Graham Hough thinks about William Empson and his work

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.

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