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.’ These were the things which Empson consistently admired in poetry, and which he wrote about with such eloquence and intemperance in what had begun to seem even to him a long war against the doctrinaire in literature. Against what he took to be the prevailing modern orthodoxy of Symbolist poetry – ‘the main rule is that a poet must never say what he wants to say directly . . . he must invent a way of hinting at it by metaphors, which are then called images’ – he promoted what he called ‘argufying’ in poetry, ‘the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way’. He didn’t want us to think of poetry as a privileged use of words exempt from ordinary considerations. He wanted readers to ask questions like: what is the poet trying to persuade us – and himself – of? What is he intending to say, and how, if at all, has he succeeded? What are ‘the ideas his mind was working upon’? What is the story being told? Literature, unlike propaganda, was writing in which people were in at least two minds about what mattered to them, but still meant what they said.
As a poet who had written anti-Fascist propaganda for the BBC during the war and had taught ‘English literature’ in China both before and afterwards, he didn’t want writers or readers to trade in emotive, ineffable or overly abstract (i.e. religiose) language. Literature was there to alert us, to make us think rather than assent; close reading was the preferred antidote to indoctrination. The consequences of listening or reading inattentively, and of not seeing how language can be used to sustain inattention and sponsor cruelty, were Empson’s abiding preoccupations. He thought we should be able to articulate what a writer was getting at, and this seemed to mean, for him, that if a writer’s work wasn’t paraphrasable it was probably up to no good (‘obscurity in a writer,’ he once wrote, ‘may be due not to concentration but to a refusal to speak out’). It was pernicious to be vague, he implied, and disingenuous to be opaque. The reader was entitled to know what the author thought, which meant knowing what his conflicts were. He wanted what he usually refers to in his letters as ‘Eng. Lit.’ to be the kind of writing in which current propaganda was argued over but never wholeheartedly promoted. The writers whom he valued, and who crop up most often in these letters (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, Fielding, Coleridge, Joyce, Orwell, Dylan Thomas), had in his view found ways to resist religious conformity (religion and politics for Empson are virtually inextricable from each other). They give voice to the personal conflicts of their times, not to their resolutions. But they do not endorse the prevailing views, nor do they require their readers to. Religions, with the possible exception of Buddhism, provide bad solutions to insoluble problems and, he sometimes intimates and often insists, it is the function of literature to expose this terrible fraud.
There were two related things that Empson as a literary critic could not abide. One was submission to authority, and the other was torment, both the wish to inflict it and the wish to suffer it. Empson was criticised and indeed ridiculed for this hatred, which was directed mostly against Christianity and ‘neo-Christian’ literary critics, but these are things one is unlikely to be casual about if they matter to one at all. He believed that the Christian God, referred to in the letters and in many of his other critical writings as ‘the torture-monster’, was a device invented to stop people having the kinds of mind that could be changed; and that to be a devout Christian was to be more or less a worshipper of domination and sadism. He felt that literary studies – and his career as a critic spanned what turned out to be the heyday, decline and fall of the version of literary studies called ‘close reading’ – were too often either lazily or determinedly complicit with such things. Like most literary critics he never really changed his mind, even though like many literary critics of his generation he believed that literature was valuable because it could change people’s minds. That all the writers he valued were born Christian was a fact he made palatable by showing the genius of their protest. The extremity of his rejection of Christianity – he wrote as though to value any of it was to value all of it – needs the kind of explanation he was inclined to give when dogma was uncontested in a writer.
From the very beginning, in the prodigious Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930 when he was 24, Empson had an astonishing eye and ear for the nuance and implication and hidden argument of a text, what he calls, in a letter to his mentor I.A. Richards, any word’s ‘liability to be used in preference to other words’, in which ‘liability’ brings rightly into question our agency in relation to language. What close reading supposedly got you closer to was the complexity of a writer’s articulated intentions. The reason to read literature, as Empson reiterates in his letters, is that it lets us get to know about intentions different from our own, something that is far more difficult than we usually realise. This is what morality was invented to help us deal with. ‘It seems to me,’ he writes to Philip Hobsbaum in 1966, ‘that the chief function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people are very various, many of them quite different from you, with different “systems of value” as well; but the effect of almost any orthodoxy is to hide this, and pretend that everybody ought to be like Homer or Dr Leavis.’ One of the most effective ways of creating an orthodoxy, as Leavis at least seems to have known, is to identify an enemy: the pretence that everybody should be like X always involves the assumption that they must hate Y, be as unlike Y as possible. Empson, who believed in the ‘straddling’ of contraries rather than their resolution, who found ambiguity in literature more truthful than conviction, could not avoid unequivocally taking sides when it came to the Fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, and what he took to be the virtual fascism of the Judeo-Christian God. His letters, like all his critical writings, show that he was as unambiguous as he could be in his hatred of the haters of variety. He wanted a variety of sorts of feeling and an unendable clash of different philosophies. So by his own lights he couldn’t and didn’t create his own orthodoxy.
