- Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. I: Donne and the New Philosophy by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden
Cambridge, 296 pp, £35.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 44043 2
- William Empson: The Critical Achievement edited by Chistopher Norris and Nigel Mapp
Cambridge, 319 pp, £35.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 35386 6
William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, not wishing to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity. Christopher Norris comes right out and calls Complex Words ‘a work of deconstruction’. His collection is meant to demonstrate that Empson can be accommodated in modern theory. It can now be shown that he was in many ways anticipating the interests and procedures of a newer criticism, though Norris in his Preface cautiously denies any intention to annex Empson’s criticism to any one prevailing trend: ‘it is a hopeful sign,’ he remarks, ‘that “theory” is coming of age when it manages to find room for a strong but problematical figure like Empson, a critic whose thinking goes so markedly against some of its basic precepts and principles.’
As a rhetorical concession this is prudent and ingenious, but it gives some measure of the size of the task. Norris knows very well what Empson thought of these precepts and principles. He once sent the great man some essays from the new French school, including Derrida’s famous lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, later treated as a manifesto by his American followers. Empson wrote back to say he found all these papers, including the one by Derrida, or ‘Nerrida’ as he preferred to name him, ‘very disgusting’. Norris, or Dorris, as Empson might have called him in his later career as a theorist, laments, not without reason, that his correspondent showed no signs of having understood what he had found disgusting. On the whole the current tendency is to compare and contrast him not with Derrida but with de Man – Norris spends time on this comparison, and Neil Hertz, in the collection reviewed here, has a whole essay about it. One can only imagine what Empson would have said about that, or what names he would have found for these in so many respects unlikely mates. True, Empson and de Man shared a certain hauteur, and a certain iconoclasm, but the political adhesions were different, and so were the critical dialects, one conscientiously bluff, the other rarefied and prone to gallicism.
That Complex Words is what Norris calls it, ‘Empson’s great theoretical summa’, is the view also of his contributors William Righter, Alan Durant and Colin MacCabe, and Jean Lecercle, whose lively piece includes a remark to the effect that the poem ‘Camping Out’ mentions a girlfriend cleaning her teeth into the lake. Empson, so keen on biography, would have liked him to know that this was no girlfriend but a sister.
Norris’s own essay takes up a good third of the whole book and best explains what is going on. There are, as he rightly remarks, more misunderstandings of Empson’s critical positions than is defensible. For example, Empson’s loose association with the American New Critics of long ago has given rise to the notion that he agreed with their anti-intentionalism, although for forty years he went on explaining with increasing force and irritation that the purpose of criticism was to follow the movement of the author’s mind. He saved some of his more brutal insults for W.K. Wimsatt, co-author of a famous article about ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. In the end, I think, this particular bogey distracted him from what he did best, and in Using Biography he seems to have given up movements of mind in favour of fancies and speculations he wouldn’t at earlier dates have thought relevant.
However, you would expect that this strain in his thought, alien not only to the old New Criticism but to the new New Criticism, might give Norris some trouble. He gets out of it by what I take to be a change in his own position, so that theory, now come of age, can henceforth permit some attention to what was intended. Again, it is a congenial consideration that Empson thought that the New Critics adapted his methods in a sneaky way to import Christianity into the argument: indeed, he believed that the decay of criticism was directly due to this intrusion of what Norris calls ‘surrogate or ersatz theology’. This accounts for his habit, sometimes baffling to the agnostic opponent, of condemning criticism he disagreed with as ‘neo-Christian’. The prefix suggests that indignant denials of Christian faith were merely evasive and would do you no good: you could be neo-Christian without being Christian. I think that historically this has something to do with a certain fashion for Christian criticism, and a more general worry about poetry and belief, at the time of Empson’s return from China; this fashion, led by such as C.S. Lewis and practised by such as Fr Martin Jarrett-Kerr, seemed interesting to others, who may thus have seemed, willy-nilly, to be crypto-Christians.
