The heart of standing is you cannot fly
- 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.
These we can now study in Haffenden’s almost wantonly magnificent edition. The poetry itself, complete except for one manuscript poem the editor wanted but the Estate withheld, occupies hardly more than a hundred pages, the commentary close to three times as many. A highly informative introduction adds another ninety or so. Haffenden’s easy, expansive manner cannot quite disguise the quantity, care and detail of his work. Reading such an elaborate edition one has an uncharitable keenness to find mistakes, however slight, and editors often profess to be glad to have them pointed out. So: I think there is a mistranscription in line 10 of the interesting verses quoted on pp. xliii-xliv (‘to do so’ rather than ‘you do so’) and another in an unpublished letter on p. xlvii, where it seems likely that Empson wrote ‘And I should not apologise for notes on such a scale’ rather than saying he should apologise, since on a good many other occasions he firmly declined to do so. Another slip may be explained by the editor’s relative youth: he does not know what ‘degaussing’ means or meant. It is used in a nice little poem not by Empson but by a friend of his, to accompany a wedding present. In 1942, when the poem was written, everybody had known for a year or so that degaussing involved the fitting of a demagnetising cable round the hulls of ships to frustrate German magnetic mines; indeed OED dates the word from 1940, which is when the device was introduced. This sense, missed in Haffenden’s note, is necessary to the understanding of the friend’s poem and to the poet’s rather beautiful response. Finally, Ulysses is misspelt on p. 328.
Empson believed in notes. Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm (1940) both contain defences of his practice. ‘There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd piece of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note.’ And notes are ‘meant to be like answers to a crossword puzzle ... There would be no point in publishing a puzzle in a newspaper, if it were admittedly so simple that there was no need to publish the answer.’ He remarked that the craze for obscurity in poems came in about the same time as the fashion for crosswords. (Like Auden, who also wrote lots of notes when he felt like it, Empson was devoted to crossword puzzles.) However, a poem should have more than this crossword kind of interest.
Empson was always sure that the interest of a poem arose from its representation of what passed in the mind of the poet, and the piling up of information about what the poem means is in the end an investigation of the mind that produced it. Here there is certainly a piling up of information: Empson’s own notes, as included in his books of verse, further notes provided by him on records, at readings and interviews, in letters; and the thick top layer of Haffenden’s elucidations. Of course, the notes can’t always help much. Empson told Christopher Ricks in an interview that his poem ‘The Teasers’ developed in such a way that he began to dislike it; he ‘cut it down to rags so that it doesn’t make sense. You can’t find out what it is about ... But it’s a beautiful metrical invention, I do say.’ Elsewhere he remarked that ‘The Teasers’ was ‘nearly very good, above my level altogether’, though with a final moral he felt the poem hadn’t earned. He liked the novel effect of making a quatrain by breaking the second line of the three-line stanzas in two. As it stands it has that half-awake, dreamlike quality Empson achieved in other late poems, notably ‘Let it go’, said by Empson to reflect a decision to give up writing poetry:
It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.
The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the
whole thing there.
This poem is printed on the back cover of this edition, and it does work as jacket copy, though Empson once said it was ‘hopelessly bad’. It is worth attending to his self-judgments; he is often hard on his own work, but if he thought it deserved praise he gave it unstintedly and perceptively, as when he celebrated The Structure of Complex Words as his masterpiece. His condemnation of ‘Let it go’ seems to have been caused by its supposed resistance to the reader’s understanding, but readers of his work are accustomed to that problem and anyway in this instance we have a kind of mumbling between sleep and wake from which simple sense is not to be expected. The last line vaguely threatens a madness brought on simply enough by the constant effort to understand, and to remain steady in the midst of, the vast system of contradictions life obliges one to contend with (a theme of earlier poems) and the deep blankness seems premonitory of that feared ending.
Yet the poem is still a kind of muttered song, as it were composed for performance by that strange voice. Empson admired what he called ‘the singing line’, especially if it also had some clarity of thought. One of his most beautiful poems is ‘Chinese Ballad’, based on a poem by Li Chi: ‘It’s not by me at all, you see, but I always feel it clears the palate after a reading of my stuff.’ Ricks called the poem ‘Empson’s nunc dimittis as a poet’, an assurance that ‘though life may be essentially inadequate to the human spirit, the human spirit is essentially adequate to life.’ The parting lovers entrust their faith to two dolls, made of mud; the dolls will be smashed and reconstituted, ‘grain by grain’,
So your flesh shall be part of mine
And part of mine be yours.
Brother and sister we shall be
Whose unity endures.
Always the sister doll will cry,
Made in these careful ways,
Cry on and on, Come back to me,
Come back, in a few days.
The conceit is worthy of Donne, Empson’s own chosen master, and the tone is genuinely ballad-like (as Donne’s sometimes was). It is an allegory of the pain of a parting that seems perpetual, of a resistance (supported by art, by the making and mixing of the dolls) to the dreadful sense of the contradictions involved in living and thinking about it, that seems to underlie much of Empson’s work, as indeed it does that of his admired Milton. The radical contradiction is between the hope of human happiness, for which, at least at certain moments, we feel ourselves so wonderfully suited, and the power of the world as it inescapably is to frustrate or even ridicule that feeling. Hence Empson’s endorsement of the Buddhist position that ‘no sort of temporal life whatever can satisfy the human spirit.’ Yet Buddhism also takes account of the fact that ‘birth as a human being is an opportunity of inestimable value. He who is so born has at least a chance of hearing the truth and acquiring merit.’
