It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks

  • Using Biography by William Empson
    Chatto, 259 pp, £12.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2889 5
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson
    Hogarth, 258 pp, £4.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7012 0556 3
  • Collected Poems by William Empson
    Hogarth, 119 pp, £3.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7012 0555 5

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. Inevitably his death, nine months ago when two years short of eighty, casts its shadow over all of a book which has as its poignant first words: ‘I am reaching an age when I had better collect the essays which I hope to preserve.’ There is the small accidental shock upon now meeting such innocent words as ‘She wanted to have no more bother,’ given that Empson came drily to relish as his own epitaph ‘No more bother.’ There is the resilience – down-to-earth, though – which acknowledges the arbitrariness of things, among them dying: ‘As so often, some bug happened to intrude.’ There is the gruffly laconic parenthetical annotation which now in retrospect has become half-elegiac, when he remembers seeing a clockwork-bird à la Byzantium:

When I was small (born 1906) I was sometimes taken to visit a venerable great-aunt, and after tea she would bring out exquisitely preserved toys of an antiquity rivalling her own. Chief among them was the bird of Yeats in its great cage, wound up to sing by a massive key; a darkish green tree, as I remember, occupied most of the cage, and a quite small shimmering bird, whose beak would open and shut while the musical box in the basement was playing, perched carelessly upon a branch at one side. The whole affair glittered, but I cannot claim to have seen the Golden Bough; it was prettier than a gilt tree would have been; and of course the bird was not plumb on top of it, like Satan in Paradise. I remember being struck to hear my mother say, by way of praising the great age of the toy, that she remembered being shown it herself when she was a child after such a tea; and she and Yeats were born in the same year, 1865.

Empson may have given up writing poems forty or so years ago, but such prose is at least as well written as good poetry. And so is the touching vision of how it may have been that Andrew Marvell succumbed to the ague or the medication; this whole last paragraph of the hundred-page section on Marvell is instinct with a sense of what it is to make an end, whether or not betimes, whether or not Marvell was robbed even of discovering that ‘Death’s to him a strange surprise’:

Marvell was a stocky fighting type, though a deskworker of course, and had been threatened with trouble on the tour to Russia for hitting out; but he genuinely wanted peace, and would prefer to walk away from a duel if the rules permitted. I suggest that he walked out from an evening party at a house in Hull, and used his eminence to walk out through a gate of the city, and walked for what remained of the night, indifferent to the fatal marshes; and returned at dawn to take the first coach back to London. As the coach jolted slowly on, and he got more and more feverish, he would reflect on how thoroughly tricky his situation had become, on every side. When he at last got home, irritated all over, and his doctor suggested a risky medicine, as the ‘tertiary’ returned, warning him that it would cause a long deep sleep, he accepted that eagerly. Nobody expected to die from the familiar ague, tiresome though it was; that was no problem. But from a real deep sleep he would expect to wake up, as often before, suddenly seeing a way out, knowing what to do.

This is great prose in its chastened apprehensions and its hush. ‘To walk away’, ‘walked out’, ‘to walk out’, ‘walked for’: this has its incipient feverishness, as the closing ‘real deep sleep’, for all its touching hopefulness, has something of the strange depth of the poem ‘Let it go’ (‘It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange’) and of the craving for the deepest sleep in ‘Aubade’ (‘I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie’). Empson would be vexed at the thought that such poignancies in his posthumous collection might now be taken as premonitions. But admonitions are another matter. ‘Ignorance of Death’ he knew about, and valued: but he was not ignorant of dying, and was as wise about it as about living.

One aspect of his genius is caught in his being so photogenic; phases of the quizzing phiz shine from the three covers. Don’t miss the photo (1948-9) newly added as a frontispiece to the Collected Poems, and its comic note: ‘The other man is Charles Coffin, a patient and understanding listener, as the picture shows. We would be discussing a 17th-century poet; I do not think I ever discussed my own poetry like that.’

Using Biography is devoted to six authors: Marvell, Dryden, Fielding, Yeats, Eliot and Joyce. The central essays had been printed before, but are here revised and supplemented. Three related principles unify the book, all argued for and all good-naturedly shocked at the pretty pass to which things have come. First, that the knowledge of what a writer had in mind may be of unique use in understanding the art. Second, that therefore ‘the intentional fallacy’ is itself a fallacy and moreover beckons critics, not into the ascetic desert of disattending to intentions, but into the oily swamp of imputing wrong intentions. Third, that in our time the most prevalent mis-imputation of an intention has been Christian.