One point of importance in this, as usual good, but as usual digressive, essay concerns Empson’s refusal to distinguish between the truth of poetry and the truth of science. He rejected the ‘pseudo-statement’ theory of his mentor I.A. Richards, and as time went on had many tussles with the problem of figurative language, which often apparently says the thing that is not. He came to think of most contemporary literary criticism as a dreary professional attempt to avoid decisions about truth-statements made in poems. And of course he suspected a Christian plot. Norris is quite right to say that ‘what comes through most strongly is his deep-laid conviction that the best – indeed the only – way to make sense of complex or problematic novels or poems is to read them with a mind unburdened by the self-denying ordinances of modern critical dogma.’ But of course there are other forms of prejudice. Problems arising from arguments about truth and prejudice were to lead to noisy arguments about Donne.
I believe firmly that Empson was a great critic, but have to regard as wasteful his advocacy, over many years, of an eccentric view of Donne. To understand that view, here documented in full and supported by John Haffenden’s conscientious and adulatory commentary, one point at least is essential. Empson found it all but impossible to believe that any intelligent and honest person could be a Christian. A lot of his work is devoted to showing that even writers who would have been amazed to hear it nevertheless did at some level of sensibility or intellect see through the horrors of the Christian religion; Milton is the most obvious example (Milton’s God, 1961), but the very devout Herbert is another.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] This is a modernised version of the Gardner text.
Vol. 15 No. 16 · 19 August 1993
I much admired the poise and reasonableness of Professor Frank Kermode’s review of books by and about William Empson (LRB, 22 July). These gifts, though, can bring with them special assumptions. Kermode is generous, speaking of Empson as a great critic, if with strong reservations, and I happen to agree with this estimate. But the discussion involves terms that worry me.
Empson’s general theory of Donne Kermode calls ‘eccentric’. He wouldn’t want to say ‘wrong’, because he defines as one of Empson’s leading failings the wish to be ‘right’. What it can in his view lead to is described in a local point concerning the long debate about a reading in Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’: ‘Empson sometimes gets himself into cantankerous fights without necessity; here his argument is as obscure as it is contemptuous.’ ‘Gets himself’ and ‘cantankerous’ and ‘fights’ and ‘without necessity’ and ‘obscure’ are like ‘eccentric’: these words strike me as loaded and tendentious. They minimise the relevance of truth and feeling to the intellectual life.
To be more precise, there is more room than these terms suggest for difference of judgment as to the reading in question. I have to say that I agree with the first edition of the poem, made by Donne’s son just after the poet died, and with Grierson and with Empson. I am interested that Professor Kermode agrees with Dame Helen Gardner, a scholar with many unlike opinions to his, and think that a reading espoused by both needs disproving as it is likely to be either general or influential. But more importantly, I am disturbed that Kermode sees such differences as somehow (as he would say) ‘eccentric’ to the real stuff of poetry, ‘without necessity’: for he calls them ‘textual quibbling’. Because I believe that literary-critical and scholarly matters may still turn on intellectual issues of real weight, I’d like to ask for space to argue out a question that some of your readers may perhaps, like Professor Kermode, find trivial.
Kermode’s quotation of the first stanza of ‘A Valediction’ in a modernised form is – quite accidentally – tendentious as well (modernised versions of poets are often highly desirable, but not in textual discussions). I will quote the verse in Grierson’s unmodernised edition, on which in any case Gardner’s version is based:
Let me powre forth
My teares before thy face, whil’st I stay here,
For thy face coines them, and thy stampe they beare,
And by this Mintage they are something worth,
For thus they bee
Pregnant of thee;
Fruites of much griefe they are, emblemes of more,
When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.
The debated phrase is the penultimate line’s ‘that thou falst’. Unpublished in Donne’s life time, the poem was passed in manuscript from hand to hand, and clearly much copied; and some surviving copies read not ‘falst’ but ‘falls’. It seems possible that this was mere colloquial modernising. But on it Helen Gardner based a confident new reading in her 1965 Oxford Donne. Adopting the manuscript ‘falls’, she read it as a third-person singular verb; she made its subject ‘that thou’; she took ‘that’ as a demonstrative, not a conjunction; and ‘thou’ as not a pronoun but an irregular noun, meaning ‘the-image-or-concept-of-you-reflected-in-my-tear; the real you’.
