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The Royal Beasts contains works of Empson’s previously unpublished or published long ago and very obscurely.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.

In the chatter about sex the name of A.M. Ludovici is mentioned, a writer now remembered, if at all, for having infuriated T.E. Hulme by writing a little book on Nietzsche (‘Mr Ludovici, writing on Nietzsche, might be compared to a child of four in a theatre watching a tragedy based on adultery ... The most appropriate way of dealing with him would be a little personal violence’) and patronising Epstein. Ludovici was also a feminist. Haffenden provides an interesting note from a diary Empson kept in 1926 which says that despite ‘the grave national crisis’ (the General Strike) what he wants to talk about is Ludovici and his creed of Heterosexual Healthiness. Against this doctrine the young poet argues that natural man really wants only a honeymoon; he will impregnate a woman and then ‘swing back to the homosexual ... A purely heterosexual man is dangerously uncivilised.’ We shall see the relevance of this observation to The Royal Beasts. The note goes on to remark that Freud had shown how ‘to make sure of the family ... we took sex aside and turned it Oedipose.’ You can see that Empson at 20 had a lot going for him, and there is abundant testimony to the fame he enjoyed in what he called, after they kicked him out, ‘that strange cackling little town’.

This collection includes more of the poems that contributed to his early reputation. He remarked in a letter to Ian Parsons, who was to publish his first books, that ‘there is a rather portentous air about compact poems without notes, like a seduction without conversation,’ and of course he wrote notes fairly freely, though claiming to believe that what made them necessary was weakness in the poems. We could certainly use some notes to these unpublished poems. There is a pretty piece he wrote at 13 and a rueful one about being sent down. ‘Letter vi’ is instantly attractive, an epithalamion

Never to be thrust on your unwilling notice
Still less before the public, annotated.

Yet here it is, though unannotated. There is as usual a lot of astronomical troping. ‘Insomnia’ feels like a good poem; it is one of those where for a while you congratulate yourself on hanging on to the sense, but then fall off, or look for notes. There is one theme which often appears with variations: a move into unintelligibly vast space, or downwards in a cave, or in a labyrinth:

Simply we do not know what are the turnings
Expound our poising of obscure desires,
What Minotaur in irritable matched burnings
Yearns and shall gore her intricate my fires.

Haffenden has some useful remarks on the poems, not unlike those of the Granta reviewer on the play: they try to solve the contradictions between the world of science and the feeling of being human; in the circumstances of the late Twenties it seemed the way to do this was to ‘build ... with slow labour and a due regard for fame, a private cosmos’, as Empson put it. He always believed the main reason for writing poems was to be rid of psychological tension, though there was a social obligation to be intelligible: so it isn’t surprising that the poems are so tormented, and look down long vistas of possibility, moving from one metaphor to another in an attempt to express a meaning that cannot be literal. Yet Empson always insisted that there was nothing in the poem for you if you couldn’t follow the argument; and if his ‘audience within himself’ couldn’t, the poem failed in its therapeutic function, which was to save the poet’s sanity. All this is very clearly stated in Empson’s interview with Christopher Ricks in The Review (June 1963). Presumably the audience, within and without, needs to get some notion of how it felt to have to write the poem, and then to write it. This is a clue to much that goes on in the criticism; it explains Empson’s lengthy campaign against W.K. Wimsatt, the aesthetician of the New Criticism, and it also explains why American critics, who tend to class Empson as a New Critic, are sometimes unable to believe that he wasn’t ‘anti-intentionalist’. In fact, he is the most convinced of intentionalists, and although he does a certain amount of unfair sneering at his opponents, his most ravishing, as well as his most wrongheaded, interpretations are always meant to be about what happened in a poet’s head. Later on I shall give some instances I myself think important or weird.

The strangest of these works is the ballet scenario, ‘The Elephant and the Birds’, with Empson’s comments on it and some interesting ancillary material supplied by Haffenden. Empson worked on it in 1942, when he was at the BBC, and seems to have gone on thinking about it for some time after that. The ballet combines two quite different stories, the Greek myth of Philomel and Procne, and an Indian legend about the Buddha’s incarnation as an elephant. As Haffenden says, the idea was to ask a double-plot riddle: what does the tale of rape and cannibalism in Thrace have in common with the Buddha’s self-sacrifice in his animal incarnation?

