The Savage Life

Frank Kermode

  • William Empson: Vol. I: Among the Mandarins by John Haffenden
    Oxford, 695 pp, £30.00, April 2005, ISBN 0 19 927659 5

John Haffenden opens the proceedings with a long extract from one of Empson’s letters and goes on to provide a leisurely commentary on it, so, even if you hadn’t noticed the bulk of the book, you’d sense right away that you were in for the long haul. At the end of this first instalment the poet is still only 33 years old and has another 44 years to go; no doubt they will be less action-packed, more sedate – containable, one hopes, in only one more volume. Yet although Haffenden does, here and there, provide copious information on matters of rather marginal interest, his book justifies its length by supplying a mass of relevant detail on the life of a man who would be extraordinary even if one left out of account his achievements as poet and critic.

Empson himself was a pugnacious believer in the relevance of biography to the study of literature. As Haffenden remarks, he always sought to ‘situate the work in the context of the life’, and the lives of artists had a special importance because of their status as outsiders, challengers of convention – condemned, in so far as they were doing the work they were born for, to some measure of social isolation. As he wrote in one of what seems to be a remarkably large body of surviving letters, many of them of great biographical interest, ‘it is a very good thing for a poet . . . to be saying something which is considered very shocking at the time.’[*] Such a poet, he believed, would be doing his ethical and political duty: ‘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.’ Consciousness of his honourable calling may induce the poet to present himself as at once dignified and eccentric – epithets which catch some aspects of Empson as a social presence. Part of his eccentricity must be an interest, unshared by most literary people, in the greatest imaginative achievements of the modern mind, which have all been in the sciences. That is, he must try to persuade the ignorant of the importance of modern science; moral progress depends on it. Not to have some understanding of physics and biology is to get the whole world picture wrong and to fail to understand the true, perhaps tragic situation of the individual in a world transformed by this knowledge. In the course of carrying out this programme it seemed clear that some poems needed to be explained in notes, and the practice of annotating poems which used scientific metaphors was one he was always ready to justify.

In the years covered by this volume Empson did an enormous amount of dignified and sometimes eccentric thinking, and it is a virtue of the book that it gives us a clear view of it. Haffenden himself is not eccentric – he stands by the biographical conventions, giving us thorough accounts of the Empson family way back, of the poet’s parents and siblings, his schooling and so on. It has been usual to attribute the brusqueness of his manner in controversy to his background as a Yorkshire gentleman (he even hunted); but Haffenden gives some of the credit for this sometimes alarming trait to J.B.S. Haldane, whom Empson frequented and admired in Cambridge – he translated two short books by Haldane into Basic English. However, it is here shown also that some earlier Empsons were intellectuals as well as peremptory squires. Brains as well as plain speaking were respected in the family. The poet himself set great store by purity of intellect, which enables one to say exactly what one means, though he supposed that this was a quality easily lost in late adolescence.

The youngest of the family, son of an oldish father who died when he was nine, Empson was mostly brought up by women until he went to prep school at seven. There he discovered that he was good at mathematics and won an entrance scholarship to Winchester, where he flourished in spite of beatings. Haffenden offers detailed information about life at Winchester, where Empson’s companions included Richard Crossman, William Hayter, John Sparrow and other future grandees. It was, as he later remarked, ‘a ripping education’, a first-class ticket for life.

The next stop was Cambridge, by means of a scholarship to Magdalene. At this optimum moment of intellectual purity he had already developed that distaste for Christianity which was to grow so bitter in later years. Meanwhile Cambridge offered him the means to refine his position as an outsider while at the same time remaining in many respects a privileged insider, enjoying the many pleasures the place offered the young. He belonged to and became president of a society called the Heretics, membership of which was conditional on a willingness to reject ‘all appeal to authority in the discussion of religious questions’. Visiting speakers were of the calibre of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, who told the meeting that the Ten Commandments were like an examination paper and should bear the rubric: ‘Only six need be attempted.’ Empson was also starting to be known as a poet and as an occasionally brilliant reviewer in Granta.

He did some acting and wrote a play which, as admirers of Some Versions of Pastoral may be interested to know, has a double plot. He helped edit the lively journal Experiment, and he did all these things in addition to the work required by his teachers. Meanwhile he fell in love with various young men and women; his amorous life seems notable less for the youthful anxieties he later recalled than for his luck or skill in choosing remarkably interesting lovers.