Professor Kermode’s ‘All will agree that it is a superb poem’ is pacific and intended to enlarge the area of debate by conciliation. The trouble is that in the process a steady look at the text is demoted to ‘quibbling’. And yet scholars and critics exist, one would have thought – and Kermode’s own excellent work helps support the belief – to show just how superbness depends on what the writer wrote. Though ‘A Valediction; of weeping’ is not my favourite Donne poem, brilliance and magnificence it certainly has. These derive from a peculiarly Donnian or Metaphysical fusing of contrasts. A lover says goodbye, and weeps to say it, and weeps more to realise what the grief of separation may humanly mean. In that process of discovering meaning, something simple becomes complicated – the simplicity and the complexity go on together. Saying goodbye (even for a while) involves some vast, essential human loss, as in the infinite void of pre-Creation: ‘Thou and I are nothing then.’ But, oddly enough, this very grand abstract ending is achieved through an all too concrete argument of images, weirdly precise concepts of tears-like-coins that clatter and jangle through the lines, finally softening through pregnancy and fruits to emblems then mere, sheer tears.
There is perhaps something here marvellously mimetic of real, problematic human partings, the combination of (say) plumbed souls and red noses. This couldn’t have been done by a lesser poet, and couldn’t be done by Donne himself except by the exercise of certain laws. There has to be in the writer an equality of energy and control, each vital, each contradictory to the other. If the poem is ‘superb’ this is because hard conditions are sustained; for instance, the undoubting pace with which Donne drives his difficult stanza through its mind-boggling logic of images to the incomparable abyss of the last line.
This requires unique economy and naturalness. The first edition’s ‘falst’ is already a contraction of ‘fallest’; comparably, the conjunction ‘that’, in ‘that thou falst’, needs to slip in the reading into ‘tht’ as the English always say it colloquially. Keeping the word unstressed lets it perform more than one syntactical function at once. It means ‘in that’ (‘weeping is unavoidable but ominous because it brings about what it grieves for, so we grieve more’) and also ‘lest that’ (‘we weep in fear that we lose the other’). The lover weeps from knowledge of more kinds of loss than mere separation: loss by distance and death, but also loss of love itself, of trust and belief in the other, of trust and belief in the self.
Helen Gardner’s new reading ruins the rhythm and thereby the meaning without (to my mind) any concomitant advantages. By turning the conjunction ‘that’ into a demonstrative, and the pronoun ‘thou’ into a new and difficult noun, she slows down the line as if dropping an anvil in the middle of it. What should be an unstressed and breathless colloquial iamb at the centre of the line becomes an obstructive distracting spondee; ‘When a teare falls, THAT THOU FALLS.’ The line rocks and changes direction under the difficulty of the phrase, and the wonderful desolate climax of the last line disintegrates.
Professor Kermode has implied in his An Appetite for Poetry that literary academics may be doing actual damage to literature. But perhaps they always have; or perhaps some of us sometimes have. This must be a matter of more than ‘textual quibbling’. And, if Empson is the ‘great’ critic that Kermode cautiously calls him this depends on more than a very brilliant mind (in any case, one always variable in its success). As a very good poet himself Empson cared enough about what is done to the living poetry of others to get into ‘fights’ about it, sometimes despairingly trying to prove his highly distinguished instincts ‘right’ by falling back on wrong arguments.
Somerville College. Oxford
In his review of William Empson: The Critical Achievement, Frank Kermode remarks that Empson would have liked one of the contributors to this volume of essays to know that the ‘she’ in the poem ‘Camping Out’ was not a girlfriend but a sister. In the poem ‘Aubade’ there is a ‘he’ who can easily be taken for a husband. The poet’s female companion explains that she must take a taxi and leave his bed when they are disturbed by an earthquake, because it will have woken someone who will ‘bawl’, and finding her not there, ‘would know’. This person, referred to as ‘he’, was not a husband but a small boy in the charge of the nursemaid who was the poet’s companion – as Empson explained when I wrote something which assumed a husband was involved.
