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.

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