David Trotter

  • Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden
    Chatto, 657 pp, £25.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3083 0

‘I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English Literature, which it is my business to know about, and try to examine the fundamentals, the basic tools.’ As he turns to literature, he shelves the old-buffer prejudices and begins to display instead the rationalism which spoke habitually of the ‘basic tools’ of imagination, and the sensitivity to language which enabled him to examine and test those tools. This is Empson the technocrat, the man who insisted that there is always room for a great deal of exposition, ‘in which the business of the critic is simply to show how the machine is meant to work, and therefore to show all its working parts in turn’. To know about imagination means to insist that it is a machine rather than a mystery, and to insist on demonstrating how the machine works. Such is the temperament precociously active in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and still volatile in Using biography (1984). The pieces collected here provide a fascinating context for, but do not in any way extend, the preoccupations of the major books. Their importance may rather be that they make it hard to distinguish between the two Empsons, the white-coated technocrat and the plain man costumed in tweedy prejudices. They suggest that, far from shelving his prejudices when he turned to literature, Empson used those prejudices to colour his arguments.

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