On a Chinese Mountain

Frank Kermode

  • The Royal Beasts by William Empson
    Chatto, 201 pp, £12.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3084 9
  • Essays on Shakespeare by William Empson
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £25.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 521 25577 5

The Royal Beasts contains works of Empson’s previously unpublished or published long ago and very obscurely. There is a short play, an unfinished novel, a ballet scenario and a batch of poems, all early. It is the third posthumous volume and much the most important, though a fourth – a collection of essays on 17th-century poetry and drama – is promised for 1987. Since it will presumably contain Empson’s essays on Donne, which have a peculiar centrality in his work, this final volume will be needed for any considered estimate of a writer much honoured by fellow critics (at any rate in England) even when they found him most exasperating. However, it will hardly match The Royal Beasts in interest.

The volume has a valuable seventy-page introduction and some useful notes by John Haffenden, who arranges the material as far as possible in chronological order. The play or melodrama, Three Stories, was written when the poet was 20, and performed, with him in the cast, by the Cambridge ADC. Long supposed to have been lost as Empson pursued his career in the East, it somehow turned up, and is certainly worth having. The poems mostly belong to the late Twenties. Some appeared in Cambridge magazines but were excluded from the first collection of 1935. A dozen are now printed for the first time ever. The novel was written in China in the immediately pre-war years; the ballet belongs to 1942, when Empson was working for the BBC and writing propaganda for Chinese consumption.

Between Cambridge and the BBC he had published Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Poems and Some Versions of Pastoral (both of 1935), and a second volume of verse, The Gathering Storm (1940). He also wrote many reviews and – as we now learn – a book on the faces of the Buddha, obviously the product of intense research and imaginative energy, but totally lost. He had been a professor in Japan from 1931 to 1934, and in 1937 joined the faculty of Peking National University in Hunan, where the northern universities had retreated before the Japanese advance. These were the years when he taught English literature without the aid of books, at the same time getting on with his writing. The Royal Beasts has a whole library behind it, but he must have carried it in his head. He was the only non-Chinese around, and obviously enjoyed the whole dangerous and uncomfortable enterprise. He returned to England when the European war began, but went back to China afterwards, coming home finally in 1952. By that time he was already a legendary figure, partly because of the precocious Seven Types but also for the poems, which enjoyed a revival of attention around 1950. The Structure of Complex Words had come out in 1951, The Collected Poems in 1955. Now a professor at Sheffield (he had wanted to work in Yorkshire), he published Milton’s God in 1961.

During his years at Sheffield, and afterwards, Empson entered with spirit into the life of the literature professor and took part with idiosyncratic vehemence in the professional controversies of the day. But although he didn’t mind being a prof, there was an element of suspicion or mistrust in his dealings with other profs. He wished they could all be different and often suspected them of holding detestable and smug views on Intention or God. In his critical writings one sees again and again that he is trying to deal justly with these contemporaries, but sooner or later exasperation at their dullness takes over. I think he was very conscious of the breadth and variety of his own experience and so thought us all narrow and tame, venturing our pathetic little audacities from positions of bourgeois security. ‘It is not human to feel safely placed’ is a line that expresses a deep conviction.

Not being fully human, the professors frequently missed the simple meaning of the great literature they were supposed to know about. What they admired in him was his extraordinary subtlety, his sometimes shocking novelties: but although he was properly proud of such powers, I think he came to set even more store by his access to quite simple truths about literature and life that were being overlooked. There is a famous page about Gray’s ‘Elegy’ at the beginning of Some Versions of Pastoral which shows how the cleverness and the simplicity worked together. Commenting on the stanza beginning ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene ...’ he points out that it means 18th-century England had no carrière ouverte aux talents.

This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it ... By comparing the social arrangement to Nature, he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. Furthermore, a gem does not mind being in a cave and a flower prefers not to be picked; we feel that the man is like the flower, as short-lived, natural and valuable, and this tricks us into feeling that he is better off without opportunities. The sexual suggestion of blush brings in the Christian idea that virginity is good in itself, so that any renunciation is good ...

And so it goes on, one of the texts that taught a generation to read well and feel good about it. Here we feel we are really seeing through Gray; his poem has a ‘massive calm’ but it doesn’t take a Communist to see that it is a political cheat; ‘the “bourgeois” themselves do not like literature to have too much “bourgeois ideology”.’ Splendid: but it is the sentence beginning the next paragraph that gives the Empsonian surprise: ‘And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy.’ One hears rather little about permanent truths in modern criticism; to Empson it was obvious that they existed and that it was dishonourable (another word he didn’t mind using) to ‘wince away’ from them.

Watching everybody wincing away made him more and more peppery and also, on occasion, less reasonable. He was the cavalier and the wincers mean-minded puritans. The authors he venerated he went on listening to very carefully, but there was a sort of boisterous uncharitableness in his treatment of their expositors. He was not an easy man to argue with; he liked to say he was only the animal méchant, and it is true that he had to put up with some fairly ferocious attacks in his time: but there was a touch of Prince Rupert also, a feeling that à outrance was the only way to fight. Of course a man can’t go on charging all the time, and what one remembers mostly is a morose geniality of manner, an amiability isolated and wary. But above all one thinks of him with affection and deep respect, the one genius that the modern explosion in the critical population has produced. So it seems, at any rate, to my generation. Recently Christopher Norris has been meditating, with his usual tact, the resemblances and differences between the Empson of The Structure of Complex Words and the Paul de Man of Allegories of Reading – a sign, perhaps, that the most neglected (and most theoretical) of Empson’s books will have something to say even to the young, who may suppose that really serious rhetorical analysis only got going in the late Sixties.

However, The Royal Beasts is not criticism, though it shows the intellectual force of the critical books of the Thirties, and sometimes reminds us of them. It is striking, for instance, that the play Three Stories should, at such an early date, show Empson experimenting with elaborate double plots. The main plot is about a young man who serves as secretary to an old novelist, and as lover to the old man’s young wife. There is some good rather ‘brittle’ dialogue, some bright talk about sexual morality; and the old man gets shot for patronising the young one. In between the two halves of that plot there occurs an apparently unrelated scene about a man named Smith, who is the captive of Dracula. Some of this scene is written in that free-associative style Empson used in his first published poem, ‘Poem about a ball in the 19th century’, and in another here printed, called ‘Address to a Tennis Player’; the notes to the poems express some doubt about the virtues of this manner, and they seem justified, but he kept the first poem in the Collected and perhaps rightly, for some of his best works (‘It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange ...’) have put the half-awake, entranced style to better use.

The formal experiment in Three Stories isn’t just the Dracula sandwich: as the title says, there are three stories. The other is a framing romance, a mythical induction and epilogue in heroic couplets: in this story the wife is in chains, the young man comes with a sword to slay the dragon; he does so and they live happily afterwards, as they don’t in the verismo version. It’s admittedly a curious affair, properly admired in the Cambridge of its day. Haffenden quotes the Granta review, which smartly praises the author for achieving ‘an almost complete mastery of his Oedipus complex’ and using it ‘for very intelligent purposes ... If we interpreted it rightly, it amounted to something like this: that the ethical problems of life differ from the scientific problems only if one conceives them romantically, and even then, the apparent romanticism achieved, they become scientific again.’ Much later, Empson told Martin Dodsworth that the structural idea had been ‘to take a story and interpose a scene of apparently total irrelevance in the middle’: we can now confirm the accuracy of that recollection as well as offering belated congratulations to the Granta reviewer.

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