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William Empson remembers I.A. Richards

William Empson, 5 June 1980

... The death of I.A. Richards has at least endangered an opportunity which he had accepted with eager energy. In 1937, the Chinese Ministry of Education had decided to use Basic English in the schools, for the first years of English there, but just as the details were being fixed up the Japanese launched an all-out attack and captured Peking. One might argue that this was the right time to introduce a far more economical method: but it would require a great deal of organising from the centre, and to organise the refugeeing of the west-coast universities to the interior was already imposing an almost unbearable strain ...

Three Hitherto Unpublished Poems

William Empson, 17 August 1989

... I remember to have wept with a sense of the unnecessary. ‘Do you think me so ungenerous that I need to be deceived about this? Do you think me such a fool that these tactics will deceive me?’ Now, on the contrary, I shall speak with reverence of liars. What you must save for is the Golden Bowl, Cast anthropoid, beaten to delicacy; One depends for that, though hollow, upon industrialism, Upon milk white metal, upon furnaces all night ...

Moonlight Robbery: China 1938

William Empson, 5 October 1995

... One of the ideas about China still often held by people in England is that China is full of bandits, and it seems worth offering a bit of out-of-date reportage on this topic; there is no moral except that the bandit situation had very intelligible causes and has been getting under control. There was a fair amount of talk about bandits, when some departments of the Peking National University and the other Associated Universities, refugeeing in 1938, were sent about a thousand miles from their bases to Mengtze, just off the French railway in Yunnan ...

Magnificent Cuckolds

William Empson, 24 January 1991

... Frank Budgen’s last pamphlet ‘Further Recollections of James Joyce’ (1955) carries a bit of personal reminiscence which looks as if it might be more important than most. He remembers that he had one day remarked to Joyce that he could never understand why Bloom, in Ulysses, lets his wife commit adultery with Boylan; but we gather that after this leading question he offered his own answer, hoping it would irritate the great man into a correction, which shows he understood interviewers’ technique ...
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
edited for the Arden Shakespeare series by Harold Brooks.
Methuen, 164 pp., £8, September 1979, 1 903436 60 5
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... This​ is the new Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is splendid to have the old series still coming out. Full information, and a proper apparatus at the foot of the page: where else would you find that? It has got a bit stiff in the joints; the Introduction is so long and so full of standard doctrine that it is hard to pick out the plums; but the sobriety itself is a comfort ...

Advanced Thought

William Empson, 24 January 1980

Genesis of Secrecy 
by Frank Kermode.
Harvard, 169 pp., £5.50, June 1979, 0 674 34525 8
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... Frank Kermode’s new book contains a great deal of graceful and dignified prose, especially in the last chapter, and many of the examples are of great interest. It seems to argue that no history or biography can be believed, but must be regarded as a kind of novel. Any narrative is necessarily incomplete, and the details left out may for some readers be the important ones – what is taken for granted may become the crucial question ...

Red on Red

William Empson: The inauguration of the People’s Republic of China, 30 September 1999

... 2 October 1949. Yesterday we were busy with Jacob’s birthday till about five (or rather Hetta and Walter were and I was hanging about): then Kidd and his wife turned up and we all set out to look at the celebration of the new Government and capital. There was supposed to be a difficulty about getting sanluerhs, but we did and Hetta and I at once got separated from the others because our drivers went left by Coal Hill instead of right ...

Teaching English in the Far East

William Empson, 17 August 1989

... rather welcome.For instance, there was a book called Road to Survival, by an American soil expert, William Vogt, which said the Chinese were certain to starve to death because they bred like rabbits and didn’t farm properly, and I put into my selection everything he said about China. Before long this book was denounced by name by Mao Tse-tung in person, and ...

The Ultimate Novel

William Empson, 19 August 1982

Ulysses 
by Hugh Kenner.
Allen and Unwin, 182 pp., £10, March 1980, 0 00 480003 6
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A Starchamber Quiry: A James Joyce Centennial Volume 1882-1982 
edited by E.L. Epstein.
Methuen, 164 pp., £9.50, February 1982, 0 416 31560 7
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... It is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all. His book gives a survey of books about Ulysses, mentioning only two previous ones by himself. He weeds out bad ideas and adds more promising ones, always with acknowledgement to other critics: and it is impressive that he had plenty more material available for the centenary collection, A Starchamber Quiry, just after printing his own book ...

Elizabethan Spirits

William Empson, 17 April 1980

The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age 
by Frances Yates.
Routledge, 224 pp., £7.75, November 1979, 9780710003201
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... Something badly needed has got left out from the great structure that Dame Frances Yates has been building as an exposition of her view of the Occult tradition. I have felt it since her book on Bruno (1964), though I am ill-equipped to complain. Still, my ideas derive from a critic who had something of her own range of knowledge, and she seems to ignore his views, so I may speak up ...

The Ultimate Novel

William Empson, 2 September 1982

Ulysses 
by Hugh Kenner.
Allen and Unwin, 182 pp., £10, March 1982, 0 00 480003 6
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A Starchamber Quiry: A James Joyce Centennial Volume 1882-1982 
edited by E.L. Epstein.
Methuen, 164 pp., £9.50, February 1982, 0 416 31560 7
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... So far, I may have given more expression of preference than solid argument. I need now to list the main details throughout the book which prepare the reader for Stephen to accept the Bloom Offer. There is at once a rather quaint obstacle. Most readers of Ulysses do not believe in omens, but Joyce eagerly did; in this he is genuinely like Homer ...

The Queen and I

William Empson and John Haffenden, 26 November 1987

... with which Elizabeth I was greeted at Cambridge in 1564 and at Oxford in 1566 and 1592. Would Empson assist in the creation of a new masque by ‘writing such parts of it as would be spoken or sung’? The vocal part should be in English and not Latin, Whittaker suggested; it should have ‘literary value’ and be in modern idiom rather than a pastiche ...
... I first met William Empson fifty years ago, when he was teaching in Japan and I in Singapore. I was rather frightened of him. Only about my own age, he was a great deal more sophisticated and infinitely more intelligent. It was plain that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and in his presence I often felt rather a fool ...

It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Using Biography 
by William Empson.
Chatto, 259 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 0 7011 2889 5
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Seven Types of Ambiguity 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 258 pp., £4.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0556 3
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Collected Poems 
by William Empson.
Hogarth, 119 pp., £3.95, September 1984, 0 7012 0555 5
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... Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and his unique accents. Profoundly comic and yet incandescent with convictions, Using Biography is so rammed with life that it shall gather strength of life with being ...

Cold Feet

Frank Kermode, 22 July 1993

Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. I: Donne and the New Philosophy 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Cambridge, 296 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 44043 2
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William EmpsonThe Critical Achievement 
edited by Chistopher Norris and Nigel Mapp.
Cambridge, 319 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 35386 6
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... William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, not wishing to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity ...

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