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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Three Hitherto Unpublished Poems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 ...
... 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 ...

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China still often held by people in England is that China is full of bandits, and it seems worth offering a bit of out-of-date reportage on this topic; there is no moral except that the bandit situation had very intelligible causes and has been getting under control.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 ...

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 ...

No reason for not asking

Adam Phillips: Empson’s War on God, 3 August 2006

Selected Letters of William Empson 
edited by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 729 pp., £40, March 2006, 0 19 928684 1
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... Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing ‘modern’ poetry, William Empson recommended ‘verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it . . . it might be a good thing to try to show the clash of different philosophies, and social comedy, and quote lines of poetry by people quite different from you that you have thought especially good ...
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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Empson’s Buddha

Michael Wood, 3 May 2017

... There is​ something very Far Eastern about this,’ William Empson says in Some Versions of Pastoral, meaning the manner of Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’. The remark is mildly intriguing but pretty loose, and even if we think of Empson as having the thought while he lectured to his Japanese students before he wrote it down, the Orient still seems stereotyped and far away ...

The Savage Life

Frank Kermode: The Adventures of William Empson, 19 May 2005

William EmpsonVol. I: Among the Mandarins 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 695 pp., £30, April 2005, 0 19 927659 5
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... 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 ...

What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl, 26 November 1987

Faustus and the Censor 
by William Empson, edited by John Henry Jones.
Blackwell, 226 pp., £17.50, September 1987, 0 631 15675 5
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... was an early version of Hamlet, possibly by Kyd; a prototype Henry V, starring Dick Tarlton and William Knell. And, a little later, there were the first ventures of Ben Jonson – Hot Anger Soon Cooled, written with Thomas Dekker and Henry Porter, and Robert II, with Henry Chettle – now just bodiless titles in an old theatrical ledger. The case of Marlowe ...

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