When Empson came up against the people he took to be most different from himself – neo-Christian critics and apologists, the ‘death-worshippers’ – he did not try to create a counter-orthodoxy to defeat them. He was a critic with an idiosyncratic intelligence and without a method – so he could be admired but not followed. He didn’t want to gang up to bully the bullies; what he was after was piecemeal refutation of unacceptable arguments whenever they occurred. Letters were one of the ways in which he could do this. ‘What else does one write criticism for except to win agreement?’ he asks in a letter to Christopher Ricks, and yet the winning of agreement – or perhaps the winning of too much agreement, the way literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson. Indeed, the thing Empson seems to have been most at odds with himself about was conflict. So when John Wain praises Empson’s poetry in his book Professing Poetry, Empson replies: ‘I feel it is very discerning praise, so it is at least sympathetic; and the best I can do by way of thanks is to say where I think it is wrong.’ Empson believed that disagreement was often the more adequate response; to say where you think someone is wrong is to be on the side of variety.
‘The more one understands one’s own reactions,’ Empson wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, ‘the less one is at their mercy.’ The possibility of disagreement was, I think, mostly evidence for Empson that one was not at anyone’s mercy. The writer could be at the mercy of his conflicts, just as the critic could be at the mercy of the text, or the institution that employed him. So the Empson who believed that the most morally disreputable thing a writer could do was suppress the conflicts that animated him, the Empson who preferred a clash to a consensus, could also write in a letter when he was in his sixties that ‘poetry is insincere unless it is clinical, resolving conflicts in the author and thus preventing him from going mad; to do this it must satisfy himself as completely unconfused and indeed bare; and if the effects of doing this were trying for the reader, that was nothing to worry about – he could have the pleasure of doing a puzzle.’ There are, as it were, fortifying conflicts – called ambiguities when they turn up in poetry – that reveal the diversity of human intentions; and then there are the conflicts that threaten to drive a person mad and so must be resolved. In his preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, he wrote: ‘I believe that rather little good poetry has been written in recent years . . . the effort of writing a good bit of verse has almost in every case been carried through almost as a clinical thing; it was done only to save the man’s sanity.’ The God that Empson loathed, as he shows in what is probably his best book, Milton’s God, seemed to be satisfied that he was ‘completely unconfused’, and had set his creatures a puzzle.
God, Empson intimated, was a figure of the man without conflicts who, by the same token, was a sadistic megalomaniac – the attempt to eliminate conflict being the very thing that makes people most cruel. The ‘God whose only pleasure is gloating over torture’ knows what to do with those who disagree: he might indeed want them to disagree so that he can enjoy torturing them. It is his conflict about the nature of conflict that makes Empson such an unusually subtle and provocative critic. Though he could acknowledge, again to Ricks, ‘how dismal quarrelling is’, he always knew that the alternative was worse.
These fascinating letters, edited by John Haffenden, who has done more than anyone to make Empson readable rather than merely mandarin, are a testament to the virtues of spirited and truculent disagreement. And they are the closest thing we have, in Empson’s case, to autobiographical writings. He planned, as he mentions here, to write something autobiographical towards the end of his life, but it came to nothing; it is not surprising that this should be so. Though Empson was insistently committed to so-called biographical readings of writers’ work – or rather, he could not see the point of ignoring salient facts or tempting conjectures about a writer’s life – he was not in any way himself a confessional writer, nor an admirer of such writing. And these letters, by telling us virtually nothing about his private life – there are references of a largely practical kind to his wife and to some of his children, but nothing of his other loves, or secrets, or significant shames – are more of a piece with his critical prose. Empson, as one might expect, is both more affectionate and ruder in his letters, slightly more charmed by himself than he can let himself be in his public prose; but he never writes as though he has anything to reveal. He makes points, clarifies strongly held positions, airs his prejudices – ‘those horrible Frenchmen you posted me. I did go through the first one . . . Jacques Nerrida [sic] . . . they seem to me so very disgusting’ – but he doesn’t trade confidences, at least in the letters Haffenden has selected. There is not even any real news about his own poems.