All six authors are seen in relation to Christianity, though not solely so. The possibilities other than Christianity are then an important part of the rescue-work. Marvell lived in an age when ‘natural magic’ and fairies were respectable, and when Christianity did not have a monopoly of the supernatural. Dryden lived in an age when deism not only was respectable but had unanswerably indicted the moral disreputability of Christianity’s ‘rigid satisfaction’ in the crucifixion. Fielding was a better Christian than Christ, and moreover imagined, in the person of Tom Jones, another such who is yet very different from himself. Yeats was immune to Christian virulence, thanks to his trusting in reincarnation rather than in the Incarnation. Joyce has been subjected to posthumous conversion back to the religion he repudiated; Empson sketches the drives at work: ‘and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion.’ Whereupon he at once vaults into a new paragraph which yet keeps the previous one alive: ‘The concordat was reached over his dead body.’ It is one of his most searching jokes: ‘The concordat (over His dead body) was reached over his dead body.’ Yet even here Empson’s magnanimity extends itself, for of this bad state of affairs in literary studies he says: ‘As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good.’

And T.S. Eliot? He is not exactly accorded any rescue, since it is from him that we need to be rescued, in this matter. (‘This is one of the scars left by the reactionary movement of T.S. Eliot.’) Yet Empson’s combative dismay can manifest itself in a compassionate joke, since he does at least apprehend the many things about Eliot’s father that so racked the son: ‘What the Unitarians had chiefly revolted against, though they seem to have lost their battle by being too tactful about it, was the nightmare belief that the Father was given a unique “satisfaction” by the Crucifixion of his Son. It was to this that Eliot returned, with glum eagerness; whether or not with some confusion between his own father and the Heavenly one.’

Using Biography, then, is unified by an educative mission and an anti-crusade. But the argumentative unification of the book does in the end matter less than its unity of spirit. It has the supreme integrative virtue, magnanimity. Empson, granted, was exquisitely unsentimental as a writer and as a man (too full of courage to be sentimental), but this, far from marring his magnanimity, is what makes it something. He is incorruptibly implacable in the face of sadism, and he knows its various faces: in the Blessed and ‘their eternal ringside view of the torments of Hell’, in the rawness of Joyce’s Exiles, in the squalor imagined by Fielding in Blifil, and even – where he is deeply grieved to find it – in Marvell, in the death by fire of the sailor-martyr in ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’. Empson quotes two dozen lines and then speaks with the direct personal commitment that, prior to the current scientism and theoreticity, used to be thought germane to the understanding of literature: ‘I find this disgusting, and all too likely to well up from the worst perversion, that of Gilles de Rais, the craving to gloat over the torturing of a tender innocent. Mrs Duncan-Jones was quite right, in her Academy lecture, to point out the strangeness of it, but (I think) not nearly censorious enough.’

Empson’s magnanimity reserves the right to be censorious, and indeed there would be no claim to magnanimity if the right were waived. But magnanimous is what he is. This may be a matter of a u-turn of a phrase. He repents of a phrase well turned against Dryden’s Hind: ‘I said that Dryden was showing his famous clumsiness here, as he presumably expected reverence for “this simpering herbivore”; but my sarcasm was stupid, almost like Leavis.’ For sarcasm is inferior to irony, which must be more magnanimous because, as Empson himself put the principle, an irony to be worth anything must be true to some degree in both senses. Even if he also or mostly means dispraise or reservation, when Empson praises someone he means it. Even Kenner. The first of the Joyce essays makes no secret of its anger or its reckoning, but the praise part is pained irony, not self-pleasing sarcasm: ‘But no one else has presented it in such a lively, resourceful and energetic manner, so the best name one can find for it is the Kenner Smear.’ The second Joyce essay opens with a sentence which is exactly weighed and timed: ‘It is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all.’ This precipitates not Ooh but Ah.

Empson’s own magnanimity is his element; the magnanimity of others is often his subject, and he can tease the matter out for us beautifully. Of a moment in Marvell: ‘This style is what Dryden has been so rightly praised for; the opponent is totally ridiculed, but he is put in the distance, as another strange and pathetic example of the fates of men.’ ‘Fielding shows a Proust-like delicacy in regularly marking a reservation about Allworthy without ever letting us laugh at him.’ ‘Joyce can make a character ridiculous without any loss of sympathy for him, and a modern critic finds this hard to imagine, because he has been taught to be a brass-faced scold; though surely it was familiar to the public of Dickens.’ Such examples have different implications and nuances, but they all witness not only to the authors’ generosity but to the author’s.

