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Marveling At Empson’s Ways

ISSUE:  Summer 1979

William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism. By Christopher Norris. Humanities Press. $18.00.

Many recent critics have praised William Empson’s work and borrowed from it to support their own theories. Jonathan Culler, for example, selects Seven Types of Ambiguity as a study “from the non-structuralist tradition which shows considerable awareness of the problems of literary competence,” and which comes close— high praise indeed!—to a “structuralist formulation” (Structuralist Poetics, p. 126). In Harold Bloom’s judgment, Empson is, along with G. Wilson Knight, one of the great critics of our time, for he has “misinterpreted more antithetically” than others (The Anxiety of Influence, p. 95). But Empson is not a writer like, for instance, Kenneth Burke, who is just now being rediscovered. Despite the testimony of dissenters—notably Hugh Kenner, in his essay “Alice in Empsonland” (included in Gnomon)—Empson has always been regarded as a brilliant and influential critic. In the early part of his career, during the 1930’s, he was championed by his teacher, I. A. Richards, and commended for his analytical talents by writers as different as John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and F. R. Leavis. Throughout the forties and fifties, Empson’s work was celebrated in books on literary criticism, such as Hyman’s The Armed Vision, and chosen as a model for the New Critical “close reading” of texts. He has been the subject of a special issue of The Review (June 1963), and fondly remembered by his friends and colleagues in William Empson: The Man and His Work (London and Boston, 1974). Critics are, in fact, so much in awe of Empson’s achievement that their praise sometimes takes extravagant forms. Empson “not only knew all about Eliot’s version of the Myth of the Lost Unity,” writes Roger Sale, “he seems really to have had a unified sensibility” (Modem Heroism, p. 107); he is not subject to the modern dissociation of thought and feeling and is confident in his ability to tackle even the most difficult of textual puzzles.

But while Empson is often praised and his influence noted in many places, he remains an elusive figure, a modern marvel whose “brilliance” we admire even as we feel somewhat uneasy about it. Empson is a dazzling critic, yet, some readers complain, he is not scholarly enough, rarely interested in whole works, and too indirect in his style. Despite our admiration for Empson, we often aren’t sure how to “take” him, as when, in an essay on Donne (Kenyan Review, 1957), he jauntily reviews the poet’s troubles:

Born in 1571 rather than 1572, Donne after spending his inheritance on seeing the world got a job as personal secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, then Keeper of the Great Seal and eventually Lord Chancellor, but lost it in 1601 by secretly marrying the niece who was acting as hostess of the grand house. He couldn’t have been certain when he did this that it would break his career, because it wouldn’t have done if the father hadn’t behaved foolishly; the father first insisted on having Donne sacked and then found he had better try to have him reinstated, which Egerton refused on the very English ground that the fuss about the matter had been sufficiently ridiculous already.

Like many passages in Empson’s books and essays, this one is delightfully down-to-earth and plain in its statement of the facts, yet it is curious, even inscrutable, in its intention and unwilling (despite its everyday tones) to clarify Empson’s own appraisal of the incident. Empson often teases his reader in this way, tossing off a pun or cracking a joke when he deals with serious matters. On other occasions, he will halt his analysis to reflect upon his surprise that he is still writing criticism

after so many years at the game. Empson can be considerate of his reader in one sentence only to become cranky and aggressive in the next one, tying up his argument in phrases that are both nimble and obscure. Sometimes, in the midst of a complex piece of analysis, Empson modulates his style and seems very much like a homespun, if slightly offbeat, philosopher, speaking of the need “to maintain one’s defenses and equilibrium and live as well as one can” (Seven Types, p. 247), or suggesting with a nod towards La Rochefoucauld that “a noble mind will not assert that its good actions are truly generous, but will recognize the variety of its satisfactions” (The Structure of Complex Words, p. 433).

By endorsing these kinds of solid, commonplace truths about the self and its relations to others, Empson appears to be the wisest and most temperate of critics. But while he often says good, decent things and asks us to respect the different motives of other men, he also denounces the Christian God in a burst of rhetorical fervor as “the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man” (Milton’s God, p. 251). Empson’s recent work on Donne, Milton, and Coleridge, which is charged with anti-Christian polemic, can be wickedly funny and extremely shrewd. But when he says about T. S. Eliot that “so long as you gave Mr. Eliot images of someone being tortured his nerves were at peace, but if you gave him an image of two people making each other happy he screamed” (Milton’s God, p. 30), he is intolerant and irresponsible, and more concerned with his wit than with the man whose views he condemns.