It would be too crude to argue that tensions such as those touched on in ‘Let it go’, between the threat of madness and the requirement of sanity, can by themselves fully define the stresses within the verse, or explain why he felt he must give it up; but the effort to handle the contradictions, which attracted him to Buddhism and perhaps shaped him as a poet, may be heard even in the vagaries of that voice.
Empson certainly thought of himself as a poet, it was his vocation; and he had a strong, I suppose ultimately a Romantic, sense of the necessary estrangement or outsidedness of poets, who may have a more urgent apprehension than others of the mismatch between desire and reality, or, simply, of the tragedy of being in the world. Graham Hough, in an obituary published in this journal, remarked that ‘it is often the case that what comes across to most readers as an intricate intellectual puzzle was experienced as a painful knot of feeling,’ and the poet’s friend G.S. Fraser spoke of ‘puzzling form being imposed on a massive and almost unbearable personal unhappiness’. If that is the right way to talk about it, the burden on the poet who wants to communicate a full sense of what others just feel in their disordered way and, at a lower level, just put up with, is enormous. And these differences cannot be ignored; they may declare themselves not only in poems but in a manner of talking so different from other people’s that admirers, not only aspiring poets but aspiring critics, are in danger of unconsciously and ridiculously imitating it. That patrician voice, colloquial, even chatty in prose, transformed for verse, highly intellectual but with none of the poses or shortcuts of ordinary intellectual talk, is an image of the spirit in which Empson could say that ‘whether or not the values open to us are measurable, we cannot measure them, and it is of much value merely to stand up between the forces to which we are exposed.’ These remarks were made in the 1930s, but Haffenden says that Empson never lost his high regard for Buddhist teaching, which he often contrasted with the hateful doctrines of Christianity. The intensity with which he contemplated what might be called spiritual issues, as well as problems of personal behaviour, make it clear that although he could not easily be called a religious man or poet, he thought painfully about matters that the religious think important.
A much-quoted remark occurs in Empson’s notes to the poem ‘Bacchus’: ‘life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.’ They can only be presented with due regard for their virtually insoluble complexity. In personal life, this may call for old-fashioned virtues such as courage and honour. Honour can be forced on one; in the very obscure early poem ‘High Dive’ the point seems to be made that a person having got onto the high board would lose face by climbing down without diving. The poem wraps this point in more or less occult references, explained in the poet’s notes, to Northern mythology, a heretical Egyptian sun-god, the fact that green coats are worn by hare hunters, Cornford’s theory that the order of nature was thought of as the lifeblood of a tribe, the mathematics of water, the clotting of blood, Lucifer, Jezebel, Jonah and much else. You need to know what words like ‘irrotational’ mean. There is a calmly elaborate and authoritative interpretation by Veronica Forrest-Thomson in an essay quoted by the assiduous Haffenden but worth reading through in the Yearbook of English Studies for 1974. It gives one some idea of what was going on in the poet’s head when he was about 22. Courage and honour may not come up in the notes, but they are there in the poem.
The early poems are somewhat ostentatiously crammed with ideas that belong to his Cambridge youth, but some are still vigorously alive: ‘To an Old Lady’, for instance, and ‘Camping Out’ and ‘Arachne’, ‘Legal Fiction’, and the beautiful ‘Villanelle’ which begins ‘It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.’ (Empson remarks with customary generosity on the technical superiority over his own villanelles of the one Auden wrote for Miranda in The Sea and the Mirror, which, he said, ‘wipes the eye of everyone who tries to revive’ the form.) One should add to this list ‘Homage to the British Museum’ and ‘Note on Local Flora’.
But although the cognoscenti often find a falling off after Poems, Empson’s finest are, I think, later: ‘Aubade’, ‘Courage Means Running’, ‘Missing Dates’ and ‘Success’. He has with some justice been accused of being arrogantly awkward at times, of making matters more difficult than they need to be, but these faults, if they are faults, belong mostly to the earlier poems. There are, of course, problems even in the more lucid later work. I remember John Wain, who adored Empson, joking about the evident difficulty the poet had in keeping up the rhymes in ‘Missing Dates’:
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
All is well, the rhyming holds up till we get to ‘They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills/ Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires’, and later there is ‘a skin that shrills’; but the villanelle is still beautiful. So with ‘Success’: the opening is certainly arresting (‘I have mislaid the torment and the fear./You should be praised for taking them away’) but a few lines later ‘Verse likes despair. Blame it on the beer’, sounds a bit desperate. Still, it may catch the mood of its writing as Empson describes it: ‘It’s recovering from a love affair and saying it did you good.’ His view of love was that it saves you from madness.
Wain says of ‘Aubade’ that it ‘really happened’, the poet and a Japanese girl (apparently a nursemaid) are caught in bed by an earthquake. ‘ “The heart of standing is you cannot fly”, one of Empson’s great reverberating lines ... covers a wide range: the whole point of turning to fight is that running away will not save them and is in any case contrary to their code.’ That seems right – the last line changes ‘you’ to ‘we’ – even when balanced against ‘It seemed the best thing to be up and go.’ The poem enshrines contradiction, and even that reverberant line, with its patrician sentiment, has a patrician deviance from ordinary ways of speaking. What makes it reverberant is the voice, an excitement proper to the speaker. When Empson rose slowly from his seat to match the expectations of the tree in Kew he was still, after more than twenty years, thrilled by the prospect of the poem’s climax. It celebrated a victory, you rose to meet it, as you took the high dive and dealt with the earthquake in a structured, moody form that was itself a challenge issued by poetry to the poet.