William Empson. Vol. II: Against the Christians 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 797 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 19 927660 9
Show More
Show More

In 1940 Empson was back in England, having spent much of the previous decade in Japan and China. His arrival in China had coincided with the Japanese invasion and the resulting southward migration of the National Peking University. He went along, rather enjoyed the hardships of the trek, relying on his excellent memory to teach English with little aid from books. In the autumn of 1939 he made his way homeward via the United States. Arriving the following January he settled in his flat in Marchmont Street and considered his future, at least as uncertain at this date as anybody else’s.

He was 33 and already quite famous in some literary circles. His most celebrated book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had appeared in 1930 and was by now standard reading for all bright undergraduates, if not always for their teachers. His Poems had appeared in 1935, which was also the year of his second critical collection, Some Versions of Pastoral, as brilliant and influential as Seven Types and with stronger political undertones. With the publication in 1940 of his second volume of verse, The Gathering Storm, he could claim considerable eminence and originality as both poet and critic.

Minding the squalor of his accommodation no more at this moment than he would in the future, he survived well enough on a small private income and some reviewing. He was not short of friends, including some as grand as T.S. Eliot, who admired Empson as well as finding him funny (‘dirtier and more distrait than ever … most refreshing to see him’). But the war was coming on; myopia left him unfit for military service, and so, almost inevitably, he found himself in mid-1940 working for the BBC, first in the Monitoring Service, later in the Chinese section of the Overseas Service.

Haffenden’s huge second volume begins there, and it is clear at once that his industry and love of Empson and Empsoniana have not diminished. He gives an interestingly detailed account of the BBC at war. Like many of his colleagues, Empson was a drinker, a frequenter of pubs, a lifelong lover of parties, in many ways a strange wild figure, but always a worker, and his work at the BBC was done with serious purpose. He competed resourcefully for space in broadcasts designed for China, or meant to explain China to the British. The strong views he had brought home on the China situation were unlikely to be pleasing to his superiors; he had no time for Chiang Kai-shek or his American supporters, and insisted on the evidence of his own eyes that the Communist armies had, at this stage anyway, been welcomed by the Chinese people. His efforts to instruct and to affect opinion were constantly frustrated by malign bureaucrats and hierarchical committees, but he still seems to have acquired a muted authority; the bosses listened to him, even if they did not encourage him in his deviant designs.

Among his colleagues at the BBC were George Orwell and Louis MacNeice, both of whom he greatly admired; and there were others, their names by now probably forgotten, who brought conviction and real knowledge to Empson’s side of the fight. One such, Ralf Bonwit, a formidable, dedicated Japanese specialist, was eventually sent away from London to the Monitoring Service in Caversham, where he worked with Ernst Gombrich and other learned exiles. By chance I came to know him a little and thought him amusing as well as fierce, in these respects if in no others not unlike Empson himself. Empson apparently did not much like him, but valued his intelligence, and as long as they were allowed they worked well together, as they needed to. When Empson left the BBC Bonwit, a man not given to promiscuous praise, said he had been ‘an outpost of China’ there.

This BBC phase of his life taught him, if he didn’t know already, that bureaucrats make it a point of pride to defeat the intelligent, even when they are supposed to be on the same side. Orwell commended Empson’s successes in these struggles but saw they could not be other than limited. Empson himself told Sir William Haley: ‘I think it really was rather exhilarating for us to feel that we were fighting alone against the forces of evil.’ And for the rest of his life he would arm himself against various opponents who, merely by disagreeing with him, betrayed their allegiance to the forces of evil.

In 1941 Empson met Hetta Crouse, an Afrikaans-speaking South African artist who was working in the African Service, and they married at the end of the year. Two sons were born within the next three years – nothing unusual there, but for other reasons this marriage might well have been thought peculiar. Haffenden does full justice to the extraordinary Hetta, tall, beautiful, funny, a hard drinker, and no more than her husband a lover of domestic peace, cleanliness and conventional morality. The marriage was ‘open’ and Hetta set the pace by having lots of lovers. The poet encouraged her in this, believing in the virtues of the ‘Consenting Triangle’. In a long and curious poem called ‘The Wife Is Praised’, here printed for the first time, he explains this preference:

Did I love you as mine for possessing?
   Absurd as it seems, I forget;
For the vision of love that was pressing
   And time has not falsified yet
Was always a love with three corners
   I loved you in bed with young men,
Your arousers and foils and adorers
   Who would yield to me then.