In fact, right up to the disaster that got him kicked out of it, he seems to have been very much at home in Cambridge. Some people found him cold in his manner, some deplored his scruffiness, but his closest associates, for instance, Jacob Bronowski and Humphrey Jennings, and those seniors best qualified to judge – I.A. Richards especially – admired him greatly. The quality of his writing as an undergraduate is not surprising only because we have been brought up to believe, with approximate accuracy, that Seven Types of Ambiguity began as essays written for Richards, his Magdalene supervisor.

Empson’s relationship with Richards was not a simple matter of discipleship. They were often in deep disagreement, and a good thing about this book is that Haffenden traces the long story of their dealings with his usual patience, interrupted only by moments of contest with an American champion of Richards, John Paul Russo. That Empson learned much from Richards and also from C.K. Ogden is not in dispute. His debt to Richards was, as Empson himself says in his preface to the first edition of Seven Types, ‘as great as such a thing ever should be’. But he was also clear that he ‘disagreed with him in principle’. There were philosophical differences: for instance, Richards was not interested in the conflicts of ambiguity, so central to Empson’s thinking, but in an equilibrium of opposites – in psychological peace, not tension. And Richards did not share Empson’s interest in Freud. But their friendship was permanent. There is evidence of some resentment at the sudden departure of Richards from China to Harvard when his disciple was stranded in China without a job, and Richards, to his distress, was unable to help Empson in his disastrous struggle with the Magdalene authorities. But although he mildly deplored some aspects of Empson’s behaviour, Richards never doubted, and often proclaimed, the genius of his pupil.

Haffenden provides a full account of the calamity that ended Empson’s Cambridge career. It is well known that he was reported by a servant to have condoms in his rooms, but he had also been found in flagrante with a young woman (the assiduous Haffenden can tell us who she was). The expression ‘they threw the book at him’ might have been invented to describe the reaction of the college authorities. He was deprived of the appointment which was to provide for his continuing research; his name was ‘removed from the books of the College’; and he was forbidden to live in Cambridge. It seems this extraordinary final penalty could be legitimately inflicted by a college authority in 1929; it emphasises not only the power of the university over the city it occupies, but also the gravity of the offence. Viewed from 2005, when condom machines are found in every college lavatory and their use is at least tacitly encouraged by authority, the decisions of the governing body look not just severe but absurd.

The episode caused a great stir, and people compared Empson’s fate to that of Shelley at Oxford in 1811. He would not have invited such comparisons, but did regard himself as ‘ill-used’, as indeed he was. By flouting convention, as he believed he ought, he was probably destroying his prospect of a normal academic career, but it is not easy to think of him dwelling among the dons, and the career he had instead, though much less comfortable, was far more exciting.

When Seven Types came out in 1930, he was living in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury, freelancing to bolster his £200 p.a. private income, and, as usual, drinking a lot. For a work of literary criticism, despite or because of its transgressive strangeness and originality, Seven Types was a resounding success, and he was much taken up. Richards urged T.S. Eliot to read the book, and Eliot became a friend. In Britain it was already essential reading for undergraduates in the 1930s. John Crowe Ransom helped its reputation in the States by calling it ‘the most imaginative account of reading ever printed’, the critic himself being ‘the most resourceful reader that poetry has yet publicly had’. Though often misunderstood, Empson continued to be a respected figure among the New Critics, who were changing the style and direction of American literary criticism.

Now began Empson’s protracted Far Eastern phase. Richards tried and failed to find him work in China, so he signed a three-year contract to teach in Japan. His time there was marked by the usual scrapes and absurdities. He did not much like Tokyo, or the nationalistic mood of its inhabitants and his docile, uniformed students, but he enjoyed teaching and loved the Noh theatre, of which he acquired a good understanding. He was keen to use Basic English, Ogden’s creation, mentioning an ingenious student who translated the words ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as ‘invisible, insane’. In pursuit of a serious new interest he began to make notes for a study of the ambiguous faces of the Buddha, and even went to Korea to do more research on this. He came to know the subject thoroughly, and eventually got his ideas into a book, which was later, most unhappily, lost in London. Busy as he must have been, he also had the affair that gave rise to one of his best-known poems, ‘Aubade’ – ‘Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake’. And he had a chaste relationship with an interesting woman who wrote poetry in English, which he then revised.

