William Empson

William Empson, who died in 1984, was the author of – among many other books – Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Structure of Complex Words and Milton’s God.

The Queen and I

William Empson and John Haffenden, 26 November 1987

On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English...

2 October 1949. Yesterday we were busy with Jacob’s birthday till about five (or rather Hetta and Walter were and I was hanging about): then Kidd and his wife turned up and we all set out to look at the celebration of the new Government and capital. There was supposed to be a difficulty about getting sanluerhs, but we did and Hetta and I at once got separated from the others because our drivers went left by Coal Hill instead of right. Columns of soldiers were marching east and we didn’t see how to turn south through them towards Tien An Men. So we walked westwards to the pailou beside Pai Hai, getting rid of sanluerhs. The north gate was finely got up. I did not expect to be more than bored, but found myself extremely moved almost at once. You may believe that what is being celebrated will turn out a delusion, but history is full of gloomy afterthoughts. Here you have celebrated a victory of revolt against tyrants, supported by the countryside alone, practically with their bare hands, against a government drawing on the full terrors of modern equipment with medieval or fascist police methods into the bargain. If anything in history is impressive you are bound to feel that is. The troops looked very brown and sturdy, and had probably done some fighting (conceivably on the other side no doubt); some looked dolts, perhaps the majority, but none had an air of successful brutality, and the young with an air of simple goodness could regularly be picked up – the face that first struck me as so unlike Peiping when I crossed the lines to go to Tsing-Hua. They were singing, off and on, those extremely impressive marching songs. They were fully and elaborately equipped, some platoons with fixed bayonets, some carrying e.g. machine guns spread-eagled between four, who would be relieved occasionally by neighbours. I could not see if it had American lettering on, but the reflection that the equipment must all have been captured did seem to me enormously impressive. Only a few idlers were looking at them.

Moonlight Robbery: China 1938

William Empson, 5 October 1995

One of the ideas about China still often held by people in England is that China is full of bandits, and it seems worth offering a bit of out-of-date reportage on this topic; there is no moral except that the bandit situation had very intelligible causes and has been getting under control.

Magnificent Cuckolds

William Empson, 24 January 1991

Frank Budgen’s last pamphlet ‘Further Recollections of James Joyce’ (1955) carries a bit of personal reminiscence which looks as if it might be more important than most. He remembers that he had one day remarked to Joyce that he could never understand why Bloom, in Ulysses, lets his wife commit adultery with Boylan; but we gather that after this leading question he offered his own answer, hoping it would irritate the great man into a correction, which shows he understood interviewers’ technique. Joyce said: ‘You see an undercurrent of homosexuality in Bloom as well as his loneliness as a Jew who finds no warmth of fellowship either among Jews or Gentiles, and I think you are right. But there is another aspect of the matter you have missed.’ And he went on to claim that the only reason why his play Exiles wasn’t acted in Paris in 1921 was that Le Cocu Magnifique by Crommelynck somehow ‘took the wind out of the sails of Exiles. The jealousy motive is the same in kind in both cases. The only difference is that in my play the people act with a certain reserve, whereas in Crommelynck’s play the hero, to mention only one person, acts like a madman.’ Crommelynck’s is in the British Museum Library, and I would like to offer a report on it as it seems little known among readers of Joyce and strongly supports my previous opinion, which no other writer yet supports, about the fundamental topic of Ulysses.

Teaching English in the Far East

William Empson, 17 August 1989

I am afraid this may prove rather a gossipy Inaugural Lecture but I feel it is the main thing I have to offer on this occasion. I could talk, instead, about my theoretical books, which have been mainly about double meanings in literature, and the mechanics of how they have a literary effect: but I haven’t found that that has much to do with teaching literature, in my experience so far,...

Three Hitherto Unpublished Poems

William Empson, 17 August 1989

I remember to have wept with a sense of the unnecessary. ‘Do you think me so ungenerous that I need to be deceived about this? Do you think me such a fool that these tactics will deceive me?’ Now, on the contrary, I shall speak with reverence of liars.

What you must save for is the Golden Bowl, Cast anthropoid, beaten to delicacy; One depends for that, though hollow, upon...

The Ultimate Novel

William Empson, 2 September 1982

So far, I may have given more expression of preference than solid argument. I need now to list the main details throughout the book which prepare the reader for Stephen to accept the Bloom Offer. There is at once a rather quaint obstacle. Most readers of Ulysses do not believe in omens, but Joyce eagerly did; in this he is genuinely like Homer. Four of the characters receive omens, and Joyce would regard these as an assurance that some great event would occur. Stephen on the previous night had a disturbing dream which he increasingly recalls; and the absurd Haines, who was also sleeping in the Martello tower, had a nightmare. He thought himself attacked by a black panther, which he tried to shoot, and Malachi fired some shots to reassure him. Probably Haines had fired real shots too: both young men were accustomed to the use of sporting guns, which Stephen was not. The incident really occurred, and Joyce walked out of the tower for ever, in a drizzle, before dawn. In the novel there is no immediate break, because the author needs to keep the other two characters available. Haines makes occasional reappearances during the day, chiefly as a figure of farce, but usually with a recall of his black panther. Stephen twice very dimly thinks of Bloom as the black panther (Ulysses, 215, 592).