Vol. 15 No. 17 · 9 September 1993
When you really get down to it Barbara Everett’s letter (Letters, 19 August) is about a single disputed reading in Donne’s ‘Valediction: of weeping’, so I will refrain from comment on her more general remarks and merely say why I think she is wrong about that reading. I do not know why the modernised text was ‘tendentious’, nor is any evidence adduced to suggest that it was. However, I surrender, and add an ‘e’ to ‘tear’ to put the whole matter on a properly scholarly footing.
The line in question reads either: 1. ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore’ or 2. ‘When a teare falls, that thou falls which it bore.’ Ms Everett, like Empson, strongly favours the first of these; the second she twice calls ‘Helen Gardner’s new reading’, though why she calls it that, when it occurs in numerous 17th-century manuscripts, some of them authoritative, I cannot tell. (Nor do I understand why it is thought that because I have differed from Dame Helen on other issues I must perforce do so on this one.)
However, it is true that the first edition of 1633 favours 1, and that Grierson’s great edition prefers it also. Yet Grierson’s paraphrase, as I remarked in passing, seems, strangely enough, to be based on 2: ‘For, as your image perishes in each tear that falls, so shall we perish.’ And I admit that I couldn’t see Empson’s defence of it as proceeding from anything more cogent than his strong desire to be disagreeable to Gardner.
Ms Everett, on the other hand, offers to give reasons that are not mere ‘textual quibbling’ but considerations of weight for preferring 1. They are, as I understand them, a. ‘that’, or ‘tht’, means ‘in that’ and also ‘lest that’. Against 2 it is argued that by turning ‘that’ into a demonstrative and ‘thou’ into ‘a new and difficult noun’, Gardner and her predecessors have ruined both meaning and rhythm. In fact they saw what the meaning was; and far from injuring the rhythm by substituting an ‘obstructive spondee’ for an ‘unstressed and breathless iamb’ they may be thought to have saved the poem from clumsiness or nonsense.
This difference about rhythm might be called a matter of opinion or ear. It is less a matter of opinion than of common sense to prefer the reading which takes ‘that thou’ as meaning ‘that image of you in the tear’ to one that is as uncharacteristically strained as Ms Everett’s must be; so far as I can see she shuns direct paraphrase but has in mind something like ‘When a tear falls in that thou fallest which it bear’, plus ‘When a tear falls lest that thou fallest’, a Pelion of nonsense on an Ossa of the same. It seems to me far more likely that somebody just misunderstood the slightly unusual use of ‘thou’ as a noun (see OED s.v., 2a), and therefore stupidly changed ‘falls’ to ‘falst’, than that anybody went the other way about and changed ‘falst’ to ‘fall’ in a burst of ‘colloquial modernising’. If anybody really did need to alter ‘falst’ to ‘fall’ he had it in mind to make sense of the line and was smart enough to guess what the poet must have written. But I daresay it will be argued that I am misunderstanding Ms Everett, and, almost as bad, Donne.
Vol. 15 No. 19 · 7 October 1993
I remember saying to my old friend Helen Gardner long ago, perhaps while she was preparing her edition of Donne’s love poems (1965), that I was haunted by the possibility that Donne’s poem ‘The Anniversarie’ celebrated the ‘marriage of souls’, as Isaak Walton calls it, between Donne and John King. Helen said succinctly: ‘Forget it.’ But I didn’t forget it and, decades later, the interest recently shown by the LRB in the text of one of Donne’s lyrics emboldens me to outline the case for a new reading of another.
