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.


In 1946 W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote an important essay called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, claiming among other things that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.’ The piece was and remains enormously useful for the ways in which it helps us to resist lazy critical confusions of life and art, and reductive notions of causality. It also reminds us of an easily buried fact: the road to terrible work in literature or any other art is paved with excellent intentions. Intention may be where things begin – although accident too is a promising start – but the result includes quite a few other ingredients. But then the phrase ‘neither available nor desirable’, dogmatic as good polemical announcements need to be, doesn’t stand up to any sort of nuanced consideration. An author’s design or intention is sometimes completely known and quite enlightening; sometimes far too blunt and entirely distracting. In some cases we shall never know it but desperately wish we could. In others we are delighted that we don’t. Many authors are articulate but distinctly evasive about intention, and unconscious intentions lurk all over the place. There is no general rule here, one simply has to do the work of reading and thinking.

For Empson, though, the doctrine of the intentional fallacy, which he liked to call the Wimsatt Law, was a rule. It said we were not to think of authors at all, literature was to be cleanly separated from the messy world of appetite and argument and intended meaning. He thought the rule was the bane of literary studies in the second half of the 20th century, and he was almost as obsessed with its noxious effects as he was with what he saw as the invasion of English and American universities by hordes of Christian critics.

The Wimsatt Law, according to Empson, ‘lays down that no reader can grasp the intention of any author’, or with a slight variation, ‘says that no reader can ever grasp the intention of an author’. Since he thinks this proposition is both nonsensical and harmful, Empson is inclined to parody it as well as simplify it, as in ‘a reader must never understand the intention of an author’ or his sarcastic suggestion that a 17th-century audience ‘could not foresee that Mr Wimsatt was going to make a law forbidding them to grasp the intention of an author’.

‘We must consider the experiences and convictions of the poet,’ Empson insists; follow ‘the main lines of interest of the author’; and to tell students of literature that they ‘cannot even partially succeed’ in doing this is ‘about the most harmful thing you could do’. Going out on a rather strange limb, Empson is willing to say that faking biographical evidence is ‘more humane than the refusal to admit help from biography, or any intention in the author’. This parti pris allows Empson to indulge in the guessing logic of so many bad biographers. Marvell ‘would have remembered a similar occasion’, ‘would feel ashamed of what he had done’. Yeats ‘must have loved such a toy when he was about ten years old’. ‘It seems clear that [T.S. Eliot’s] mother had refused to sleep under the same roof as the wife.’ But the passion that tilts these arguments is interesting, and we need to look at a wider range of Empson’s views to understand its force.

The most blatant example of Empson’s breaking the Wimsatt Law is also the funniest and the most illuminating. To understand Hamlet, he thinks, we must go back to ‘the moment of discovery by Shakespeare’. This would have happened when Shakespeare’s company took on a Hamlet play by Thomas Kyd (or someone else), and didn’t know what to do with it because they were aware that this creaking old revenge stuff was desperately out of fashion. Shakespeare would have thought of the rewrite as ‘a pretty specialised assignment, a matter, indeed, of trying to satisfy audiences who demanded a Revenge play and then laughed when it was provided’. Still, he carried on.

I think he did not see how to resolve this problem at the committee meeting, when the agile Bard was voted to carry the weight, but already did see how when walking home … He thought: ‘The only way to shut this hole is to make it big. I shall make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and again, “I don’t know why I’m delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can’t help it.” What is more, I shall make it impossible for them to blame him. And then they daren’t laugh.’ It turned out, of course, that this method, instead of reducing the old play to farce, made it thrillingly life-like and profound.

Empson’s idea of Shakespeare’s ‘method’ makes the film Shakespeare in Love look like a documentary, and the touch about walking home is marvellous. But is he serious? Yes and no, but I find it impossible to measure the respective doses. He is serious about considering the ‘moment of discovery’, and about the reading of the play involved in the fiction he creates. Hamlet does talk as if he knew he was caught up in a terrible old play. The rest, the committee meeting, the ventriloquised author’s soliloquy, is bravura filling-in of comic detail: critical theatre. I don’t know – our subject is guessed-at intention after all – how comic Empson meant the detail to be.

In other moods, Empson was willing to admit that Wimsatt and Beardsley’s argument had ‘a kind of flat good sense about it, because it is hard to know how we do learn each other’s intentions’. But then he was adamant that this difficulty was no excuse for not trying to get into an author’s head. On the contrary, it means we have to try harder. ‘There is no metaphysical reason … for treating the intentions of an author as inherently unknowable.’

The most important thing in these arguments is an element that is present everywhere in Empson but only occasionally stressed. Understanding literature is not different from understanding anything else: ‘We do it all the time.’ Norris puts this very well when he says that ‘Empson’s books all seek, in different ways, to make terms between poetry and the normal conditions of language and commonsense discourse,’ and that ambiguity, for example, ‘belongs to a normal, not a uniquely poetic order of thought and language’. Making terms usually means making sense, and one of Empson’s rather tangled claims engages the Wimsatt Law in a truly intriguing way.