And so on, for 25 stanzas, unambiguous about the preferences of the parties, but also firm that the marriage was far from lacking in love. There were times when Hetta’s exercise of her freedom may have caused Empson some pain; he missed her badly when she went off to Hong Kong for a year with a lover, and seems to have been a little unhappy when she added illegitimately to the family (possibly, as Haffenden suggests, more because of his sense of obligation to his brother as head of the family than to common or garden jealousy). And it may have hurt that while he worked at Sheffield University, as he did for 18 years, living in conditions of squalor that amazed all who saw them, Hetta rarely paid him a visit. Not that conditions in their Hampstead house were very different from those of the Sheffield ‘burrow’ – they were described by Robert Lowell as having ‘a weird, sordid nobility’ – but of course it was much larger, and the company tended to be noisy and numerous, whereas in Sheffield he depended on his middle-class academic colleagues for talk and drinking company and even for baths, and nursing when he was unwell. More comfort was provided by Alice Stewart, a distinguished Oxford doctor and almost a Nobel Prize winner, with whom he had a long, intermittent and affectionate affair.

The Consenting Triangle was not a passing fancy but a serious preoccupation. An important aspect of Empson’s character was his bulldog unwillingness to give up an idea, and he was always ingenious in discovering in favoured works of literature evidence in support of his own theories, literary, social or psychological. For him sexual freedom was an ethical imperative even if the consequences might sometimes be painful. His belief that artists and people of intellect must break with social convention in order to bring about beneficial change naturally applied to sex as well as everything else.

These leading ideas would spread and colour his thinking about matters that might have been thought independent of them. One such instance is his view of the story Joyce tells in Ulysses. It was in 1948 that he first outlined the theory in a letter to his wife: Bloom would like to make love to Molly but hasn’t done so for ten years, since his first son died, though he is keen to have another child. If he could get Molly away from Boylan and ‘get her to bed with Stephen’ he thinks he could manage it provided Stephen preceded him – perhaps when Stephen returned to Eccles Street, as he promised. Joyce was apparently ‘shy’ about this bit of narrative, and hid the point from his readers. Not from Empson, however, who expounded it several times adding more and more detail in evidence: for example, in two successive issues of this journal in August and September 1982, and finally in the posthumous collection Using Biography. He reached a point where he could not believe an unprejudiced reader could help finding what Joyce had rather cravenly hidden; and in any case he would presumably have given up the hope of a triangular arrangement by the time he started Finnegans Wake. But we are to understand that his desire for it had been urgent, and Empson studies it with appropriate intensity: the triangular outcome is ‘amply foretold’.

Here as always he was ready to take on anybody who dissented, or who failed to understand his unaffected devotion to his favoured writers. Vast though Haffenden’s edition of the letters certainly is, there are many more letters and drafts than he was able to include, and they are often, like the published ones, a curious mixture of civility and sneering.* Anybody who is Roman Catholic is likely to be insulted. Other varieties of Christian fare no better, and unbelievers who only behave as if they were Christians but aren’t are almost worst of all. What honesty required was the abolition of the entire Christian tradition, the great enemy of human decency. It was unwise to disagree with him unless prepared for a long, often jeering response. Only a few answered the insults in kind: Empson’s correspondence with Philip Hobsbaum, who was his pupil but disagreed with some of the basic tenets, is full of rude words and anger on both sides. In this case the insults were part of what Empson called ‘my long attempt to improve the mind of Hobsbaum’, and Hobsbaum, defying his correspondent’s rank and reputation, had the cheek to answer back. It was never easy for Empson to have a civil discussion with anybody who took a deviant view of matters he believed to be much more important than an opponent’s feelings.

And yet he would never have pulled rank. He was generous-minded, affectionate, a very likeable man; he just thought that people who took what he regarded as ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’ views (favourite terms of debate with him) should be corrected. His victims were usually confident that his habits in controversy were in some measure aspects of a more general eccentricity: the strangled, oddly inflected voice or voices, the peculiar beard, the use of drink to lubricate all argument, to get something started. People who worked with him or saw a lot of him for other reasons had little difficulty in liking as well as respecting him. If he thought them, like Hobsbaum, professionally competent despite their gross and obstinate follies, he would still back them when they applied for jobs. One belief he shared with some whom he scorned was that a university English department should be so constituted as to offer its undergraduates a wide variety of critical approaches. When he realised that his Sheffield colleagues were professionally all that could be asked, and possessed of a suitable variety of talents, he saw to it that new appointments to the department would not disturb this pattern. It is clear from Haffenden’s book that he made friends with at least some of them, and even, as time passed, became increasingly dependent on them.