Empson knew a lot about Buddhism, which he saw as representing a stage of religious development from which Christianity, with its equation of love with torture, was a regression. Moreover he had argued, in his lost book Asymmetry in Buddha Faces, that by giving each of the Buddha’s profiles a separate expression the sculptors produced a sort of icon of unity in dissimilarity, and of the way in which ‘one arrives at two ideas of dealing with things which both work and are needed, but which entirely contradict one another,’ as he remarked in a review of 1928. He was also interested in the Gandhara sculpture and the argument as to whether or in what degree the eastward penetration of Alexander gave a Greek form to images of the Buddha. The ballet has something to do with holding East and West in a single thought.

Empson worked it out in great detail, not only the conduct of the narratives but the stage settings and music. He seems to have got Leslie Hurry to show interest, and sent a copy to John Hayward for comment. Hayward was used to this kind of request: he advised Eliot on ‘Little Gidding’ and a few years later Auden on the libretto of The Rake’s Progress; and for somebody who professed no expert knowledge of ballet he acquitted himself rather well. It occurred to him that elephants were not very balletic; or, as he put it, there might be ‘some difficulty in finding adequate symbolism for the Elephants’ weight, majesty and dignity’. And he made a number of practical suggestions: though dumpy in real life, the nightingale need not appear so on stage; swallows should be accompanied by violins, etc. Empson’s reply is in his familiar tone of cheerful insult: ‘My dearest Hayward, I was much shocked by your kind letter ... Your views on my little ballet show I think the appalling corruption into which European ideas about ballet have fallen ...’ He had seen Japanese dancing in the Noh plays, and the Cambodian asparas at Angkor, and much preferred them to occidental galumphing.

One may ask why he should have spent so much energy on this recondite project when he knew that in the unlikely event of the ballet ever being danced it could only be danced absurdly. However, he did think the European ballet – he mentions Swan Lake and The Firebird – had the power of restoring mystery to already known legends; and he wanted somehow to bring that kind of thing into contact with Eastern legend and Eastern dance, as in the double profiles of the Buddha. At this distance of time it may seem that it was pretty fantastic to hope for the realisation of such a project in the dreary middle of the war: yet the old Sadler’s Wells Ballet was not unadventurous and it might just have come off, however disappointingly. In any case, it enlarges one’s idea of the man to have a sight of this rather weird enterprise.

We learn even more, I think, from ‘The Royal Beasts’. It is a philosophical fable of great ingenuity and much charm, though it is easy to see why it was never finished. Empson wrote what there is of it on a Chinese mountain, without the aid of books, and although he presumably did some reading for it before leaving England (Zuckerman on apes, at least), it is remarkable how, under such conditions, he disposed of so much considered information.

Swift invented reasonable horses to show what a rational animal would be like. Empson invents an animal distinct from man and the higher apes, which nevertheless has strong affinities with man: for instance, it uses language. It is fur-covered, has a long tail and lemur-like eyes. But probably the most important difference is that the Wurroos have a breeding season. The questions that come up when a representative Wurroo (called Wuzzoo) is brought together with a British colonial administrator are many and profound. Formerly the Wurroos had kept to themselves, beating and expelling intruders: but a prospector finds gold in their territory. Wuzzoo brings some; his people don’t want it, but they do want protection from the evils that could follow its discovery. Not wishing to be treated like the native human populations, they ask to be regarded as beasts belonging to the King, feeling sure that he treats his animals better than his human subjects. So the immediate question, are they men or not? acquires some political urgency.

This is where their breeding season becomes important. Haffenden quotes a long unposted letter to Zuckerman in which Empson says that his Wurroos ‘have become rational without the Freudian machinery’. A month of orgiastic copulation, with special rules, special music, obscene drawings, and so on, and then back to sexless fur-picking, which goes on for the rest of the year. Wuzzoo volunteers the information that he once had the same woman for three seasons, but says this was thought odd. One sees here a resemblance to the ideal arrangements suggested in the younger Empson’s notes on Ludovici, but the main point is that the family is an arrangement unknown to the Wurroos, who therefore aren’t Oedipal, and need a civilisation that can be established without the creative energies born of sexual repression.

