The heart of standing is you cannot fly

Frank Kermode

  • The Complete Poems of William Empson edited by John Haffenden
    Allen Lane, 410 pp, £30.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9287 5

Empson has been dead these 16 years, and although his voice was often recorded it now seems difficult to describe it. John Haffenden says he had one voice for poetry and another for prose. Empson himself thought ‘the reader should throw himself into the verse, and not do it with “reserved” English good taste.’ The best idea was to ham it ‘like a provincial Shakespeare a hundred years ago’. According to Naomi Lewis this resulted in his ‘presenting his love poems in the sardonic tones of a 17th-century New England elder directing the trial of a witch’. Haffenden describes Empson’s as ‘a patrician voice, with a slightly sardonic timbre’, which seems a fair description of his everyday tones, and so is G.S. Fraser’s – ‘an odd, sad, snarly voice’. Of his poetry reading John Wain said he rendered some passages ‘like a Neapolitan stevedore, laryngitically croaking others’. In private sitting-rooms he used a quieter tone, ‘though the curious angularity of rhythm’, which some like and some do not, was still present.

The first time I ever heard him read was in a private sitting-room, in about 1953, and I recall my astonishment when he read ‘Note on Local Flora’. He began sedately, but at the last two lines – ‘So Semele desired her deity/As this in Kew thirsts for the Red Dawn’ – he slowly rose up from his chair and delivered them in a sort of strangled apocalyptic whisper. Kathleen Raine once observed that it was just like Empson to visit Kew and read the botanical labels rather than look at the trees. There seems to be some learned dispute as to whether there is or ever was a tree that ‘will ripen only in a forest fire’ in Kew Gardens. The Tree of Heaven, said in the poem to have been nearby, was blown down in the gale of 1987, and possibly the Turkestani pine suffered the same fate. Nevertheless, it seems that Kew still has specimens of which it may be possible to say that their cones cannot disperse their seeds without help from a forest fire. In any case the idea struck the poet as worthy of remark, both as calling to mind the fate of Semele, who conceived Bacchus when impregnated by Zeus in his full and fatal splendour, all thunder and lightning, and as an image of apocalypse, the fire that must burn this world. The tree thirsts for the Red Dawn, which is, as Empson himself noted, ‘the Communist victory’. So it was thoughts of the glorious fate of Semele, and of the coming revolution, as well as the imminence of his own splendid epiphonema, that forced the poet out of his chair. They called for a voice different from that used (in a recording mentioned by Haffenden) in the line immediately preceding the pair I’ve quoted: ‘I knew the Phoenix was a vegetable.’ This was delivered, we are told, humorously as if deprecating the erudite mythology of the opening lines, but was in fact a craftily deceptive lull before the final conflagration.

A poem of ten lines demanded all this variety of tone, these ways of emphasising its plot. The plot is also an argument; most of the poems are both narrative and argument. When either or both are obscure the reason is that the terms in which each is expounded are abruptly metaphorical, and the metaphors are so far-fetched that they seem to divert the reader from the immediate sense, and the personal import of the poems. So despite the passion at the heart of the enterprise there is in the product a certain bleakness. Empson described the influence of Eliot as being ‘perhaps not unlike an east wind’, and the expression may be applied to many of his own poems.

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