More precisely, it seems possible that ‘The Anniversarie’ celebrates the completion of the first year of a friendship that began in 1597-8, when John King became chaplain to the Lord Keeper Egerton and John Donne became Egerton’s secretary. When Walton calls this friendship ‘a marriage of souls’ in his life of Donne it is so apt a description of the subject of this poem that Walton might be covertly alluding to it. The part played by ‘bodies’ in this relationship is strikingly small. What will be lost in death will be ‘eyes’ and ‘eares’, the sight and speech of the loved one: ‘Oft fed with true oathes, and with sweet salt teares’. The language, though rather hectic by modern standards, is not more so than that used by the male friends Pyrocles and Musidorus in Sidney’s Arcadia, whose virtuous friendship allows one friend to kiss the other’s ‘weeping eyes’.
The love between the parties in ‘The Anniversarie’ will continue the same or be increased ‘when bodies to their graves, soules from their graves remove’. Are the bodies the graves of the souls? The desire to be buried together, ‘Two graves must hide thine and my corse/If one might, death were no divorce,’ reminds one that at this period male friends might with public approval desire not to be divided in death: for instance, in Caius College Chapel the tomb of Thomas Legge (d. 1607) bears an inscription commemorating his friendship with Stephen Perse, Junxit amor vivos sic jungat terra sepultos (‘love joined them living and so may the same earth link them in their graves’). But John King in 1598-9 was a married man, unlike those necessarily celibate fellows of colleges, and other considerations would enter in. Death was no divorce to Saul and Jonathan who were ‘lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their death they were not divided,’ as Donne no doubt recalls.
The concept of a love that might continue in heaven just as it was on earth is strikingly echoed by Cowley in his lines on David and Jonathan, fifty years later, in Davideis Bk II: ‘O ye blest Ones whose love on earth became/So pure that still in Heaven ‘tis but the same’. This for me a little confirms the notion that Donne, too, had been alluding to a David and Jonathan type friendship. Cowley may or may not have had ‘The Anniversarie’ in mind.
It is manifestly untrue that Donne could conceive of no virtuous love between man and woman outside matrimony (and matrimony is ruled out by ‘Two graves’ etc). But it must at least be granted that there is nothing to mark the person addressed in ‘The Anniversarie’ as female. Perhaps indeed there is a hint to the contrary in ‘Here upon earth, we’are Kings.’ A woman can be called a ‘Prince’, as Elizabeth often was, or a monarch, or a sovereign. It is at least extremely unusual for her to be called a ‘King’. It may seem on a hasty reading as though Donne does call his love a ‘King’ in ‘The Sunne Rising’:
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.
But a more attentive reading shows that all these Kings are Donne himself: the lady has previously become ‘both the’India’s of spice and Myne’. The division of roles is clear in the next verse: ‘She’ is all States, and all Princes, I.’
I suggest that the starting point of ‘The Anniversarie’ was King’s surname; as one would expect, much punned upon at the time. Fuller tells us that James I was wont to call John King ‘the King of Preachers’. There is no need to labour the point that Donne liked such puns: and there is ample evidence that he habitually punned on the name of John King. In a letter of 1613 Donne refers to dining ‘at the King’s side at Pauls’, meaning ‘in the quarters of John King’. He carries on the pun in the same letter by calling Mrs King’s relations ‘the Queens kindred’.
The first line, it seems to me, is made more intelligible if the allusion to Kings and their favourites is to John King and his beloved friend John Donne. The scorn of court which Helen Gardner finds in it seems inappropriate. There may be a hint of playfulness but ‘All Kings, and all their favorites’ need involve no satirical fling, particularly in the reign of a queen. ‘Favorite’ here might have merely the sense of ‘person beloved’ as defined in Johnson’s Dictionary.
Donne of course often introduces the word ‘King’ into other love poems: but ‘The Anniversarie’ is, I believe, the only poem in which the notion of regality is sustained throughout. The pun is not slavishly adhered to, the roles of King and subject are interchangeable, but the notion of ‘reigning’ predominates. Like kings, the two are wished long life (vivat Rex), they are to love ‘nobly’, they have a reign by which the years are dated.
I should agree with C.S. Lewis, though he of course did not see the poem as I do, that it is a poem of delighted love. The rather unregenerate hint that in heaven the two will not be quite so happy because others will be as happy as they are at least marks the poet’s total content and zest for living.
