Vol. 6 No. 11 · 21 June 1984

Graham Hough thinks about William Empson and his work

2775 words

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. He had an impatient way of being always two jumps ahead of you in any discussion. The best response to that was to slow the pace and insist that the steps of the argument should be trodden one by one. This he would not resist; if pulled up, he would always make things plain. But I often got shy of these delaying tactics, and so was left stumbling in the rear.

He was already something of a celebrity, for a brilliant Cambridge career, Seven Types of Ambiguity and the early poems. But my Cambridge days came later, so I had not known him at that time and was unacquainted with the legend and the language. It is said by those who frequented Bloomsbury in its palmy days that its denizens had a way of making people feel uncomfortable by employing an allusive private dialect which others could hardly be expected to understand but were tacitly rejected for not understanding. Empson’s conversation had something of this disconcerting quality – except that he was a one-man Bloomsbury, the dialect was peculiar to himself. His way of talking seemed always to assume some customary background, a group to whose standards, anecdotes and prejudices he was implicitly appealing, a group in which his interlocutor might sometimes flatteringly be included: but for myself I could never discover who constituted this mysterious society, or where in space and time it might be situated, and I came to the conclusion that it had never really existed. It was a mental construct, made up out of William’s large and idiosyncratic range of ideas, copiously adorned with unforseeable gems and curiosities, all strung together on one or two sinuous sinewy cords which often turned out, just when one was expecting some exotic insight, to consist mainly of inspired common sense.

I was never really long enough in his company to sort out all the strands. We met at intervals in different places – in Singapore, in Yunnan, in Hanoi. He got mixed up in one war and I in another; it was all a long time ago, and the world we were swanning about in has disappeared. Civis Romanus sum – that was what an Englishman in the Far East used to feel at the beginning of this period. Later we unlearnt that, but my impression of Empson abroad is always of an uncompromisingly English figure – speech, manners and bearing quite unmodified, and somehow sailing through everything with an unconquerable air of slightly arrogant courtesy and extreme intelligence. I suspect this apparent self-possession was often hard-won. His lot was a lonely one. His power of abstract concentration was legendary, but in the right company he could be gregarious and convivial. His life in China did not give all that much of a chance. I was often acutely aware that I was ensconced in a prosperous corner of the British Raj, with a fair sprinkling of people of my own sort, while he was going back to a refugee university, in a China being rapidly overrun, to write up what English literature he could remember on the blackboard because there were no books.

It is not pointless to recall all this, for I think it helps to account for the elusive, elliptical nature of his conversation and of much of his writing. His natural form of expression was conversation; he liked its informality and its give-and-take. But for long stretches of his life the necessary companions weren’t there, and the conversation went on only in his own head. What came out when you met him, or often when he sat down to write, was a brusque summary; or the conclusion of the discourse; or one side of an argument, the part of the imaginary opponent being omitted; or the concealed meaning, the obvious one having been long ago brushed aside. So that the exhilaration of his discourse – I seem to have been emphasising its difficulties, but the charm, too, was overwhelming – was that of an obstacle-race or a treasure hunt. And since the conversation is irrecoverable I must try to illustrate something of this quality from the printed word.

In reading Gray’s lines about the gem in the dark cave and the flower blushing unseen, Empson bypasses the surface qualities and dives straight for the sous-texte: ‘What this means ... is that 18th-century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents.’ Probably no one ever thought of this before, yet we have not been led into an eccentric backwater: it is now hardly possible to read the Elegy without hearing behind its Virgilian sadness the political overtones, the apology for the status quo. This takes us direct to the massive Johnsonian judgment: ‘By comparing the social arrangement to Nature [Gray] makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved.’ But Empson is equally likely to depoliticise a common judgment, as he does here, a little later on. Having conceded so much to the shadowy Marxists who are hovering on the edge of this discourse, in the end he completely subverts them, saying of Gray’s position: ‘And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even in a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the crucial feeling of tragedy.’ And the weight of this judgment leads me to a remark made slightly earlier in the same essay, about literature in general, but particularly applicable, I think, to Empson’s own criticism: ‘Good writing is not done unless there are serious forces at work, and it is not permanent unless it works for readers with opinions different from the author’s.’

