An infectious ambiguity

William Empson: Volume Two

May 4, 2007

He delighted in active minds, his own being perpetually at work... he thought critically (in the positive sense) all the time," said a friend; "I never once heard him refer to anything reported without illuminating some deeper or unconsidered significance, or demonstrating its stupidity." Yet William Empson is an elusive delight: a penetrating close reader, but irritated by New Criticism; psychologically shrewd, but of no analytical school; historically attentive, but no historicist; an outrageous satirist, yet ethically serious; tuned to the contradictions and instabilities liked by theorists, but sceptical of literary theory; always rigorous, yet generous and affable; a liberal democratic socialist, but knighted in 1979; a charismatic personality with peculiar, even off-putting personal habits; a serious scholar who once proclaimed the Beatles' song Hello, Goodbye a great modern poem. With a genius not containable by any coherent philosophy, he is the star of anecdotes endearing and scandalous, a captivator of attention with a sentence of striking eloquence, a penetrating insight, a perverse reading.

Empson was lauded as rivalling Johnson and Hazlitt in importance and humour, and impressed everyone, from the Queen and colleagues to students in Japan, China, Ghana, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Toronto and Sheffield - his longest appointment. John Haffenden's Against the Christians completes the biography begun in the award-winning Among the Mandarins . Those not already fans of Empson's precocious Seven Types of Ambiguity (a fount and foundation of close reading), Some Versions of Pastoral , The Structure of Complex Words and Milton's God may wonder at Haffenden's epic, a good 1,500 pages in all. But it's a grand story, setting this incorrigibly eccentric, mercurial subject in a wealth of documentary detail, letters, notes, publications, broadcasts, interviews, reports near and far. Against the Christians reflects Empson's fame, from 1961 on, for Milton's God , the brilliant, bracing, controversial anti-Christian, pro-humanist reading of Paradise Lost . Yet it offers much more than this long-waged war as it traces a maverick character.

The story, which spans five decades of political, cultural and literary-academic turmoil, opens in wartime 1940, with Empson working against Hitler at the BBC with Louis MacNeice and George Orwell, bicycling through herds of cows with a book propped on handlebars, and dining with H.G.Wells. Dazzling Hetta Crouse, a BBC colleague, took immediately to him, and Orwell, who was ready to leave his wife for her, was so jealous of Empson's improbable success that he shunned the wedding, sending a too-transparent carving set in absentia. In his attention to the art and culture of argufying at the BBC, Empson honed the verbal precisions of "basic English," the nuances of The Structure of Complex Words and the sharpness about argument and propaganda in Milton's God . He was also "the poet Empson", "the most brilliantly obscure of modern poets," said his editor T. S. Eliot. Empson found convivial, often inebriated, friendship with other poets, among them fiery drinker Dylan Thomas.

In 1947, he returned to China for a British Council appointment at National Peking University. Empson, a bemused cultural critic and quirky but devoted teacher of English literature, witnessed the rise of Mao, the succumbing of "the honeymoon between the universities and the Communists" to the Cultural Control Committee. Under the radar of regime politics, Empson kept his intellectual independence, hailing the social progress but uncomfortable about "the darker aspects". Not the least was the (sometimes grimly comic) public theatre of recantation and self-criticism, "the dragooning of independent thought and the hysteria of the confession meetings" required of everyone from presidents to teaching assistants: rituals of "criticism and self-criticism" to denounce family and class background, education and ideas, and "boldly criticise each other" for signs of the "influences of the Anglo-American reactionary capitalist class" along with its errors of "individualism."

Empson was becoming ever more attuned to how words are spoken, interpreted and managed under political surveillance, and was making the transition from "ambiguity" to the complex structures of historical and contextual usages. Fraught with this interest, he took a nearly other-worldly US vacation in the late 1940s, to teach with New Critics (Cleanth Brooks, J.C. Ransom), L. C. Knights and Kenneth Burke (whom he liked best) at the Kenyon Summer School. His "very dramatic" position amused him: "There can be few other people in the world who are receiving pay simultaneously and without secrecy from the Chinese Communists, the British Socialists and the capitalist Rockefeller machine." He liked "the pro-ambiguity stuff" but recoiled at its anti-intentionalism, its "pro-South, anti-Machine Age, and anti-Negro" admixture, and its bullying, falsely historicist "neo-Christianity".