Any speaker, when a baby, wanted to understand what people meant, why mum was cross for example, and had enough partial success to go on trying; the effort is usually carried on into adult life, though not always into old age. Success, it may be argued, is never complete. But it is nearer completeness in a successful piece of literature than in any other use of language.

‘Partial’ and ‘usually’ make clear the practice is common but not universal, and the remark about old age is a mildly mischievous joke. But the conclusion is startling. In the very region where we might think, from our own experience, from the long, conflictive history of literary criticism, and indeed from Empson’s own work, that it has always been hardest to ‘understand what people meant’, success is less partial than anywhere else. The author’s intention is closer than anyone else’s to being fully available.

The reason for literature’s success in this respect is everywhere in Empson’s writing, often lost in the noise he is making about what he doesn’t like in current literary study, but finally not at all far from Wimsatt and Beardsley’s claim, or that of most good criticism, new or old. The completed work is the test of intention, or as Empson says, ‘you must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good.’ If we combine this statement with his remark that ‘the judgment of the author may be wrong,’ it is hard to see what the quarrel is about. Hard, but not impossible. For the same reason that he would rather have a faked biography than no biography, Empson would rather guess at the contents of an author’s mind than leave the author out of the story. This is what he says in his quieter moments: ‘I would not mind agreeing, as a verbal formula, that the intention of an author can always only be guessed at, so long as it is also agreed that the guess … should always be made.’ And rather more loudly: ‘If critics are not to put up some pretence of understanding the feelings of the author in hand they must condemn themselves to contempt.’

If we borrow the figure of the death of the author, we could imagine Barthes and Empson staring at each other as if in a mirror, without either of them knowing who the mirrored figure is. Barthes thought the author had to be seen as dead so that writing could be rescued from the tyranny of gossip and academic pedantry, and be properly read for its own sake – Calvino wanted to see writing as a machine for much the same reasons. But then Barthes later came to see he couldn’t do without the author, that he ‘desired’ this figure, as he said, that he had to construct or imagine an author in order to trace out certain meanings – ironies, for example. This was a way of discreetly letting intention back into criticism – as an invited guest rather than a police presence.

Conversely, Empson never thought of intention as a police presence, only as the fallible but indispensable human source of any writing that matters. But the more strenuously he asserted the need to think about the author’s mind, the more prodigiously varied and optional that place turned out to be. There are times when Empson appears to be on the way to inventing a Monty Python school of literary criticism: ‘We are printing what Coleridge is not known to have written, but what he at least would have written if he had decided to keep the verse which he had long before designed for this place.’ ‘I would never have gone beyond the intention of an author,’ he says, ‘either in his consciousness or in his unconsciousness.’ This is almost delusional, if not theological, like believing two or three impossible things before breakfast. It seems to say that he will ascribe to intention whatever interpretation he arrives at, and we see that all along Empson has been doing what good critics do: trusting his own feeling for the words and for the writer’s gift.


It is his loyalty to language as a subject that connects Empson to so many consecutive schools of criticism, including the ones he detested. He would have thought Heidegger’s claim that language itself speaks (‘die Sprache spricht’) was worse than the Wimsatt Law, but of course Empson wasn’t saying that it didn’t speak, only that we need to pay attention to the speaker behind the speaking, the one Heidegger has eliminated.

The centrality of language, what some would think of as its unavoidability, is what connects most of the critical approaches that came to be called theoretical in the 20th century. Russian formalism haunted French structuralism, and not only because Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss worked together; Walter Benjamin’s thinking was often, perhaps always, inseparable from the turns his language took. Even the austere Adorno said that one could ‘hardly speak of aesthetic matters unaesthetically, devoid of resemblance to the subject matter’. I don’t think Adorno meant criticism had to imitate art, only that it needed to find a form that remembers what it is.

Perhaps the defining moment in this story occurred at a conference held at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. Barthes, Derrida and Lacan were there, everyone was talking about language, and Georges Poulet, the most distinguished representative of the Geneva School, a highly imaginative and influential but non-analytic school of criticism, rose to say that language was a word he never liked to pronounce, and that such abstinence was ‘perhaps the tendency of thinkers of an earlier period’.

But talking about language was not just a new tendency, or if it was, it had an extraordinary life. Language, as a model not a word, was at the heart of structuralism, and the paradigm for a method. We could understand the grammar of social relations, literary genres, historical periods and much else as we understood the grammar of our own speech. Or as we might understand it if we tried. We could begin to think about its omnipresence and its curious regulatory force, and how it works so effectively without our knowing much about it or even recognising we are taking its orders. Lacan’s proposition that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ was an invitation to think of psychoanalysis in these terms, and Barthes wrote a whole book about the linguistic structure of what he called the fashion system. In the background, along with Jakobson and other Russians, was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who in the early years of the century had taught his students that etymology and structure were two different things: his favourite analogy was chess, where the story of the game so far is interesting but irrelevant to any strategic understanding of the current state of play.