The first part of this sentence vindicates the dignity of literary discussion, and the second part frees it from mere ideological wrangling. In Empson’s best writing there are always serious forces at work. He was not immune from a certain joyous exhibitionism, virtuosity for its own sake: but that was mainly a folie de jeunesse, occurring especially in Seven Types, and it always leads fairly promptly to some clearly important question. He was not interested in critical theories or methods or techniques or gimmicks, and would take no pleasure in the current academic sport of mowing the lawn with a vacuum-cleaner. He darts up so many paths that one would think him a fox that knows many things rather than a hedgehog that knows one big thing. But I suspect that he was really a hedgehog and made his critical impact through that. The one big thing of course is the concept of ambiguity with which he began: the idea that meaning, literary meaning or any other, is not simple and unitary but multiple and diverse – even self-contradictory. There is no need to elaborate the point, for it is hardly too much to say that about three-quarters of modern literary exegesis in the English-speaking world springs directly or indirectly from this root. A breeze was blowing in this direction, and Empson felt it before anyone else. Later French criticism has obviously moved in the same direction, though from a different starting-point and by a different route. He did not much depend on formal philosophy, but it all fits in, too, with the later Wittgenstein – not the search for an immutable essence, or an Occam’s razor to cut a clean swathe through everything, but the patient teasing-out of diverse strands of meaning, exploring the tricks of the innumerable language-games which pervade both life and literature alike. Whether his status here will remain a permanently visible landmark in cultural history, or whether it will be covered over by the general detritus and become a familiar hump in the ground, who can say?

Empson’s criticism was both more and less serious than much that has followed it. It is a very long way from orthodox scholarship. No proper reference, often none at all; texts quoted from memory, often slightly wrong; vague citations of other critics not identified and often credited with ideas they would have found distinctly surprising. It is sometimes quite hard to find out, without a good deal of burrowing, what poem is being discussed at any given moment. This is not ‘serious’ scholarship: but it is remarkably like Biographia Literaria – of which I once heard C.S. Lewis remark: ‘Clearly a work of genius, but you couldn’t possibly give it a PhD.’ Empson’s critical writing is like a conversation among people who know each other very well, have all read the same books and are prepared to take a great deal for granted. You feel that if he was asked what text of Paradise Lost he was using he would say ‘the blue one, on the third shelf up behind the door’. As a matter of fact, he had often done a lot of historical foraging for his essays, but he would never let it appear except in sidelong glimpses. I think it was partly a class thing, though he probably never realised it. With a part of his mind he still saw the world as divided into Gentlemen and Players; and he was determined to keep his amateur status. His later persona – something between a slightly batty retired colonel and a Taoist sage – was cunningly devised to make this possible, even after he had become a prominent and respected figure in the Anglo-American academic world.

This attitude has its limitations, but a benign result was to get rid of a lot of professional flannel. At a time when academic criticism was settling down to a long trail of mutual back-scratching, piddling methodologies and bogus scientisms Empson pursued an individual course, little affected by scholastic controversies. Typically his criticism proceeds from a few wide general notions which are then illustrated with a profusion of literary examples. Ambiguity is such a notion; and the idea of pastoral, extended to cover the whole process of ‘putting the complex into the simple’. And both the general notions and the particular instances tend to come back to what Empson more than once called ‘permanent truths’ – states and movements of the human mind that seem lastingly or recurrently important. Small observations lead to large consequences. The examination of ‘The Windhover’ in Seven Types turns crucially on the interpretation of the word ‘buckle’ in line 10. Does it mean ‘gird up’ or ‘collapse’? They are virtually opposites but both suggest themselves. A minute particular indeed – but Empson comments: ‘We seem to have a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites, where two things thought of as incompatible, but desired intensely by different systems of judgments, are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both; both desires are thus given a transient and exhausting satisfaction, and the two systems of judgment are forced into open conflict before the reader. Such a process, one might imagine, could pierce to regions that underly the whole structure of our thought; could tap the energies of the very depths of the mind.’ ‘The depths of the mind’; again and again we discover that that is where Empsonian analyses, often criticised on their first appearance as intellectual fantasias, turn out to lead.