George Bickersteth, Empson’s colonial administrator, is an intelligent human and sexually quite ordinary; he gives up a native mistress and brings out a wife from a rectory. She is quite attracted to Wuzzoo, whom she teaches English, and he has to explain what is possible between them and what not. This helps to show that the Wurroos are both very similar and very different from humans; and there are other related boundary problems, such as the visitor’s sleeping place (indoors, or outside with the dogs?), and, in the megapolitical realm, jurisdiction over territories with vague frontiers controlled by obscure treaties. Empson is surprisingly calm on the colonial question, if one thinks of the sort of thing the Left Book Club was saying about it at the time: his interest is more abstract, he is trying to think about Man.

Wuzzoo is friendly but knows he is not a man and, as he mildly tells Bickersteth, he thinks very badly of men. But the administrator has to warn him of the possibly severe consequences of not being human, such as being hunted for one’s fur. Empson mentions more than once the decision of the Church in the matter of the natives of Tierra del Fuego: it proclaimed them human. And here he sets up a big court scene in which counsel argues the case of the Wurroos. This starts brilliantly with a plea for their non-humanity, very legal and scientific: humans cannot copulate with Wurroos, as experiment had shown, and any further attempts along that line would be liable to the charge of bestiality. Moreover blood transfusions between men and Wurroos fail. Counsel further argues that the case is unprecedented, since previous history records no instance of a species to be inserted in the space between animal and man. (This is untrue, as homo selvaticus filled this space, though it is true that, like Caliban, he could copulate with humans and wanted very much to do so; nor did he have a breeding season.) The legal arguments in favour of the humanity of the Wurroos seem much weaker, and it is with the philosophical and practical issues arising from their rational non-humanity that Empson is concerned. Were they capable of redemption? Should missionaries be sent? The Archbishop of Canterbury makes a good speech. The Buddhists make a strong claim that in their religion the Blessed One is open to the entire animal kingdom. Wuzzoo himself thinks Christianity fine for men, and also likely to be more creative, because more repressive, than Buddhism. But the main theological problem raised is one that had a permanent interest for Empson. The Archbishop remarks that if we got to Mars and found it inhabited, we should certainly want to convert the natives. Empson is thinking, not for the first time, about the plurality of worlds, and the need for multiple redemptions. Was Christ to be crucified all over the universe? If it became necessary, would he be recrucified here? Granted this sacrificial versatility, could he even appear under many guises, so that one might think of a particular person (Donne’s Elizabeth Drury, for example) as Christ?

Although Empson has a lot of fun inventing a system of music appropriate to a ‘sexless’ species, and imagining the Wuzzoo attitude to babies (‘Do your women like having to look after these things? Of course they are only raving lunatics for a year or so, but then they only get on to nagging and whining. Is that why women have to be kept under, because otherwise they wouldn’t let you breed the things at all?’), and although the whole performance is notably high-spirited, this matter of plural worlds and redemptions was a serious one. Empson pondered it often: so, as it happens, did C.S. Lewis around the same time, but the emphasis was different. Perhaps Empson’s interest in the theological implications of Bruno’s plurality of worlds (which he sees as very complex) really stems from his almost obsessive interest in Donne, whom he regarded as the poet of the New Philosophy as it was circulating around 1600, the year of Bruno’s execution, and for a while after that. In fact, I think, the religious issue, and the poetry of Donne, were deeply involved with each other in Empson’s head, and the effects of the involvement are odd and important. ‘In the Twenties, when my eyes were opening, it was usual for critics to consider that Donne in his earlier poetry held broad and enlightened views on church and state, that he was influenced by the recent great scientific discoveries, and that he used the theme of freedom in love partly as a vehicle for those ideas ... I was imitating this Donne, the poet as so conceived, in my verse at the time with love and wonder, and I have never in later years come across any good reason for the universal change of opinion about him at the start of the Thirties.’