Haffenden is surely right to have been tactful, if that is what he has been, and to have respected privacies in the way Empson would certainly have wanted. But the writers Empson tended to value, and to defend most vehemently, were people who were radically endangered by what they had to say: people like Donne and Milton and Coleridge and Joyce, for whom a certain amount of secrecy had become second nature. Empson believed, in a way that became increasingly unfashionable, that writers could and should make themselves known through their writing; and that readers and writers, just like speakers and listeners, had what he called (praising Sidney Keyes’s poem ‘The Bards’ in a letter to Philip Hobsbaum) ‘astonishing powers . . . to intuit one another’s intentions’. The project of a writer or critic was, as he wrote to Rosemond Tuve, to make ‘yourself intelligible or directly convincing to the ordinary tolerably informed reader’.
So much of Empson’s criticism suggests that people are far less secretive than they want to be; that what the most complex forms of language – poems, plays and novels – show us is that we are not as opaque or as misleading as we might have thought (or wished). What often sounds like a bluff and eccentric common-sense approach to poems is Empson’s way of proving that a writer – Donne in his love poetry, Milton in Paradise Lost, Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are his main contenders – is not hiding from himself or the world and does not want to, that at his best he is saying what he thinks, however contradictory it might be. So as a reader you don’t need to be suspicious: you just need to look at things from the writer’s point of view, but with your wits about you (the idea of the Freudian unconscious merely allows him to get more intentions into the picture). And there are many moments in the letters when Empson appeals only to his own experience to explain something in a poem: as though one’s experience, properly understood, was an accurate documentary and not a super-subtle invention; as though language really was a practical tool and not something that used its users.
Writing to the TLS about Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and the lines ‘sheer plod makes plough down sillion/Shine’, Empson makes clear that a poem about a mystery does not need to mystify. ‘Surely the newly ploughed furrows are what “shine”,’ he writes, ‘not the plough; at least they do in the heavy wheatland I come from – they look greasy.’ It is possible to have these apparently straightforward understandings of a poem because poems are written by people who are similar to us in that they have discernible intentions and share our language; we can make plausible conjectures ‘for the human reason that it was how his’ – the author’s – ‘mind was likely to work’. And for Empson you don’t need to be a psychologist or a philosopher to know how the mind works, you just need to have been a child who was taught to speak in a family. And you don’t claim to know how someone’s mind works, but only how it is likely to work. As ever, ‘plausible’ means for Empson not consensual but available to argue about. For Empson bad writing is writing in which the author seeks to conceal, deny or minimise his conflicts. Hopkins’s ‘recurring doubt . . . that his training’ – as a Jesuit – ‘does not seem to have had good effects’ is what makes ‘The Windhover’ matter for Empson.
In his letters, as in his critical prose, Empson wants to demonstrate and sometimes even to prove that he, and the writers he most admires, mostly know what they are on about. It is the ‘obvious’, a frequent word in these letters, that Empson claims to be interested in, and defenders of the obvious tend to be very cross people. Though Empson was never academic in the hackneyed sense of the word he became progressively more anti-academic as he got older, seeing universities, rather like God, as the enemies of free speech and intelligent opinion: they were places in which the obvious got lost, and conversation was replaced by the contemporary form of omniscience called specialisation. ‘The idea that every question has been settled,’ Empson writes in an unpublished reply, printed here, to Cleanth Brooks’s review of The Structure of Complex Words, ‘if only you go to the right Faculty of your University, and that is why you must never mention it in the wrong one, seems to me merely harmful.’
The professors of variety are always ambivalent about expertise, and Empson is at his unbuttoned best when defending himself against the officials. Accused in the Partisan Review of quoting inaccurately (from memory) in Seven Types of Ambiguity, Empson writes: ‘I do not see that the mistakes he quotes make much difference. Indeed, this idea of checking your quotations as an absolute duty is fairly recent, and not always relevant; for instance Hazlitt habitually quoted from memory, and commonly a bit wrong, but he was writing very good criticism.’ This is breezy, but the ways in which Empson won’t let anyone be God, not even himself, are always instructive and often amusing. Hazlitt, another critic whose only method was to be very intelligent – i.e. not bullied – is mentioned several times in these letters as an ally for whom writing very good criticism was incompatible with the need never to be wrong. Just as Donne was Empson’s preferred sensibility – his most vivid self-portrait is his portrait of Donne in his great essay of 1957, ‘Donne the Space Man’, in which Donne is referred to as an ‘intellectual buccaneer’ of ‘defiant brilliance’ – the Judeo-Christian God’s was the sensibility he dreaded, never in danger, never at odds with himself, keeping himself fundamentally unintelligible and beyond question. ‘It is a delusion for the critic to think that he can cover a subject completely,’ Empson wrote in response to F.W. Bateson in 1953. ‘He is always talking to an audience who know quite a lot but may not know the small extra thing he is saying, and a later audience may always disagree.’