The Ultimate Novel

William Empson, 19 August 1982

It is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all. His book gives a survey of books about Ulysses, mentioning only two previous ones by himself. He weeds out bad ideas and adds more promising ones, always with acknowledgement to other critics: and it is impressive that he had plenty more material available for the centenary collection, A Starchamber Quiry, just after printing his own book. He puts a new idea of his own into both of these books, and it urgently needs refuting. Stephen, he says (Kenner’s Ulysses, p. 152), is practically blind all through the book; his eyes without his glasses focus eight inches in front of his nose, and he broke them ‘yesterday’. This proves that whenever he claims to see anything he is only remembering what he usually sees. He is thus merely a windbag. (‘Yesterday’ comes on page 546 of the Modern Library 1942 edition. I need to give references because some of my assertions are controversial, but Joyce deliberately made it difficult. Kenner gives a welcome assurance that a definitive edition will soon at last appear.)

William Empson remembers I.A. Richards

William Empson, 5 June 1980

The death of I.A. Richards has at least endangered an opportunity which he had accepted with eager energy. In 1937, the Chinese Ministry of Education had decided to use Basic English in the schools, for the first years of English there, but just as the details were being fixed up the Japanese launched an all-out attack and captured Peking. One might argue that this was the right time to introduce a far more economical method: but it would require a great deal of organising from the centre, and to organise the refugeeing of the west-coast universities to the interior was already imposing an almost unbearable strain. There were some local centres where the method was already in use, and contact had to be maintained with them as far as possible; I was able to go with Richards to Kweilin and meet a distinguished headmaster. This seems worth recalling, as Richards returned to Kweilin on the final tour, 42 years later, and was soon afterward struck down. Touring the schools in provincial cities, and speaking in each of them, would be the most exhausting part of the work. He had been warned by a friend that the visit would probably kill him, but after all he had for years been risking his life on mountains, and this occasion might make all the difference (for him) between dying in triumph and dying as a failure.

Elizabethan Spirits

William Empson, 17 April 1980

Something badly needed has got left out from the great structure that Dame Frances Yates has been building as an exposition of her view of the Occult tradition. I have felt it since her book on Bruno (1964), though I am ill-equipped to complain. Still, my ideas derive from a critic who had something of her own range of knowledge, and she seems to ignore his views, so I may speak up.

Advanced Thought

William Empson, 24 January 1980

Frank Kermode’s new book contains a great deal of graceful and dignified prose, especially in the last chapter, and many of the examples are of great interest. It seems to argue that no history or biography can be believed, but must be regarded as a kind of novel. Any narrative is necessarily incomplete, and the details left out may for some readers be the important ones – what is taken for granted may become the crucial question. Such is the justification for the title. The chief theme of the book, or source for its examples, is the Gospel of St Mark, and it attends to many recent works on this subject, mostly in French or German. A tone of yearning sorrow is often present, but Kermode’s theory must be applied to his own work: this tone should be part of his novelistic technique.

This is the new Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is splendid to have the old series still coming out. Full information, and a proper apparatus at the foot of the page: where else would you find that? It has got a bit stiff in the joints; the introduction is so long and so full of standard doctrine that it is hard to pick out the plums; but the sobriety itself is a comfort. One major new emendation is proposed – that Theseus said: ‘Now is the mure rased between the two neighbours.’ Professor Brooks admits that this is bad, and agrees that Shakespeare may have agreed to have it changed in the promptbook, but is certain he wrote it at first, because of the rules invented by Dover Wilson for the misinterpretation of his handwriting. Surely anyone used to correcting proofs knows that all kinds of mistakes may occur, whereas this bit of pedantry would be quite out of key for Theseus. ‘Mural down’ (Pope) goes quite far enough.


Jacobean Sodomy

18 August 1983

SIR: ‘That Night at Farnham’ (LRB, 18 August) remarks, speaking of James I: ‘The king and the labouring man both seem to have made the same extraordinary psychological separation between sodomy and what they themselves felt and did.’ Sodomy has been defined, not long before, as ‘sexual relations between man and man (or man and beast)’, and we are told that it was...

Tarot Triumph

4 September 1980

SIR: It is improbable that, as Michael Dummett appears to say in his books on Tarot (LRB, 4 September), the Tarot pack was used merely for games. Our familiar pack was symbolical to start with; nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical, or claiming to. And the picture cards of the Tarot are rather aggressively mysterious.
William Empson writes: I am sure Kermode is right. If I had checked, I would have ascribed the mistake to Greville. Everyone who recalls the legend says ‘thy need’, and that is what Sidney would have said.

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing ‘modern’ poetry, William Empson recommended ‘verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it...

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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...

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Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt, 20 October 1994

It would be easy for a reader who was encountering Empson for the first time to wonder what on earth this critical performance was about and why these ragged relics – the second part of a...

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Cold Feet

Frank Kermode, 22 July 1993

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...

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David Trotter, 4 February 1988

‘I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English...

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What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl, 26 November 1987

The best, perhaps, has survived, but a great deal of Elizabethan drama has not. The number of titles mentioned in contemporary documents – the account books of the impresario Philip...

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On a Chinese Mountain

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1986

The Royal Beasts contains works of Empson’s previously unpublished or published long ago and very obscurely. There is a short play, an unfinished novel, a ballet scenario and a batch of...

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It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and...

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