The inhabited planet stood for a place where lovers could be free, independent, in a world of their own. Identifying so profoundly with Donne (so that he was sure he knew what had been going on in the young poet’s mind), Empson had a deep quarrel with others who could not share this view, a quarrel which developed alongside his quarrel with the supreme torturer who required Satisfaction from his Son in all the worlds that otherwise stood for human and poetic freedom.

Though it may take a bourgeois professor to say so, Empson was wrong about Donne and the New Philosophy. Donne knew about Copernicus and made jokes about Kepler and Tycho Brahe and Galileo, but he habitually thought about the world in pre-Copernican terms, and treated the New Philosophy as further evidence that all human knowledge was extremely fallible, a point sufficiently proved by the failure of the old philosophy and of all human philosophies; only in heaven will you see things ‘despoyl’d of fallacies’. But Empson knew a lot about the New Philosophy, so in an odd way he assumed that Donne must regularly have put it into his poetry, or his poetry would not be as like Empson’s as the latter thought. Others thought so, too, including Dr Leavis. And yet it is not true. The mere difficulty of following the arguments of Donne’s poems (which in any case did not stem from his frequent use of new scientific ideas) has steadily diminished since the Grierson edition of 1912 did so much to purge the text and make the allusions available: but nothing can really make Empson’s poems easier because they use metaphor quite differently.

For example: Donne’s ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ is certainly a difficult poem, but if you know, or get up, the elements of alchemy and a bit of quite antique cosmology you can hold on to the argument; that isn’t, of course, all you need to do, but it is a prerequisite to the rest. The following lines, which come at the beginning of a poem called ‘New World Bistres’, seem to me quite different:

The darkest is near dawn, we are almost butter.
The churning is fixed now; we have ‘gone to sleep’
In body, and become a living pat;
It is then that the arm churning it aches most
And dares least pause against the ceaseless churning.
I am sure he will soon stumble upon the gift,
Maypole his membranes, Ciro be his eyes,
A secret order, assumptive distillation;
Fitting together it will be won and seem nothing,
Mild artifact, false pearl, corpse margarine.

Here one can get most of the jokes and allusions, even the general run of the thing: but not, so far as I can see, the unbroken thread of argument. Even the title is baffling, and becomes even more so if you look up ‘bistre’ in the OED, as the poet is likely to have done. To put it coarsely, he was imitating a Donne of his own imagining.

However, he was quite unwilling to budge on such points, and once showed me a copy of the Kenyon Review containing the long essay ‘Donne the Space Man’ with copious annotations and additions strengthening his position, and so striking at those who by doubting it dishonoured Donne. At the time of Donne’s quatercentenary in 1972 he and I found ourselves trying to collaborate on a stage piece for the Mermaid Theatre. I can no longer remember how Bernard Miles came up with this very bad idea, or why we both agreed to try it. I had known Empson a bit since his return from China, we had lunch and sometimes met as neighbours in Hampstead, but there was an element of unease in the relationship, which I think he accounted for by including me in a black list of Neo-Christians, a charge difficult to deny, since one’s protests could be thought to be evasions or distorted admissions. There was trouble from the start, since Empson wanted it made perfectly clear that in ‘The Good Morrow’ the man and woman had been making love on the planet Venus, a reading he characterised as belonging to an older and more reliable school of thought about Donne: by wincing away from this view I was meanly trying to make the poet less interesting. We had the devil of a time trying to get something together that would work, and then he had to go to Canada before the show came on, adjuring me not to meddle with his share of the script. Two or three days before the first performance the actor playing Donne – Alan Dobie – walked off; he had done a lot of work but was perhaps sickened by certain contradictions in the script. The piece was hardly a success, and I am glad to think the Empson scholars are unlikely to trace that manuscript. The point is that the preservation of his lifelong view of Donne was really self-preservation; he reacted like a wicked animal if anybody seemed to disparage his scientist-poet.

