We do it all the time

Michael Wood on Empson’s intentions

‘What is a hesitation, if one removes it altogether from the psychological dimension?’

Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem

There is a moment in William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity when he decides to linger in Macbeth’s mind. The future killer is trying to convince himself that murder might be not so bad a crime (for the criminal) if he could just get it over with. This is about as unreal as a thought could be, coming from a man who seems to have been plotting murder even before he allowed himself consciously to think of it, and whose whole frame of mind is haunted by what he calls consequence, the very effect he imagines it would be so nice to do without. The speech begins

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success …

Empson takes us through the passage with great spirit, commenting on every line and its spinning, hissing meanings, and then alights on a single word:

And catch, the single little flat word among these monsters, names an action; it is a mark of human inadequacy to deal with these matters of statecraft, a child snatching at the moon as she rides thunderclouds. The meanings cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read them; it remains the incantation of a murderer, dishevelled and fumbling among the powers of darkness.

It is an act of alert critical reading to spot the action word among the proliferating concepts; and generous to suggest that Macbeth, crazed and ambitious as he is, even as he contemplates the killing of his king, can still represent a more ordinary human disarray among matters that are too large, too consequential for us. Alert too to see that Shakespeare represents this case not only dramatically but also through his character’s choice of an individual word. But then to call the other words ‘monsters’, to identify the small verb as a ‘child’, and to introduce the moon and the thunderclouds, is to create a whole separate piece of verbal theatre, and to create something scarcely recognisable as criticism. And when at the end of the passage Empson widens his frame, returns to Macbeth’s full, anxious meditation, he continues the same double practice. He sees our failure to grasp all the meanings as an achieved Shakespearean effect and not a readerly shortcoming; and he finds a figure of speech for the character and the situation. The word becomes a whole passage, the child becomes a fumbling and dishevelled magician, and the moon and thunderclouds become the powers of darkness.

What is happening here? Empson would say, too modestly, that this is descriptive criticism – as distinct from the analytic kind. But he is not describing anything. It is not impressionistic criticism either, an attempt to evoke the feelings the work arouses in the reader, although this is closer to the mark. Empson is tracing a pattern of thought, and finding metaphors for the behaviour of a piece of language.

Empson’s writing reminds us (we do forget such things) that characters in plays are made of words, they are what they say, or more precisely they are what we make of what they say, and his metaphors bring the life of these words incredibly close to us. The child snatches and Macbeth fumbles; but the child is herself a verb; and Macbeth is a man using words to keep his mind away from a deed.

William Empson was born in Yorkshire in 1906 and died in London in 1984. He studied mathematics then English at Cambridge, wrote poems and plays, acted, reviewed films and books. After leaving Cambridge he worked as a freelance writer in London for two years before going to Japan, in 1931, to teach at Tokyo University, where he stayed until 1934. He spent three years back in England before joining the exiled universities in China. During the war he worked in London for the BBC Overseas Service, returning to China for a few years after the war. In 1953, he became an English professor at the University of Sheffield, where he worked until his retirement in 1971.

He published a collection of verse simply called Poems in 1935; another called The Gathering Storm in 1940; and his Collected Poems in 1949. He also published several works of criticism: Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930); Some Versions of Pastoral (1935); The Structure of Complex Words (1951); and Milton’s God (1961). In both poetry and prose Empson has the attractive ability to make paradoxes sound as if they are not paradoxes at all, just bits of moderately complicated thinking of the sort anyone needs to do now and again.

There was a minor vogue in the 1970s and early 1980s for associating Empson with French theory, with deconstruction specifically, but Empson himself would have none of it. When Christopher Norris sent him some writings by Derrida and others, Empson said he thought ‘those horrible Frenchmen’ were ‘so very disgusting, in a simple moral or social way, that I cannot stomach them’. He also managed, perhaps unintentionally, to invent a new Frenchman: Jacques Nerrida. What Empson found disgusting was the quest, as he saw it, for complexity for complexity’s sake, a project that was ‘always pretending to be plumbing the very depths’ but in reality was only congratulating itself on its cleverness. Above all he took it – this was in 1971 – as just one more instance of what he saw as happening to the study of language and literature everywhere: the human stakes were being removed, words were playing among themselves, no agents or intentions were to be seen.

And yet Empson’s work, for all his denials, connects him strongly to most major 20th-century movements of criticism and theory in English and other languages – not because of his influence on them or their influence on him, but because his preoccupations are central to any sort of ongoing thought about literature. We can’t tie him securely to any style or approach, but we can’t get around him either: he will always be in the way.

Empson is often thought of, correctly, as one of the founders of the New Criticism, as it came to be called in the United States, and he is certainly the most brilliant close reader the movement produced. But as close reading, a fabulous classroom device, became more and more of an established method, it turned less historical and less speculative, until finally it seemed unable to refer to anything other than the words on the page, or to allow the belief that anything existed beyond the page.

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