His views on language, as originally set forth in Seven Types, changed as book followed book, but the changes are not radical. The most important influence on his critical thinking came from I.A. Richards, his Cambridge supervisor. The dedication of The Structure of Complex Words (which Empson regarded as his masterpiece) calls Richards ‘the source of all ideas in this book, even the minor ones arrived at by disagreeing with him’. The advocacy and practice of Basic English occupied quite a lot of Empson’s and Richards’s time, but this common interest was less important than their disagreements. Briefly, Richards stood by his views on cognitive and emotive language and the idea of the ‘pseudo-statement’, which rendered irrelevant questions as to the truth of statements in poetry. Pseudo-statements are ‘not necessarily false … merely a form of words whose scientific truth or falsity is irrelevant to the purpose in hand’. But Empson refused to distinguish between pseudo-statements and lies. Richards was wrong to say that ‘the Emotions of the words in poetry are independent of the sense.’ On that view ‘the function of poetry is to call out an Attitude which is not dependent on any belief open to disproof by facts.’ And this position Empson rejects. However complex the words he undertakes to study, the critic should always be thinking of an author who really means them; if he doesn’t, he may be just as guilty of lying as he would be if using such language in the ordinary way and not in a poem. Empson admits that ‘we can enjoy the literary expression of beliefs which we don’t hold’ but in that case ‘we imagine some other person who holds them, an author or a character.’ This works even if we think we know the author himself or herself did not believe them; the character does, and we can see what it means to hold them.

This ‘cognitivism’ of Empson is the root of his disagreements with Richards, and is at least part of the explanation of his larger and virtually incessant quarrel with academic criticism. He came home from China and found criticism in a terrible state of professionalism. Everybody, it seemed, had been corrupted by an essay called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. Empson rarely relaxed his pursuit of an enemy: a disagreement with the American scholar Rosemond Tuve, which he began in the closing pages of Seven Types, was still exercising him when he drafted another rebuttal in the 1950s. So it was with what he called the Wimsatt Law, which maintained that the intention of an author should be of no concern to the interpreter; if the poet succeeded, all the relevant evidence of intention was there in the poem. Wimsatt regarded the poem as a ‘verbal icon’: an autonomous verbal structure, an aesthetic object independent of the truth or morality of whatever it says.

This places Wimsatt on the Richards side of the argument with Empson, who found the Wimsatt Law disgusting: it violated his strongly Romantic notion of what poetry is and does; and he thought he saw that the entire profession of literary criticism, on both sides of the Atlantic, had been corrupted by it. In his later years he paid very little attention to what he knew in his bones to be the disgusting nonsense of French ‘theory’ because he was still engaged in the refutation of the older Wimsattian kind of disgusting nonsense, as practised by adherents of the American New Criticism, by then long out of fashion. It is strange but true that he was long regarded as a founding father of the New Criticism, but that perception derived from its adaptation of Empson’s analytic skills; this other matter, his belief that criticism must concern itself with the author in whose mind the poem occurred, his American followers seem simply to have ignored.

Henceforth, in the years after Complex Words, he showed again and again where his interest lay. Shocked by the return to fashion of Christianity, which he had supposed long dead among intelligent people, he attacked critics who were Christians and also critics who had picked up bad habits from Christians and whom he named ‘neo-Christian’. He had been deeply impressed by Orwell’s 1984, and added to Complex Words a note on ‘Orwell’s dreadful book’. The Christian church thrived on such slogans as ‘war is peace’, as in the double-talk of the Trinity, a teaching which assures us that the Father and the Son are, and are not, identical. ‘I have thus to conclude,’ Empson says in Milton’s God, ‘that the doctrine of the Trinity is a means of deceiving good men into accepting evil; it is the double-talk by which Christians hide from themselves the insane wickedness of their God.’ And Communism, he claimed, was now almost as bad as Christianity. Orwell’s book can be seen to be an attack on both. Many of the critical follies that he noted in his colleagues derived from a loss of ordinary intelligence and human feeling brought about by this brainwashing. ‘From now on,’ says Haffenden – who discusses these matters very thoroughly and clearly – ‘he would seek to vindicate the value of rational humanism over Christianity. The Christians, whether clerics or literary critics, must be hoist by their own propaganda.’

Empson’s appointment at Sheffield in 1953, at the age of 47, required him to teach English students for the first time in his life, and to take on the business of examinations and the chores of a departmental head. He applied himself to these duties conscientiously, though his colleague Francis Berry noted his ‘endearing helplessness’ and spoke in the same friendly verses of ‘Chestnuts pulled for him from many fires’. He particularly disliked committees where one has to argue as cunningly as possible for a share of the money; I was reminded of the lesson I myself had to learn as an inexperienced professor at Manchester when, arguing honestly for a new assistant lecturer, I was annihilated by Sir Bernard Lovell, who claimed that if he didn’t get the money I was asking for he would have to close down the Jodrell Bank telescopes. Empson at least had the experience of infighting in BBC committees. In my shoes he would not have been intimidated by Sir Bernard, but he might have felt a certain tenderness for the telescopes.