But then the 1966 conference, which resulted in a book called The Structuralist Controversy, also signalled something else: the beginning of poststructuralism, a movement equally centred on language, but devoted to the cracks and slippages of order, the imbalance and variety of usage, let’s say, rather than the seemingly infinite discipline of grammar. This shift had many faces, of which deconstruction, at first a rather technical term in Derrida’s lexicon, and then an alternately glamorous and reviled academic enterprise, was perhaps the best known. In the persuasive practice of Derrida, Paul de Man and others, it took language not as a reminder of secret structure but as the home of a recurring crisis of meaning, a place where interpretation learned that it could never end. It did not hold, as many of its detractors thought it did, that there was no reality apart from language, and it’s wrong to translate Derrida’s famous ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ as ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ A hors-texte is an unnumbered page in a printed book. Derrida is saying that even the unnumbered pages count, just as an outlaw, in French an hors-la-loi, has everything to do with the law, since it makes him what he is. More crudely, we might say that interpretation is theoretically endless, but this claim itself needs interpretation. Endless is not the same as pointless; and what is endless in theory is often stopped easily enough in practice. We may think – I do think – that the reasons for stopping are usually more interesting than the empty possibility of going on for ever, although then it would be worth asking whether those reasons are practical or theoretical.

I can perhaps be a little more precise about what I am claiming for Empson’s critical project, and at the same time say something about the immediate ‘now’, the moment of this writing. In his first two books, Empson anticipates structuralism by drawing our attention to language, in and out of literature, and specifically to patterns of meaning in places where we hadn’t seen them – although those patterns are always threatening to get out of hand. In The Structure of Complex Words Empson offers an array of theories that finally turn his title into a sort of oxymoron. The complexity of certain words, as Empson explores them, the accumulation of their many meanings and uses, defies the very notion of anything as stable as a structure.


Literary critics do not currently live, as many have supposed, in a post-theory world. There is too much theory for us to catch up on. But we often feel, I think, as once fashionable names fade and mere practice continues, that what is interesting in theory will be even more interesting in the particular case. This feeling seems especially relevant at a time when close reading is being challenged by distance reading, and when models of hermeneutic suspicion, a digging into the depths, are countered by pleas for surface reading. The continuing dialogue is important. We would not call for closeness if we didn’t feel that distance was too abstract or didactic; or call for distance if we didn’t feel closeness had turned narrow. And if we had not got lost in the depths, no one would need to remind us of the surface.

Empson’s work seems everywhere in this crossfire. A month or so ago, I was trying to work out the tone and implications of a famous phrase in Rimbaud, the last line of a prose poem called ‘Parade’, ingeniously translated by John Ashbery as ‘Sideshow’. The poem describes a set of frightening ‘robust rascals’, young and old, who appear to be street performers.

They act out ballads, tragedies of thieves and demi-gods … and resort to magnetic comedy. Their eyes flame, the blood sings, the bones swell, tears and trickles of red descend. Their raillery or their terror lasts a minute, or entire months.

I don’t know what ‘magnetic comedy’ is, but it doesn’t sound good. And then a sentence that is itself a whole paragraph ends the poem by saying ‘I alone know the plan of this savage sideshow’ (‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’).

I was interested in the claim to power that lies in this assertion of knowledge, but I also wondered what kind of key or plan this might be, and whether Rimbaud was mocking his speaker’s vanity rather than celebrating his privilege. I was not, as far as I knew, thinking of Empson at all, and if I had been, I would have remembered only a two-word reference (‘like Rimbaud’) to the French poet in a late short piece celebrating the work of Edgell Rickword. There is no mention of Rimbaud in any of Empson’s major works, in his letters, or in John Haffenden’s biography. Then I read the draft of an article that was part of Empson’s long quarrel with Rosemond Tuve about the liturgical (or not) background to George Herbert’s poem ‘The Sacrifice’. Empson is refuting what he takes to be Tuve’s assertion that he, Empson, ‘can taste a poem better with no knowledge’. He says he has all kinds of knowledge.

I claim to know not only the traditional background of Herbert’s poem (roughly but well enough) but also what was going on in Herbert’s mind when he wrote it, without his knowledge and against his intention; and if she says that I cannot know such things, I answer that that is what critics do, and that she too ought to have ‘la clef de cette parade sauvage’.

This key is not the only key, of course, and Empson doesn’t quote Rimbaud’s full sentence suggesting sole, perhaps crazed possession. Tuve should have her own key because she is not a critic if she hasn’t. And the swiftness of Empson’s mind turns the savage parade into a display of traditional Christian horrors, a long way from the secular circus of Rimbaud. It does this because the sacrifice in the Herbert poem is that of Jesus Christ, whose refrain keeps asking ‘Was ever grief like mine?’ Still, I treasure this passage not only for what I learned again about the liveliness of Empson’s arguing mind but also for the glimpse it offered of the range and ease of his references, the quick evocation of the cosmopolitan writer sharing rooms with the bluff Briton. The man who couldn’t spell Derrida’s name quotes Rimbaud as if he were an unruly but articulate young neighbour in Yorkshire.