Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt

  • Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. II by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden
    Cambridge, 292 pp, £35.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 521 44044 0

It would be easy for a reader who was encountering Empson for the first time to wonder what on earth this critical performance was about and why these ragged relics – the second part of a two-volume edition of his miscellaneous writings on Renaissance literature – were being presented with such thoughtfulness and scrupulous care. About half of the present volume’s contents have been previously published, from a 1956 essay on The Spanish Tragedy, through essays from the Sixties on Volpone and The Alchemist, to a pair of reviews. None of this is close to the level of Empson’s major work. To the uninitiated these pieces will, I think, often seem cranky and arbitrary, skirmishing with enemies who have long since vanished, condescending to the views of ‘lady students’, and assuming a virtually direct access both to the mind of the maker and to the responses of the original audience. The hitherto unpublished pieces – a letter to a colleague who had ventured to disagree on a point of interpretation, an unfair and largely tedious drubbing of a critical essay on Volpone, and unfinished essays on The Duchess of Malfi and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – pose even more of a problem. For apart from the repetitions that would certainly have been eliminated in a finished version, these pieces – especially the crucial long essay on the Dream – indulge in speculations that seem, well, zany.

These speculations can be traced back in Empson’s work to Milton’s God, with its canny observation of peculiar anomalies in Milton’s angelology, and still further back to the chapter on Milton and Bentley in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). But they took an odd turn in his later years, a turn clearly signalled in a quirky essay on Elizabethan spirits published in the LRB in 1980 and included in the present volume. This essay was at least nominally a review of one of Frances Yates’s studies of the occult, but it served as the occasion for Empson to air a scholarly interest, one might even say obsession, that continued to occupy him until his death in 1984. Empson argued that there was in the 16th century a belief, far more widespread, subversive and consequential than previously recognised, in spirits that were neither angels nor devils but something in between: he called them ‘Middle Spirits’. Empson’s fullest exploration of this subject remained unfinished. The editor, John Haffenden, has stitched together the various drafts that he left behind and has given the somewhat unwieldy result the title ‘The Spirits of the Dream’.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck meets a fairy in the Athenian wood and asks her where she is going. She replies that she is going everywhere, for she has to bring dew to all of the cowslips and anoint the fairy rings. But, fortunately, she is able to move extremely fast: ‘swifter than the moon’s sphere’. This magical speed is echoed by Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, who manage to live in a kind of perpetual half-light by constantly following the waning night. ‘We the globe can compass soon,’ remarks Oberon, ‘Swifter than the wandering moon.’ Here, in part, is Empson’s response to these lines:

As the distance of the moon is about 60 times the radius of the earth, and the moon goes around the earth in about 30 days, it goes about twice as fast as the earth’s surface at the equator – a bit more. The speed at the equator is a little over 1,000 miles an hour, nearer a quarter than a third of a mile a second. ‘More than twice’ that may be put at two-thirds. At the latitude of Athens the cruising royalties, as they keep pace with the dawn, go at about 800 miles an hour, almost a quarter of a mile a second. The working fairy goes almost three times as fast as they do, but they can catch up with it if they try.

The phrase ‘cruising royalties’ might suggest that Empson is having the reader on – and there are comic touches in every paragraph – but Empson took a degree in maths before his degree in English and as the calculations unfold it becomes clear that he is in earnest. For Oberon, Titania, Puck and their company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are Middle Spirits; Shakespeare calls them fairies, Empson proposes, ‘to disarm the resistance of the spectators’, that is, to lure them by means of homely popular culture into a more dangerous world of heterodox speculation. Such speculation extends beyond the air speed of these creatures who are neither human nor angelic nor demonic to such questions as their ages, the precise nature of their bodies, their means of reproduction, their life spans, their relation to Christian dogma, and their possible interest in ordinary mortals. That interest, Empson suggests, is frankly sexual and is satisfied by a means closely akin to demonic possession. Oberon and Titania have chosen to attend the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta precisely in order to enter into their bodies on their wedding night.

Empson thinks that this power to possess was already glancingly disclosed when Titania complained that Oberon had on occasion stolen away from fairy land:

And in the shape of Corin, sat all day
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida.