This leaves us with the question of what the ultimate position of Empson’s critical writing will be. For that matter, we have to ask this question about the whole vast flood of critical writing that has washed over us since the appearance of Empson’s early work. Since that time, this intractable stream has been canalised, and a good deal of it now simply turns an educational mill. But the more criticism approximates to a science, as it has tried to do of late, the more ephemeral the individual work becomes. Like any work of science, it may contribute to a development: but it is soon superseded, and once it is superseded its interest is gone. Empson’s writings are not in this class. They have a life of their own, more important than their influence, and they move away from the literature of information and instruction towards the literature of independent power, which does not become superseded and does not go out of date. On the other hand, he will never be for the common reader. He comes from a time when English literature still had readers, not merely students, and his books deal with the accepted canon. The writers he was interested in were Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Gray, Wordsworth, and the lesser stars who form their constellations. His own style is extremely direct, ranging from the succinctly literary to the frankly colloquial; and he felt no need to spice it up with bits from Heidegger or the Cercle Linguistique de Prague. But he demands a sustained analytical attention that the common reader will never be willing to afford, and that even the uncommon reader finds too strenuous to keep up for long. So that for better or worse – he would have thought worse – he will always be caviare to the general. With the exception of Milton’s God – a consistent argument relentlessly pursued – his books are best regarded as collections of essays: which is as it should be, for the essay is the natural and appropriate form of critical writing. And the finest of the essays – which will include some of the uncollected ones shortly to appear in volume form – will surely rank among the English critical classics, with the enduring work of Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold.

His poems are harder to place. Half a dozen of them had become part of English literature in his lifetime, and that is achievement enough for anyone. Of others I would say what he says of Shakespeare’s Troilus: ‘Much of the language ... I think is a failure; it makes puzzles which even if they can be unravelled cannot be felt as poetry.’ But it always seemed to me that few things wounded him more than to be thought of as a deviser of ingenious conundrums. It is often the case that what comes across to most readers as an intricate intellectual puzzle was experienced as a painful knot of feeling. A number of the poems (and this is too rarely noticed) are, as it were, footnotes to the Buddhist Fire Sermon that serves as epigraph to the whole volume. When the wise man becomes weary of the eye, the ear, the tongue, the body and all that flow from them, ‘he becomes empty of desire. When he becomes empty of desire he becomes free. When he is free he knows that he is free, that rebirth is at an end, that virtue is accomplished, that duty is done, and that there is no more returning to the world; this he knows.’ And this Empson might be expected to have known towards the end of his life. But actually the Fire Sermon is prefixed to his first volume of poems in 1935, and is retained in the Collected Poems of twenty years later. A persisting influence, but not perhaps the last word. I always thought him nearer to Lao Tzu than to the Buddha – Lao Tzu who wrote:

Always rid yourself of desires in order to
  observe the secrets of the way;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order
  to observe its manifestations.

The cheaters and the dreams are indeed transitory affairs, but we must not try to evade them.

Make no escape because they flash and die
Make no escape
               build up your love,
Leave what you die for and be safe to die.

Against the apostles of Oriental quietism he maintained a high esteem for the active virtues. Though for the wise man there is no returning to the world, the world goes on, and Empson did not really doubt that it was better there than not, and was able to look at it with a sort of qualified hope.

A more heartening fact about the cultures of man
  Is their appalling stubbornness. The sea
Is always calm ten fathoms down. The gigan-

  -tic anthropological circus riotously
Holds open all its booths. The pygmy plan
 Is one note each and the tune goes out free.

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