In his fine book on Empson’s criticism, Christopher Norris deplores this anti-Christian mode, but explains that it is in line with Empson’s “rationalism” and suspicion of all movements and orthodoxies. “More than any other critic of his time,” Norris observes, Empson “has taken up the challenge of modern rationalism, with all its philosophic problems, and explored its implications for the practice of literary criticism” (p. 184). Empson believes in the importance of “balanced judgments,” and calls for a “generous,” reasonable interpretation of a writer’s complex feelings and motives. No texts, including Christian ones like Paradise Lost, should be shielded from our desire to ask common-sense questions about them. As Norris states about Milton’s God, Empson “makes the poem continuous with the ordinary language and values of human experience” (p. 21), and thereby affirms moral judgment and rational understanding in interpretation. Empson believes in “communicable truth and answerable motive” (p. 37), and in the role that reason and common sense play in creating a community of shared values. “The morality of Empson’s criticism,” Norris concludes, “lies in the sense of priorities which he announced clearly enough in Seven Types: one which attaches more importance to the idea of working things out, in a rational and sympathetic way, than to any orthodox scheme of judgment and values” (p. 178). For many critics today, confused by the abundance of new models and machines for criticism, such an appeal to common sense and reasonable interpretation will come as a welcome relief. With the “author” and the “self” under attack from many sides, critics will also profit from Empson’s exemplary regard for personal intention and feeling.

Norris does not devote separate chapters to each of Empson’s books but rather traces his critic’s rational attitude towards formalism, philosophy of language, literary values, and other topics. He helpfully contrasts Empson with the New Critics, pointing out that while Cleanth Brooks wishes “to account for the poem, to match it with a motion of organized meaning which removes it from the informal context of a personal utterance” (p. 49), Empson instead maintains that poetry is “continuous” with other kinds of experience; it is liable to the same common-sense judgments that we make about “rational prose statements” (p. 18). Because of this belief in the “continuity” between poetry and prose (both are “personal utterances”), Empson is able to consider the poet’s biography, problems of authorial intention, and paraphrasable meaning—all of which the New Criticism usually disdains. Empson’s bits of philosophy are given in prosaic, everyday language not because he cannot present them more eloquently (more “poetically”), but because he feels that the most basic ideas and simplest phrases are the richest ones. Norris also comments well on Empson’s habit of misquoting his authors and fudging details and describes the shift from the detailed verbal analysis in Seven Types of Ambiguity to the more general exploration (with relatively few “close readings”) of the poet’s intention in Milton’s God. Empson’s key terms, such as “ambiguity,” “pastoral,” and “complex words,” also receive careful treatment.

Less careful, however, are many of Norris’s references to the work of others, and his book contains far too many errors and omissions. These are dismaying to recount, since William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism is a valuable study that does many things well. But readers should be warned that Norris is often sloppy, or else has taken to heart Empson’s belief that some withholding or rearrangement of the evidence is pardonable in a well-meaning critic. First of all, Norris nowhere cites Hyman’s and Sale’s long chapters on Empson in their books, though he does refer to many other, less interesting accounts. His book also suffers from misspellings and blunders: the Scrutiny critic James Smith is referred to as “Jane Smith” (p. 52); Middleton Murry becomes “Middleton Murray” (p. 93); Leavis’s famous essay, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero: or the Sentimentalist’s Othello” is mistitled “The Rhetoric of Othello” (p. 212); and a quotation from Yvor Winters is attributed to I. A. Richards (p. 188).

Other errors are frankly bewildering. At one point (p. 18), Norris quotes from Geoffrey Hartman’s work on Wordsworth and footnotes Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787—1814; but the Hartman passage in fact comes from page 45 of The Unmediated Vision. Later, Norris refers to Fredric Jameson’s commentary on the New Criticism and footnotes The Prison-House of Language, page 82; but his quotation is nowhere to be found in this book, and is actually taken from Marxism and Form, page 332. R. P. Blackmur is said to believe that poetry reflects the “substance of God,” and here Norris cites A Primer of Ignoranee, page 79; but Blackmur is paraphrasing St. Augustine (p. 43—Norris again gets the page wrong). Empson’s own work is not exempt from Norris’s peculiar ways; a passage that he says is from page 232 of Some Versions of Pastoral is garbled, taken out of context, and (at least in my edition) appears on page 292. There is, I suppose, a certain joy in uncovering so many mistakes, but not all readers are reviewers, and not everyone will be reading William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism in his or her college library.

Norris’s book is also damaged by his over-zealous parallels between Empson and other modern writers. His references to Ortega y Gasset (pp. 38—39) and Husseri (pp. 99—100), for example, merely testify to the perils of over-simplification. More seriously, Norris too quickly groups together Empson’s many statements about “reason.” Empson varies and shades his remarks on the use of “reason” in interpretation, seeing it on some occasions as a triumphant power and on others as a kind of “defense,” which is erected almost desperately against the contradictory nature of one’s feelings. “The more one understands one’s own reactions,” he says in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “the less one is at their mercy” (p. 15). But as Norris rightly suggests, Empson’s spirit of rational inquiry is admirable, and we should be grateful for the common sense and generosity that we find in his best work. Regrettably, Empson does not extend this generosity to the “neo-Christians,” and sometimes he is as narrow-minded as the people he disapproves of. But his work remains rich and rewarding and may even benefit (if not entirely to our pleasure) from the anti-Christian energies that have provoked much of it in recent years. As W. H. Auden says in his poem about Empson, “good voices are rare,” and we should value them.


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