The phrase ‘in the shape of Corin’, in Empson’s reading, is a coded way of representing possession – Oberon, in other words, does not simply make himself look like Corin but enters into his body, his ‘shape’. ‘Surely the busy Phillida would not listen to him all day,’ Empson adds – so the lines must refer to a day on which Corin, possessed by the king of the fairies, practises his music in anticipation of an evening of love-making. With the fairy king inside him, Corin can look forward ‘to his evening’s performance with confidence’. So, too, Theseus would welcome Oberon’s presence within him, for he is ‘already middle-aged and somewhat battered by his heroic exploits, while his Amazon bride is in full vigour; if he is possessed by a demigod on his wedding-night, he will be pleased to have put on so good a show.’ Of course, there is no overt sign in the play of this performance anxiety (any more than there is the slightest hint that Corin – who only ‘exists’ in Titania’s half-line – needs to practise his music or is the least bit worried about his evening’s performance). On the contrary, from the first moments of the play Theseus expresses intense sexual impatience. But these expressions, Empson explains, ‘may be acted as a polite routine.’

Literary criticism always has a strong element of projection; the text is a screen on which the critic shows his own fears and desires. But the self-exposure in this unfinished essay seems wilful and extreme, as when Empson relates, in response to the fairy Mustardseed, that ‘I have not noticed mustard still biting while being evacuated, but I sometimes have the curry; and this of course makes it plainly a spirit; it has emerged from the great tube (as long as a cricket pitch) without loss of identity.’ Since he goes on to speculate (via Proust) on the smell of favourite foods in one’s farts late in the night, one might think that Empson had, as it were, left Shakespeare behind and had turned instead to the musings on impotence and digestion that have, at least since Montaigne, characterised writings about old age. But in fact Empson’s life seems always in pawn to his critical obsessions and not the reverse. His reflection on impotence is a way of imagining a situation in which human beings might cheerfully welcome possession; his reflection on the excretion of curry is a way of imagining how ‘spirits’ may be materially present inside one’s body.

There is a point to imaging this presence in such homely terms, apart from puckish playfulness or geriatric crankiness: Empson is unremittingly hostile to hushed reverence in the presence of the sacred. Throughout these essays there are echoes of the fierce diatribes of Milton’s God: Christianity, Empson never tires of repeating, is a cruel, perverse, impossibly bleak religion. It has poisoned the minds of the ‘neo-Christian’ literary critics of the past generation, with T.S. Eliot at the vanguard, and they in turn are eager to poison the minds of students by twisting courageous, radical works of art into expressions of a rancid piety.

In Empson’s very Nietzschean account, Christianity celebrates the ‘unnatural’; it has a deadly fondness for ‘subservient or boot-licking morals; it is an advanced form of spiritual dry-rot.’ And it is a fatally misleading guide to Renaissance literature, regularly producing ‘crippled or perverted moral judgments, wholly out of contact with the basic tone of feeling of the older works which they purport to interpret’. Hence the blinkered clerics of Eng Lit routinely attempt – so Empson claims – to persuade guileless students that Volpone is a cowardly, inwardly tormented criminal, but the reality is that the audience both in Ben Jonson’s time and in our own enthusiastically sides with Volpone throughout the play. What of the ending, you may ask, where Volpone is condemned to torture and life imprisonment? Doesn’t that bespeak at least some current of moral disapproval? Look at the Epilogue, replies Empson, where he appeals for applause. ‘When the audience clap,’ Empson observes, ‘the guards unlock his chains, and he waves gayly, delighting in his freedom.’ For those who have not recently read Jonson’s play or who might be inclined to confuse it with The Beggar’s Opera, I should perhaps point out that no stage direction to this effect exists: Empson is imagining how he would direct the actors in order to counteract a punitive, offensively ‘Christian’ closure.

Empson offers comparable suggestions to redeem what he regards as nauseatingly pious readings of other Renaissance masterpieces. Detecting a ‘missing scene’ – the effect of censorship – in The Spanish Tragedy, he gamely writes it, complete with stage directions. The addition, he feels, should help a modern audience to shed its anachronistic prejudices about revenge and to recover an understanding of the play’s dangerously topical allusion to Queen Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations with the man she called her ‘frog’, the Catholic Duc d’Alençon. The audience would then grasp that Kyd’s play was a Shavian ‘discussion drama’, an intervention in a violently contested world in which there was no straightforward ‘Christian’ position, since Christians were busy shedding each other’s blood. There were, in addition, large segments of the audience – artisans, for example – who were often refreshingly independent of all varieties of Christian ethics. The ‘law-breaking side’ of the aristocratic tradition, Empson writes elsewhere in this volume, ‘has long been opposed to Christian morals, and has regularly gone down well with the working classes’.

The key point is to recover the possibility of freedom from what Orwell called the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ that are always struggling to possess one’s soul. And that freedom is, for Empson, the invariable hallmark of the greatest art. ‘To become morally independent of one’s formative society ... is the grandest theme of all literature, because it is the only means of moral progress, the establishment of some higher ethical concept.’ Hence he indignantly rejects the B-text of Dr Faustus as a ‘disgusting’ betrayal of all Marlowe ‘might be expected to stand for’, and therefore concludes that ‘the bad parts are not by Marlowe.’ And he gamely defends the Duchess of Malfi’s marriage to her servant Antonio from the moral disapproval generated by the ‘mental disease of Eliot’s “tradition”’. The master-pieces of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama were triumphs over small-minded bigotry, and they must now, in Empson’s view, be saved from the prim, puritanical dons who ‘think that everybody in the period reverenced Degree’. Those dons have a ‘distaste for the normal affections’ and tirelessly try to pervert the healthy instinctual life of the past as well as the present.

Amid the current attacks on ‘political correctness’ in literary criticism – attacks, that is, on the supposed dominance of critics who stridently celebrate subversiveness in art – it is easy to lose sight of the fact that until recently the tendency was the reverse: orthodox morals were routinely derived from the most troubled and troubling texts. In this pious climate, Empson’s fierce and uncompromising intellicence was liberating, and his quirky independence, his passion for language, and his insistence on the embeddedness of the imagination in the bodies of actual men and women continue to be liberating. He remarks in ‘The Spirits of the Dream’ that the strange tangle of gnostic writings which the Renaissance attributed to Hermes Trismegistus share a common quality, a ‘freedom from fear’. It is a quality that Empson’s own best work conveys, along with a craving for something that continually eludes him: ‘a world of delight which is only just beyond our grasp’. He never feels that he can only conjure up the past if he effaces his own longings and beliefs: his writing combines an astonishingly intense personal presence with a historian’s determination to capture the truth of a vanished world.

But you do not have to be neo-Christian or even a member of the Eng Lit establishment to be uneasy with some aspects of Empson’s invocation of history, so ready to pass from memory to belligerent intuition, or his rhetoric, so ready to pass from interpretative arguments to charges of boot-licking and perversion. It is one of the triumphs of Empson’s career to have made Renaissance literature seem wilder and riskier than the normalising impulses of conventional scholarship and criticism would allow. But his own critical idiom, with its echoes of Shelley and Lawrence, has at times an unpleasant narrowness of its own, a blustering claim to sole possession of the keys to the ‘normal affections’ and to ‘moral progress’. When Empson is at his most powerful, it is relatively easy to wink at this unpleasantness and be grateful for the originality, courage and brilliance of his vision. But none of these essays is Empson at his most powerful, and the experience of reading them recalls at times a painfully acute observation in The Structure of Complex Words: ‘There is a sort of terror about the pathos of Lear, and it arises chiefly because he is always on the edge of absurdity.’

Perhaps I exaggerate. There are, in any case, redeeming moments, moments in which Empson seems intent on explaining to himself and to anyone who will listen what keeps him going.

It was quite frequent on the sands for one of the kids to bellow because Punch was too hard to take, and this unfortunate would be carried away by its nurse; but the elder children, when I was one, proud that they could take it, would laugh on till the final hanging of Punch as their Victorian parents had done at the same age. I have been secretly afraid of the theatre ever since, but I feel I know what it is about.