The measure of this virtuous méchanceté can be got from the ferocity with which he attacked Helen Gardner’s edition and, almost at the end of his life, John Carey’s critical biography. According to his review, Carey’s book says ‘no one need bother any more about Donne,’ and the tone is fiercely contemptuous; the main argument is about the Elegy ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’, and especially the line ‘Here is no penance, much less innocence,’ or ‘There is no penance due to innocence.’ The second of these is the reading of the first edition, held up on moral grounds till 1669; the former is the reading of some good manuscripts. The choice of reading does make a difference to the sense of the whole poem. Empson is certain that the ‘due to’ reading is the right one, and he gives reasons for this, though the main reason is that he wants a young poet to be saying, with the utmost cleverness of course, that this sexual encounter is innocent in itself. Carey’s version of what was going on in the poem (and many are possible) required him to adopt the other reading, and Empson thought that reading exceedingly base. What is extraordinary is the combative rancour of Empson’s comments. Helen Gardner joined in to say, quite reasonably, that the 1669 version means: ‘why wear this last white garment? It symbolises penitence or virginity, and neither is appropriate.’ Empson’s reply is that her reading is textually ‘impossible’. When another correspondent points out that in the course of his review he misread some of Carew’s commemorative verse, Empson allows that the reading now proposed is right, but that the wrong one was there all the same, and the passage would have been heard ‘as an adroit piece of double talk’. This is as defensive as he ever gets. When he castigates Carey’s version of the poem as sadistic (‘panting, bug-eyed Carey’) he uses words like ‘malignant’ and ‘ignorant’; I myself think Carey has got the poem wrong, but his version is no more fanciful than Empson’s, in which the girl is an upper-class person who has left her husband drunk at some city banquet and hurried round to the poet’s rooms. Claiming to know too much weakens the claim to knowing the important thing.

Empson’s quarrel with the God of the Christians is also associated with his views on the young Donne, but got its fullest airing in Milton’s God. There is, in that remarkable work, an excursus on Pascal which above almost anything else in this writer gives one an impression of the genuine moral power of his criticism. He is assaulting the professors who can’t see that Satan, in his initial address to the troops, speaks out of a conviction that his cause is just. He finds their attitude ‘confidently low-minded’, and it reminds him of Pascal’s 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 the 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 be prepared to reject such a calculation ...

‘If you win, you win everything,’ says Pascal; ‘if you lose, you lose nothing.’ Empson has many more subtle points to make, but it does warm the heart to hear this line of argument dismissed as simply dishonourable. He associates it with that ‘unpleasant moral collapse’ which he thought had during his own lifetime struck ‘our literary mentors’ – neo-Christians with ‘no sense of personal honour or of the public good’.

You can see how a man who was willing to rough up Pascal, not to mention God, as dishonourable and rather low-class would not worry about calling ‘our literary mentors’ disgusting, malignant, horrible, and so forth. Critics have to prove that they aren’t the literary version of Evelyn Waugh’s Hooper trespassing on Brideshead. The examination of their credentials came to occupy more of Empson’s time than writing about poetry as such, and although the result can be entertaining and even heartwarming there must surely be a sense of loss.

That’s why the Shakespeare collection is not likely to be thought one of his major works. His fondness for a good row, and for working out difficult puzzles, give the book much interest, and the whole thing is manifestly a product of his great veneration for Shakespeare, so it is a pity there is so little about the poetry. He had come to think that much criticism was too fancy, took far too little notice of basic story and plot, character, theatrical conditions; he was in reaction against the anti-Bradleyanism of his Cambridge days, the time of L.C. Knights’s How many children had Lady Macbeth?, as well as against the more high-falutin criticism that poured out in his later years, the product of academic market pressures or perhaps a corrupt neo-Christianity. People had stopped understanding what poets actually do; Empson would dogmatically explain this, dwelling on what seemed to others minor issues like the supposed marriage of Marvell to Mary Palmer or the way some manuscripts were filched.

The Shakespeare essays, written over 27 years (the latest, a review of Harold Brooks’s edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, appeared in this paper in October 1979), share these characteristics. The racy manner almost prevents one questioning the confidence with which we are told Shakespeare or the Archbishop of Canterbury would or must have done this or that; or that in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ Shakespeare says nothing about the subsequent fall of the Roman monarchy because, as anybody who knows what it is to live under political censorship would be aware, he couldn’t. Here, in the essay on the poems, I thought he was so busy making this sort of point against the Hooper-critics that he failed to register the Troy tapestry episode as a rich bit of double-plotting, finding it hard to excuse except as ‘a substitute for dangerous thoughts about royalty’.