He made his inaugural lecture autobiographical – lively, perhaps flippant, possibly a little fuddled, not a great success. But by the end of his long tenure his virtues were recognised and his eccentricities had become endearing. He wrote a witty, adulatory masque to welcome the Queen on her 50-minute visit to the university of the city of steel (claiming later that this left her no alternative but to knight him). He was, finally, recognised as a sort of quaint hero, a survivor, the teacher who had risked crossing the Chinese Communist lines to give a lecture on Macbeth; who had, by now a long time ago, written some superb poems, once almost forgotten but now restored to the attention of all who cared for such things; who even now was involved in what he deeply believed to be struggles on behalf of human decency. Sometimes ill, sometimes experiencing ‘isolation and suffering’, always dependent on alcohol to get going and keep going, he wrote continually; letters, for he relished combat by correspondence, notes, chapters to replace mislaid chapters, lectures for Sheffield and many other places.

His first book since Complex Words was Milton’s God (1961). Empson explained to his publisher Ian Parsons that along with studies of Donne, Joyce and Fielding his work on Milton was designed to show how ‘the neo-Christian movement has greatly upset the natural and traditional way of reading such authors,’ and to ‘challenge’ this heresy. In the event Milton got a whole book to himself. It shows a Milton whose feelings are at war with barbarous Christian theology. Empson could not believe that a writer whose work and mind he greatly admired would simply accept the doctrine of the Atonement and believe in a god who required for his ‘satisfaction’ the sacrifice of his son, as Christians and neo-Christians professed to believe. Blake had the right idea when he said that Milton was of the devil’s party, possibly without knowing it, and Shelley was right to describe Satan in Paradise Lost as ‘a moral being … far superior to his God’. Empson sometimes hints at his own credo: man should not seek transcendence but ‘conciliation with a secular universe’. From his Chinese days he retained the interest in Buddhism which had prompted his book on the faces of the Buddha, a work long said to be lost, but happily now recovered. No doubt the indefatigable Haffenden will soon be editing it.

Milton’s God is a wonderful book, almost the best display of Empson’s passionate and polemical mind. I have always admired this great swipe at Pascal and his Wager:

He argued, while more or less inventing the mathematics of Probability, that since the penalties for disbelief in Christianity are infinitely horrible and enduring, therefore, if there is any probability, however tiny (but finite) that the assertions of religion are true, a reasonable man will endure any degree of pain and shame on earth (since this is known beforehand to be finite) on the mere chance that the assertions are true. The answer is political, not mathematical; this argument makes Pascal the slave of any person, professing any doctrine, who has the impudence to tell him a sufficiently extravagant lie. A man ought therefore to reject such a calculation; and I feel there has been a strange and unpleasant moral collapse during my own lifetime, because so many of our present literary mentors not only accept it but talk as if that was a moral thing to do. Clearly, if you have reduced morality to keeping the taboos imposed by an infinite malignity, you can have no sense of personal honour or of the public good.

Whatever one thinks, whatever Pascal might have said about this, it is rather thrilling to have Christian doctrine lined up against ‘personal honour’ and ‘the public good’, and in such strong Johnsonian prose. But the voice is the true voice of Empson. He even calls Pascal ‘neo-Christian’, thus grouping him with his own craven and shameless contemporaries who don’t even pretend to believe in their religion; ‘they regard it as a general moral truth that one ought to tell lies in favour of the side which is sure to win.’

In his final years he continued his campaigns to protect literature from the corrupting influence of the neo-Christians and other academics who, as it seemed to him, had sold out to the religion of the Torturer God, or simply decided that common sense and human decency were not part of their remit. He worked with minute care on ‘The Ancient Mariner’, on Dr Faustus, on the question whether Mary Palmer (who published his poems after his death) was really married to Andrew Marvell. The posthumous collections, including Using Biography and Argufying, a volume of Shakespeare pieces and two on Renaissance literature, are all animated by a dislike amounting to hatred of what he took to be corrupt criticism.

