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 The hitherto unpublished pieces – a letter to a colleague who had ventured to disagree on a point of interpretation, an unfair and largely tedious drubbing of a critical essay on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.

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