Against God, who always has the last word, Empson pits the critic who wants to keep the conversation going. In Empson’s universe, in which the writer had to protect himself from his terrifying God, the critic has to protect himself from the sanctimoniousness of scholarship – ‘I still consider the solemnity of modern scholarship is excessive and hampering’ – and ‘the sloven’s pomp of evasive jargon’. Anyone genuinely interested in literature rather than prestige and careerism – God again here setting the bad example – has to sustain themselves with the idea of the interested ordinary reader. ‘The point about writing as plainly as you can,’ Empson wrote to his friend Charles Madge in 1937, ‘is that you are testing your ideas against somebody who is not a specialist and just knows about life in general. Really subjective writing seems to me to be nasty to touch.’ The writer can’t be servile but he must be hospitable: ‘You get plenty of readers if you give anybody a chance.’ What Empson called in his second book, Some Versions of Pastoral, ‘the pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple’ was about as close as he got to defining the principle of his work. His criticism can be difficult because he has to show, in some detail, the complexity that has been made simple (or ‘plain’, to use another of his preferred words). Empson believed that all good literature was in this sense simple, or that with sufficient commentary – or, in the case of his poems, with adequate notes – it was the simplicity that would come through. The reader must not ‘lose touch with common sense’ because the writer hasn’t, if he is any good. It’s a sensible business: ‘The poet may mean more than he knew – easily may not want to tell. No reason for not asking.’
Because Empson was not conspiratorial he is not a different man in his letters. His prejudices – especially if they are also one’s own – seem mostly generous. He is strident in his hatred of cruelty, mystification and undue privilege, and he is fascinated by the fact that other people can say and write things that he can’t, and that some of these things matter so much to him that he could spend a life defending them. He is not the saint that the haters of contemporary literary studies want him to be, but he could speak plainly, as he often does in these letters to avoid misunderstanding and to avert what was for him always the collusive understanding of ‘cliques’. ‘I hate rather little,’ he wrote to Roger Sale in 1973, ‘except the doctrine that God is a sadist who could be bought off torturing all mankind by having his son tortured to death.’ This is far from what he calls in another letter ‘a typically donnish way to obscure the issue’; and it is of a piece with his extraordinary character that such ferocious commitments were not always confined to the privacy of letters.
Asked to contribute to a symposium of papers on T.S. Eliot in 1948, Empson told a story about going to a party ‘where Eliot broke into a chatter about a letter being misunderstood’:
‘Ah, letters,’ he said rather as if they were some rare kind of bird, ‘I had to look into the question of letters at one time. I found that the mistake . . . that most people make . . . about letters, is that after writing their letters, carefully, they go out, and look for a pillar box. I found that it is very much better, after giving one’s attention to composing a letter, to . . . pop it into the fire.’ This kind of thing was a little unnerving, because one did not know how tragically it ought to be taken.
The preciousness and self-importance here were not Empson’s kind of thing. He did want to know how people wanted their words to be taken, which is not a fashionable position to hold. Empson could not have been more ambivalent (and ambiguous) about Eliot, as these letters reveal: Eliot was the instigator of his hated neo-Christian school of criticism, and he had written one of the great poems of the 20th century as a Symbolist. And yet, ‘like most other verse writers of my generation,’ Empson wrote, ‘I do not know how much of my own mind he invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him, or indeed a consequence of misreading him.’ Letters were no big deal for Empson – they didn’t need to be ‘composed’ and thrown away – because he was not a self-protective man like Eliot. He had no talent for furtiveness. The private and the obscure were not his passion. ‘I am not at all secretive,’ he wrote to a friend in 1940. ‘It is only that people misunderstand things if one isn’t careful.’ These letters give us more of the Empson we know from the prose, and like the prose they are a startling education in what reading can be, and why it might matter. And why agreeing can be the most dangerous thing we do.