In no other case were his objections more eloquent than in his defence of Donne against modern critics who seemed intent on trivialising and Christianising him. When writing his early poems Empson had tried to make them as like Donne as possible: hence all the scientific metaphors. (Some think that what he was really doing was making Donne as like Empson as possible.) He revered Donne, citing every scrap of evidence that the poet was learned in the ‘new philosophy’ of his day, and profoundly interested in such notions as the plurality of worlds and the thrilling possibility of inhabited planets; whether each one would require an Atonement, whether, in these Americas of the imagination, love would be more free and purer. These were real questions, and one might, for instance, believe that there could be a religion that took account of them, a religion of love. Indeed Empson believed that Donne intended his love poems to be an attack on Christianity.

The main difficulty in seeing Donne as an adept of contemporary astrophysics was that he used the new as he used the old scholastic learning, not needing to endorse either. (It is hardly possible to imagine a less Empsonian position.) When the soul arrives in heaven it won’t need to bother about all the unsolved questions men labour to answer, seeking ‘to know but catechisms and alphabets/Of unconcerning things, matters of fact’: ‘In Heaven thou straight know’st all, concerning it,/And what concerns it not, shalt straight forget.’ The arguments about Donne were sometimes very detailed; disagreeing about the correct reading of a particular line in Elegy XIX, Empson took on Helen Gardner and John Carey (and me, though I was of neither party) with ferocity.

Haffenden gives a good account of this once celebrated row, not without a pardonable bias in favour of the man to whose life and work he has devoted more than twenty years. For the most part he is just in his dealings with the master’s whipping-boys, and on this central issue of Donne it was proper to favour Empson though he happened, I believe, to be wrong.

Money worries in the final years required him to spend time at American universities, teaching, lecturing, and reinforcing his reputation for bizarre or clownish behaviour. A colleague at Penn State notes that ‘he went back at night to a place full of rotting oranges, used tissues and odd socks’, and records that ‘he once, for some minutes, watched my neighbour’s door lamp through my telescope, thinking it Mars.’ Dining with Marshall McLuhan, ‘I thought I had to explain to him that he was worshipping the devil, being a Roman Catholic. It was at his own dinner table, but the ladies had gone for their pee, so it wasn’t really rude.’ On a visit to Harvard he was ‘truculent and contradictory’ towards Richards.

He was no longer happy in these American appointments, and began to feel isolated. Haffenden reminds the reader that Empson believed the true writer has to sustain ‘the self-centred emotional life imposed by the detached intelligence’, but ‘the price of the detached intelligence is painful isolation.’ Still, in one way or another he had a good life, enjoying the fun but capable of intense and rewarding work; not immodest but conscious of his own truly exceptional powers. Sometimes it seemed necessary to disagree with him and to take the consequences; but also to agree always that he was incomparable. John Haffenden was aware of this when he undertook, along with all the other work of retrieval he has done for Empson, this immense and magnificent biography.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 28 No. 24 · 14 December 2006

Frank Kermode’s piece about Empson at Sheffield evoked many memories (LRB, 16 November). As a student there in the 1950s, I was in Empson’s ‘tutor-group’ (with three others), so saw him at closer quarters than most. I don’t remember remarking on his ‘dirtiness’, though his habit before a lecture of dropping his flat cap, muffler and coat on the floor impressed me with its fine disregard for cleanliness as well as convention. I also enjoyed seeing him on his very old, preposterously rusty sit-up-and-beg bicycle, wobbling stoically amid the smog and tramlines of Western Bank.

On the day that T.S. Eliot was due to give a poetry reading, Empson turned up in a stridently new, ugly brown suit. Uncharacteristically self-conscious in front of our shocked stares, he muttered something about the need to put on ‘a pair of trousers’ in honour of our distinguished guest. (We toyed with the idea that a pack of Senate vigilantes had bought the suit and stuffed him into it.) I recall my embarrassment, overlaid with protectiveness, when he stood up to introduce Eliot seemingly without having thought about what he wanted to say.

His Chinese sage’s beard was controversial. Grey wisps hung below his chin which he twisted into tendrils as, with eyelids closed but fluttering, he held forth gnomically. Yet the rest of his face was clean-shaven. To us, a bearded generation (through laziness not fashion), this seemed pointless, like having your cake and not eating it. When he was asked about his views on Chinese music, something about ‘skiffle’ being part of the question, he clearly had none, but, not wishing to seem churlish, rambled on obligingly for a while before pausing to admit that he had no idea what ‘skiffle’ was.

He was patient and gentle in his tutoring too. I had to read aloud my waspish essay on Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age in one session and he took quite some time to explain to me that it was not criticism to label it ‘journalism’, so that it wasn’t appropriate to use the term ‘mere’ either. He then muttered something about my having ‘argued my case well’ and raised my mark from B+ to A-.

Donald Jowett
Blockley, Gloucestershire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences