The Codebreaker - On the critical legacy of William Empson

Today, when literary criticism—especially the close reading of lyric poetry—has become a suspect discipline, largely dismissed for its elitism and irrelevance to the political order, Michael Wood's elegant and concise study of the great British literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) is especially welcome. Empson was all of 22 when he produced, at the suggestion of his Cambridge supervisor I. A. Richards, a bulky manuscript called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Published in 1930, the book quickly became a classic, read and hotly debated in classrooms across Britain and the United States. Not until the 1970s, with the rise of Deconstruction, did Empson's star go down, the irony being (as Wood notes) that he anticipated so many of the theorems of what he called, in a letter to a friend, "those horrible Frenchmen"—he referred to the chef d'école of Deconstruction as "Nerrida"—who were "so very disgusting, in a social and moral way." Wood explains:
What Empson found disgusting was the seeking out, as he saw it, of complexity for complexity's sake, a project that was "always pretending to be plumbing the 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 language and literature everywhere: the human stakes were being removed, words were let loose in the playground, no agents or intentions were to be seen.
Forty years later, Empson may be making something of a comeback. Oxford has recently published John Haffenden's two-volume biography, which gives a fascinating portrait of Empson's turbulent life, from his student days (he was dismissed from Cambridge when a box of condoms was found in his room!) to his turn to the East—he taught first in Tokyo, then in Beijing from 1931 to 1952, except for the interim of the war, continuing to write and publish his own poetry—to his postwar years as London literary lion, chair of English literature at Sheffield University, and distinguished lecturer in America and around the world. However messy and disaster-prone Empson's private life may have been, his brilliance, learning, and wit were never at issue.

Seven Types of Ambiguity set the stage for a new way of reading poetry. The young Empson was the first to admit that his sevenfold division was arbitrary, that in practice his categories merged and overlapped. Thus, the first ambiguity—"Mere richness (a metaphor valid from many points of view)"—and the second—"Two different meanings conveying the same point"—are not really distinct; and neither are the other five, culminating in number seven: "Two meanings that are the opposites created by the context." All Empson really meant to convey by announcing that there are 7 types of ambiguity (there might have been 17!) was that by definition, poetry was characterized by the multivalence of its language. An ambiguity is defined on the opening page of the book as "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." And Empson adds, commonsensically: "Sometimes .  .  . the word may be stretched absurdly far, but it is descriptive because it suggests the analytical mode of approach, and with that I am concerned."

"The analytical mode," which became Empson's stock-in-trade, involved a technical rigor (he initially came to Cambridge to study mathematics) that is the very antithesis of the current emphasis on what a given poem says, what information or morality it imparts. Denotation and connotation, metaphor and metaphysical conceit, pun, rhetorical figure, syntactic form, sound play, and rhythmic structure: All these aspects of poetic language are to be examined so as to detail the rich ambiguity of the poem in question—its power to charm by its range and depth. But unlike the American New Critics, who insisted on the "intentional fallacy," regarding a poem as an object not to be judged by external criteria including the poet's intention, and unlike Michael Foucault and Roland Barthes, who made their eloquent cases for "the death of the author," Empson was quite willing to use whatever biographical, historical, or cultural knowledge might be relevant in unpacking the meaning of the poems he discussed.

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