It is this laughter, so close to a cry of fear and pain, that haunts much of Empson’s work on the theatre. He wants to hold onto it in its most literal sense, not to transform it into disembodied abstraction, not to forget what it felt like in his lungs and kidneys and face. Hence his very characteristic, insistently literal reading of Jonson’s lines from the Prologue to Volpone:

All gall and copperas from his ink he draineth
   Only a little salt remaineth;
Wherewith he’ll rub your cheeks till, red with laughter,
   They shall look fresh a week after.

‘Maybe,’ writes Empson, ‘some cheeks actually did go on looking red for several days after the explosions of laughter caused by seeing the famous farce.’ If they did so, he suggests, it was not from the spectacle of justice finally visited upon the scoundrel, but from what he calls ‘rogue-sentiment’.

‘Rogue-sentiment’ floats somewhere behind Empson’s fascination with Middle Spirits, for these spirits have no proper abode. Without a fixed place in heaven or hell, they are, like vagabonds (or like an Elizabethan acting company during plague time), in perpetual motion. Of course, angelic and demonic spirits were also celebrated for their mobility, but in addition to the fact that Middle Spirits do not wear ‘the uniform either of God or Satan’, they appeal to Empson because they have bodies. Christian orthodoxy, in his view, hates the body and strives to mortify it in order to ‘free’ – in reality, to pervert and imprison – the spirit. He wants to lodge the spirit in the flesh; indeed, he longs to demonstrate that the spirit – or at least the Middle Spirit – is itself a kind of flesh, more refined than ours perhaps, and capable of certain impressive feats that elude us, but flesh nonetheless.

Middle Spirits die, not as quickly as we do, to be sure, but only after long years – well over two thousand years, he estimates – and, mortal as they are, they also reproduce. To keep their numbers steady, they must breed much less frequently than humans do; here, too, Empson ventures an estimate, and he urges us to understand that the tiny fairies who attend on Bottom in Titania’s bower are ‘tots’. But then, with his heroically dogged literalism, he asks how, if they breed so infrequently, is it likely that Titania’s court has so many of them in attendance? He considers the hypothesis that Titania orders them ahead of time, expecting Bottom to like them, but he rejects it: she had, after all, no advance warning. ‘No doubt,’ he happily concludes, settling a problem no previous writer on Shakespeare’s play, as far as I know, had ever considered, ‘Titania collects them’ at her court: ‘they have a few elegant lessons there, all coming briefly in rotation perhaps.’

But Empson, of course, does not believe that he is presenting solutions to problems he alone has invented; on the contrary, he insists that he is recovering the likely responses of Shakespeare’s own audience. ‘An Elizabethan had no idea that poetry ought to be vague.’ The velocity and longevity of Middle Spirits are precisely the kinds of things they wanted to know about. As an interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Empson’s proposed answers – for example, v2t2 = 2r ½gt2 v2 = gr, to calculate the velocity involved in Puck’s claim that he could ‘put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes’ – seem merely whimsical, but his passionate attempt to return the spirit to the realm of the senses is anything but whimsy.

There is a marvellous moment in which Empson stops to reflect on why Shakespeare might have been repeatedly captivated by the tininess of the fairies. ‘Surely it is very understandable,’ he writes, ‘that Shakespeare, having caught up for its comedy value the belief that Shrimp could turn himself into a midge, might next reflect that a midge is an eerie object in itself. Or take those bright red specks moving with apparent decision across a tree-trunk, one cannot be sure whether with six legs or eight, what kind of machinery can be inside them? How do they work? No doubt it is some universal principle, enormous in its application.’ We watch Empson attempting to enter Shakespeare’s mind, first by identifying the working playwright’s comic technique, then by transmuting that technique into wonder, and then by imagining wonder transformed into speculative thought at once radical and liberating. ‘Such is the mood of the writing about fairies in the Dream,’ the passage concludes, ‘and it really does give a prevision of what the sciences are going to tell.’ Empson’s attempt to conjure up the Middle Spirits – the eerie bodily beings that floated on the margins of Renaissance theology and philosophy, tantalised Renaissance physics, and leaped nimbly across the Renaissance stage – is not an antiquarian’s game; it is a desperate attempt, left unfinished at his death, to turn spirit into flesh, to re-enchant the material world and repair the disastrous split between the scientific and poetic imagination.