make out, the way the English Literature Department now stands, which I suppose is largely due to him, is so right that my chief duty is to let it go on the way it does, and try not to do anything to spoil it. Also he is an impressive person. The comment that does occur to me about him is that he is too conscientious; what Knights ought to do is to insist on making enough time to write his own excellent books, and he hasn’t done that now for some while. I first met Knights – and it was rather odd to have it happen so late, because we must have been undergraduates together and I had long been reading him – in 1950 in America, at the Kenyon Summer School, to which he had come from Sheffield largely by sea and I largely by air from Communist Peking. I remember the Korean War had just started at the time. Each of the lecturers at this summer school has to do one speech to the assembled body, followed by a discussion; and I was in a way an old boy, as I had done it before in 1948; and Knights came to me, looking very worried as usual, and said: ‘I am very worried about my speech. I can’t decide what I ought to say to them.’ It seemed to me that our friends there didn’t require any special tact, and I said: ‘Why, scold them, of course, tell them what’s the matter with them. That’s the only thing they wouldn’t consider dull, it’s the only thing they brought you here to do.’ But his face got longer and longer and his eyes got rounder and rounder, and he said: ‘Do you think I really have to tell them what I think about them?’ So I said: ‘Oh no, of course you don’t have to, let it go, don’t worry, I was only making a joke’; so I said, though I hadn’t thought I was making a joke. They would have put up with a lot of rudeness from him, because they thought him a kind of medieval saint, very reasonably – incidentally they thought his thinness was another proof that we are all starving to death in England. But he decided he didn’t have to say what he thought about them, and the subject sank without a bubble into the depths of his mind. I don’t know what it was, but I am sure he had better have said it. But you could tell it would have cost him too much; he would have blamed himself for it too much. It would be stupid not to admire this kind of character very warmly, but one would like more to come out. As for me, in my speech, if I may finish this story, I thought best to do rather the opposite thing, which they accepted with great good temper; I gave my first quarter of an hour to a general political scolding of Americans about China, as indeed I had done two years before; pretty absurdly really, because it was nothing whatever to do with the school and also meant going against my contract with the British Council, in which you promise not to talk politics at all. But this legal clause is interpreted reasonably; it is obvious that there are many cases where a determined silence would only create suspicion, and I knew if I didn’t tell this audience what I really thought about China they would be quite certain I thought something much worse. I would positively have smelt fishy if I hadn’t scolded. By the way, that was the last time you could do the hop between America and China both ways; when the Korean War had really got going, naturally, neither side would let you.

Well then, I must now try to begin this account in an orderly manner. I was appointed to university work in Tokyo in 1931, when I was 25, chiefly through the recommendation of I.A. Richards, who had been my supervisor at Cambridge.

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[*] According to one account, Empson’s students discovered an unwonted ambiguity in the last stanza of Housman’s ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’:

‘Far the calling bugles hollo,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.’

‘If you’re bored with women,’ the students apparently responded, ‘you might as well join the army.’