Haffenden has unearthed a curious letter of 1939 from the British Embassy in Tokyo, reporting an allegation that Empson had received large sums of money from the Japanese Army General Staff, who claimed to have employed him to ‘influence foreign opinion in favour of the New Order’. The General Staff now complained that Empson’s activities, far from enhancing anybody’s reputation, were likely to be ‘detrimental to the prestige of the Japanese army’. Haffenden touches conscientiously on the question of whether his man really had got into some sort of trouble. He had been accused of propositioning a Japanese taxi-driver, explaining that ‘Japanese men and women look so alike that I made a mistake,’ a story that could make him seem capable of anything; and Haffenden thinks up a scenario in which Empson is compromised in some way and forced to do the bidding of the Japanese army; but his heart isn’t in it, and in the end he has to agree with the British Embassy’s assurance that Empson was ‘quite unfitted to act in the capacity’ for which the Japanese military was said to have wanted him.

He returned to Marchmont Street in 1934 and spent three more garret years as a freelance. Richards put him in for a job at Cambridge, but it went to Leavis, and Magdalene wouldn’t even put him back on its books so that he could get his MA. Living fairly contentedly in conditions all agreed were spectacularly squalid, he now observed all the more keenly the general squalor of the nation in the 1930s: unemployment, hunger marches, Fascism on the rise. He kept an eye on the news but took no active political role, rather regretting not being able to be as involved as Auden, who, he felt, had succeeded in the difficult task of advocating Communism without sounding phoney. He later argued that Auden was ‘extremely important’ because his work helped to prepare the country for the inevitable war.

During this time he was again drinking too much, often with Dylan Thomas, and occasionally more grandly with Eliot and John Hayward. He claimed that in these Marchmont years he was enjoying himself very much, but he was not idling. He was quite heavily involved with Mass Observation, and so with Charles Madge and Kathleen Raine, Humphrey Jennings and Julian Trevelyan. In 1935 he published both his Poems and his second important work of literary criticism, Some Versions of Pastoral.

In August 1937 he set out on another Oriental adventure when he accepted a three-year appointment at the National Peking University. At much the same time the Japanese invaded China, and when he arrived, via the Trans-Siberian Railway, he had no job to go to. Richards was in Peking with his wife, in much the same case.

All the evidence suggests that throughout the hard years that followed, Empson remained remarkably affable, rarely cast down by the hardships he endured – by what, looking back, he called ‘the savage life and the fleas and the bombs’. Having a very good memory he was able to teach literature in a university always on the move, and thus with very few books. Haffenden excels himself in his account of these years. The Japanese particularly hated the northern Chinese universities, which were forced to flee. Empson went with them, providing in his journals a fairly full account of the trek. He comments on the food, the conditions, the complex political situation, in which the Kuomintang was in conflict with the Communist Party as well as with the invaders. Most impressive is his admiration and respect for his colleagues; the company of these professional scholars allowed him to feel that, despite the uniquely difficult conditions, what he now belonged to was a real university. He found the Chinese language too difficult, deciding rather high-handedly that it was in fact a bad language, perhaps not worth the trouble; he seems to have managed to communicate without it:

Camp life was fun; I was in very good company . . . I hoped I wasn’t making too much noise typing about the use of sense in Measure for Measure [later a chapter in his magnum opus, The Structure of Complex Words, published in 1951] . . . I know the quality of the men I have to eat with. I suppose there is no other country in the world where that type of man would take the migration and its startling hardships, not merely without false heroics, but as a trip that leaves you both waiting to collect news about your special branch of learning and also interested in the local scenery and food.

He also enjoyed teaching: ‘I am much more vain of my powers as a lecturer than of my printed stuff, criticism and poetry.’ During this same happy period he wrote ‘The Royal Beasts’, a philosophical fable, sadly unfinished, of great ingenuity and charm. It is remarkable that he was able to do so much, and also that whatever one reads the voice is always the same, inimitable and indescribable. Later he told a Princeton audience what was wrong with the horrible new American academic prose – its ‘failure to keep the normal living connection between the written language and the spoken one’. That connection is very clear in his Chinese writings.

He arrived back in England in January 1939, in time for another war. Ruled out of military service by his myopia, he was soon doing his propagandist bit for China at the BBC. And there Haffenden leaves him, more or less settled in London; but another China period and more extraordinary adventures remain to be described in the next volume. It’s a long journey, but the guide is competent. Just to be difficult for a moment, he is not infallible: he thinks the poem ‘To Charlotte Haldane’ is in terza rima, which it isn’t; and he uses the word causerie in a sense I believe to be unrecognised by the rest of the world, for example, ‘he felt a deep causerie with Auden.’

[*] Haffenden is preparing an edition of the correspondence. His services to Empson include an edition of the poetry and of five posthumously published volumes of prose.