Although John King did not remain long in the service of Egerton, he continued to be important in Donne’s life. It was King, then Bishop of London, who in 1615 ordained Donne deacon and priest. The Bishop died in 1621 and was buried in St Paul’s. On Easter Day 1630, preaching in St Paul’s, Donne speaks of ‘a love … that will melt one’s bowels if he do but passe over or passe by the grave of his dead friend’.
Vol. 15 No. 20 · 21 October 1993
E.E. Duncan-Jones’s thoughts on same-sex love in Donne’s poem ‘The Anniversarie’ (Letters, 7 October) find some confirmation in an essay published last year in Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England, edited by Claude Summers (Harrington Park Press). George Klawitter draws attention to the verse epistles written in 1592-4, perhaps six years before ‘The Anniversarie’, between Donne (aged 20-22) and Thomas Woodward (aged 16-18). In the sonnet ‘Pregnant again with th’old twins Hope, and Feare’, Donne writes of his eagerness for Woodward’s letter and delight at receiving it:
After this banquet my Soule doth say grace,
And praise thee for’it, and zealously imbrace
Thy love, though I thinke thy love in this case
To be as gluttons, which say ’midst their meat,
They love that best of which they most do eat.
In the same volume, Janel Mueller discusses Donne’s ‘celebration and defence of a passionate lesbian relation’ in his poem ‘Sappho to Philaenis’.
William Empson observed in relation to the Woodward poems: ‘It would leave a scandal-monger in no doubt that the two lads had been up to something together’ (in his essay, ‘Rescuing Donne’). Our current sense of the scope of ‘friendship’ should help us to take the question further; see especially Alan Bray’s article, ‘Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England’ in Histoary Workshop (1990). What will not easily be resolved, nonetheless, is whether Donne is being idiosyncratic and adventurous, or merely conventional – precisely the controversy in relation to his apparently cross-sex writings.
University of Sussex
Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993
May I come in late over Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’ (Letters, 9 September)? The line currently in contention between Frank Kermode and Barbara Everett is: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore.’ The word in contention is ‘falst’, modernised to ‘falls’ in Helen Gardner’s edition, and accepted by Kermode. The late William Empson famously did not accept it, and that is where the story begins.
As I read and (thanks to Everett) hear the line, ‘falst’ puns on ‘false’/‘falls’ in a familiar indictment of female unchastity and untrust-worthiness. Everett also performs another familiar turn against Kermode’s reading, when she asserts the mutual trust and consequent mutual blame for betrayal of trust as between heterosexual lovers. This I believe is not Donne, but does well by liberal humanism in the British literary tradition.
The second clause of the same line reinforces the false/falls paronomasia. I read ‘which it bore’ within an ironic French-accented syntax, which carries the theme of cross-Channel travel and translation in the poem (and the period of its composition). To paraphrase the whole line: ‘When a tear falls, which you who bore it falsified’. The shift of the relative pronoun to the (French) position of antecedence to the verb is still the trap into which student translators of French into English are most likely to fall, by transposing grammatical subject and object of the principal verb. English grammar would allow Donne, had he wished (but he did not in my opinion), to have distinguished ‘whom it bore’ (Gardner-Kermode reading) from ‘who bore it’ (my reading).
Since in his text Donne has the neutral ‘which’, I cannot choose between ‘whom’ and ‘who’, and must attempt to persuade my readers in turn that ‘falst’ and ‘bore’ are two active verbs with a single feminine grammatical subject ‘thou’ who is elsewhere the ‘thee’ of Donne’s speaker’s address. Now we need both the concluding lines of Donne: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,/So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.’
A woman bears a child as she coins a word as she stamps a coin with a royal image as she translates a word from one side of the (whose?) Channel. And each and every one of these acts is illegitimised, counterfeit and unchaste, outside the control of the man who speaks and chides her with the ‘nothing’ (the ‘nought’ which he suspects she ‘goes to’) whenever he is absent from her side. He has reason to suspect for he judges her by himself, and this is what he goes to in spite of his (or are they only her?) tears.
University of Sydney