Again it is crucial to that continuity of life and work to which Empson trusts and ministers that these same ways of speaking should be as perfectly applicable to creators as to their creations. Empson at once acknowledges and dissociates himself from the craving to scold, as in the movement of the sentence which begins: ‘Joyce was a self-important man, as he needed to be, and he ...’ Beautiful, the flickering surprise, along the way, of that light rebuke to the propensity to rebuke. The people who make books are not treated differently from those within the books. Empson loves Fielding for not liking sarcasm and its sniggers. Mrs Waters, her breasts exposed, declines Tom Jones’s generosity. And is Fielding’s sentence generous? ‘Jones offered her his coat; but, I know not for what reason, she absolutely refused the most earnest solicitation to accept it.’ Empson’s unfolding of this creates a community of spirit in which the generosity of both of the characters, and of the novelist, is perfectly at one with that of the critic and, it is to be hoped, of the reader: ‘When Fielding says he doesn’t know the reason he always means it is too complicated to explain. Walking with her life-saver Jones she liked to appear pathetic, and she wanted to show off her breasts, but also she really could not bear to let him take his coat off, not on such a cold night.’ Far from being sentimental, Empson’s ‘but also’ (and by extension, Fielding’s also) is what saves the interpretation from the prevalent sentimentality of cynicism. And the authenticity of Empson’s response is audible in the comic propriety of his syntax and cadence: ‘but also she really could not bear to let him take his coat off, not on such a cold night.’ You can hear her sigh – to adopt a dramatisation which Empson loves to call in evidence. Of Mrs Palmer’s deposition that she was legally Mrs Marvell: ‘Tupper appears to think that she sounds like a cheat here, but I think she sounds very plain and true, as well as astonished and indignant. I can hear her panting.’ Of Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Two Horses’: ‘Woolchurch is wonderfully like a horse; you can hear him squeal.’

Just as a philosopher needs not only to mount a right argument but to explain how unstupid people have mounted wrong ones, so Empson is cogent not only at exposing but at explaining error. ‘One must realise, as he is the villain in this story, that he too thought his actions were fully justified.’ ‘The reason why Mrs Waters gets misunderstood here is that here as always she is unusually generous-minded.’ ‘The delusion about incest is the kind of mistake which is always likely if you interpret in selfish terms the remarks of a very unselfish character.’ This power to rise from the tact of an instance to the touchstone of a principle is happily endemic in Empson. There is no contradiction, only magnanimity, in his being able both to exult in the achievement of The Waste Land and to insist that there remains a very important point of principle: ‘The poem is inherently a mystery; I would never have believed that the Symbolist programme could be made to work at all, if it had not scored a few resounding triumphs, such as this.’ This is an admission comparable in its dignity to Dr Johnson’s return upon himself in the matter of Paradise Lost and blank verse: ‘I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer.’ Empson does not prevail on himself. His glancingly intelligent gloss on intelligence came when he praised Copernicus for being more intelligent, ‘(less at the mercy of his own notions)’, than people had noticed. Yet Empson, like Johnson, does hold to his own notions, since simply to cede them would be to be at the mercy of other men’s. So two pages after declining to scold The Waste Land, he can observe that one nub of the Symbolist difficulty is that what validates scolding becomes unclear:

Anyway, a touch of the craving to scold may be observed in the poem here, with its assumption that the poet is nobler and purer than anything he contemplates. The French writers who invented Symbolism seem never to have thought of turning it to the uses of a cats’ tea-party; but then, if Eliot was imitating Dickens, he was bound to scold, and Dickens would have shown no mercy to a Hapsburg courtier. The difference is that Dickens had a plot, which allowed him to show adequate reasons for his scolding; it is true that the plot is often perfunctory – no admirer of Oliver Twist would try to detail the itinerary of the villain; but to scold without even a residual plot, as a Symbolist, is bound to feel self-regarding. Even so, it felt a good deal more human than Mallarmé or Valéry.

Even the Christian religion is not denied Empson’s magnanimity when for once in some aspect it deserves it. He really does honour Fielding’s Gospel goodness, and it is an irony not a sarcasm when he praises the Church of England for having kept Christianity at bay. Using Biography is less a matter of abusing Christianity than of disabusing people of it. Repeatedly the effort of his historical imagination is to make you less quick to condemn: ‘There was also a simple line of argument, which probably decided the last action of Charles II: that the cats said all prots would go to Hell, but the prots (or some Anglicans at least) admitted that some cats would not. It was therefore safer to become a cat at the end. This is not cynical; in moods when such people really did believe in God, they accepted the ample evidence that he was like a capricious earthly king.’ This has unexpected reserves of pity and respect – unexpected, that is, in anyone other than Empson. The ones whom he does not respect are the latterday saints, the sanctimonious distorters and narrowers of the great writers. Again and again his complaint against modern interpretations is that the art which they then praise would not deserve praise. ‘It would ring very false if he only meant ...’; ‘But it makes the poem complacent and footling ...’; ‘There would be no point in the nastiness invented by Wittreich’; ‘What it reveals is that all these critics have been libelling Yeats, not on purpose but because they cannot grasp the spiritual points at which he differed from Mr Chadband’; or, ‘a degree of mean-mindedness positively incapacitating for a literary critic’. Empson shows in these essays, as ever, a degree of magnanimity positively capacitating for a literary critic. Of course he is immeasurably more capacious than the rest of us. Those of us who revere him and delight in him, then and now, are not the ones who need to be told how far short we fall of his genius and goodness. He has a touching parenthesis: ‘(As for myself here, I agree with Fielding and wish I was as good.)’