And those ‘would’s’ and ‘must’s’ change easily into ‘did’s’: ‘I think a visitor was left to wait in a room where a cabinet was unlocked ... he saw at once that they would sell ... Thumbing through the notebook, he ...’ On ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ he is so involved in the mysterious story of how the compilation in which it figures was got together that he writes, on the poem itself, what must be the weakest of all his criticism. No wonder he wonders how Shakespeare went straight on from this to his great tragic period.

The fifty-page essay on Falstaff and the seventy-page essay on Hamlet are as much as anything a running commentary on John Dover Wilson, who is treated with as much respect as Empson ever offers, but gets a lot of ribbing as well. Their difference concerning Falstaff is, crudely, that Dover Wilson thought he must choose one of the two options that seemed to be on offer, whereas Empson, claiming the support of the first audience, saw that you had to take both: the audience would certainly be all for political order, good kingship and so on, and against Riot, but they would also be for Falstaff – ‘the first major joke by the English against their class system; he is a picture of how badly you can behave, and still get away with it, if you are a gentleman.’ This seems acceptable, but it is argued at length and in that tone of ferocious facetiousness which can sometimes be tedious. Sometimes he seems to want all the good tunes. First he turns down Dover Wilson’s parallel between the deaths of Socrates and Falstaff, saying it could not have been intended; but on second thoughts he takes the parallel into his own argument and credits Wilson with an ‘eerie flash of imagination’. However, there is no doubt that anybody who feels like writing about Falstaff should work through this piece.

Of Hamlet Empson, who certainly had a smack of Hamlet, rightly remarks that it ‘opened up a new territory to the human mind’. Again he tries to receive it as the first audience might. Shakespeare was required to rewrite an old play for an audience which remembered it only as a joke, and would now ask questions they hadn’t in their simpler days. The solution was to make the question of delay very conspicuous instead of pretending it didn’t exist. ‘The only way to shut this hole is to make it big. I shall make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and again, “I don’t know why I’m delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can’t help it.” ’ This of course helps to explain the new self-conscious theatricality of the play. Empson goes into all the famous problems with great patience and vigour: the sheer length of the piece, the relation between the three texts, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, the complicity of the Queen, the odd placing of the soliloquies, especially ‘How all occasions’ (which he says was only played when an encore seemed called for), and so on – a sort of What happens in Hamlet in miniature. Among the good things he says about Hamlet himself is this: ‘Hamlet never loses class, however mad. He keeps also a curious appeal for the lower classes in the audience as a satirist on the upper classes’: perhaps one of the ways in which one can say that he himself has a smack of Hamlet. It also seems characteristic that when he says he thinks the madness in Elizabeth drama, of which there is a lot, probably derives from Hamlet, he apologises for producing irritating guesswork, though this conjecture has a much more solid basis than many that aren’t called guesswork at all.

The commentary on Dover Wilson continues in a briefer essay on Macbeth, but in a 65-page essay on the Globe he turns his critical gaze on others. He pins his faith on J.C. Adams, whose book on the Globe is over forty years old, though updated in 1961. He wants to amend Adams, and does some close work on theatrical structures, scorning much scholarship that came later and running a special campaign against Glynne Wickham. There is some rousing stuff about the staging of the opening battle in Coriolanus, but to say anything very useful about this essay you would have to be more up to date about the whole big controversy than I am. The essay on The Dream, and another on the last plays, are more eccentric than interesting. The last has a go at Derek Traversi and a milder one at me: I mention this in case some keen reader accuses me of wincing away from the charge of being at least Christian and possibly even an advocate of slavery.

The Shakespeare book is likely to be thought of as second-rate Empson and read more for its manners – the bulldog-like hanging on, the Hamlet-like flyting – than for its content. He was a great deal more than a tough controversialist, but he was certainly that, and he always found it hard to change his mind. In Seven Types he remarked that it was only in Don Juan that Byron escaped from his infantile incest-fixation on his half-sister, ‘which was till then all he had got to say’. Later he added a note to say he now understood that Byron did not meet Augusta till he was grown up (till he was 24, in fact). It seems very like him to have owned up but not to have altered the text. It is very much the attitude he would take toward God. He never loses class. And take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.