He found more familiar footing as chair of English literature at Sheffield University, his post from 1953 to 1971. Empson lived in a squalid "burrow", drinking heavily (as always), delighting his students, perplexing his colleagues. He settled into a routine of vigorous scholarship, invigorating teaching, social eccentricity and a frankly open marriage. He published Collected Poems (1955), helped write a masque for the Queen's visit titled The Birth of Steel (advising that the first Elizabethan masquers would have told the Queen that she was God and had invented steel) and produced his most controversial and lastingly influential work, Milton's God , a defence of the romantic Satan and the integrity of humankind: "I am not myself a Christian, because the belief in a supreme God who takes pleasure in giving torture seems to me ineradicable from the religion, and I find difficulty in imagining the minds of good men who accept it." He would go on to rescue Donne, Marvell and Coleridge from this God, in preference for a philosophical God unfettered by Church and state: Donne writes as if he had visited another world, free for sexual love; Marvell is bisexual, at once married and given to same-sex desire; Coleridge's Ancient Mariner counters repressive allegories of sin, guilt and damnation with a natural providence.

Haffenden is no hagiographer: he gives Empson in all aspects, brilliant, dark and at times grimy and unpleasant (his habit of referring to his infant son as "it"). Those new to Empson's criticism or poetry will appreciate Haffenden's explication of themes, critical procedures and theoretical suggestiveness; those up to speed will learn even more from his detailed reports and deft demonstrations of Empson's key ideas, and culling of reactions from professional reviews to former students.

Against the Christians closes with love and death: Empson's rescue of Faustus from Christian orthodoxy, and Empson's heterodox marriage. Marlowe, Empson contends, never intended Hell for Faust (this was just toadying to the censors). The afterlife he wished for Faust is what Empson seems to have wished for himself: a dissolution, outside of Christian Heaven and Hell, into a provident nature, spiritual yet secular. Reading Darwin's Autobiography in his last days, Empson wrote this apologia: "Whenever I have found out that I have blundered, or that my work has been imperfect, and when I have been contemptuously criticised, and even when I have been overpraised, so that I have felt mortified, it has been my greatest comfort to say hundreds of times to myself that 'I have worked as hard and as well as I could, and no man can do more than this'."

This could have been a fitting close to Against the Christians , but Haffenden gives the final ten pages to the romance with Hetta, by turns tender and tragic, caring and careless, abusive and adoring, brutal and bohemian, but ever enduring. Haffenden may have overplayed his hand, exposing her as more of a user and high-drama queen than he meant to do.

But it's clear that this vital, arrestingly beautiful woman of fearless intellect, lover, wife, advocate, mother, grandmother, grieving widow and staunch individualist was a grand match for the man with whom she would stay involved for half a century.

Part of Haffenden's case is a poem drafted in 1948, published here for the first time: The Wife Is Praised . In 24 wittily rhymed ababcdcd octaves, Empson versifies an argument he had begun to think about in Ulysses (published in Kenyon Review 1956): Bloom vicariously enjoys his wife as Stephen Dedaus makes love to her, getting generous byplay from both: "For the vision of love that was pressing/ And time has not falsified yet/ Was always a love with three corners/ I loved you in bed with young men,/ Your arousers and foils and adorners/ Who would yield to me then." The master of ambiguity admits a nice one into the last line: do the young men yield the wife to him, rewarding his generosity? or do they focus homoerotic desire, yielding themselves to Empson, in the same spirit, with wife now rapt spectator?

Haffenden will want to correct some slips, errors and errata. For "sharip" read "sharp" (441); for "sbove" read "above" (530); Truman, not Cleveland, was president in 1950 (208). And, I think, a mishearing: Haffenden takes Empson reciting Coleridge's "To be beloved is all I need, And whom I love I love indeed" as testimony to the deep bond to Hetta. But the source is The Pains of Sleep , an anguish of unbreakable opium addiction, and the "love" is not Mrs Coleridge but unattainable Sarah Hutchinson. There may be more pained irony in this affinity with Coleridge than Haffenden allows.

But there is Coleridgean exuberance as well, especially in the continuity of conversation and criticism. "Empson is one of the few English writers whose conversation is on a level with his writing," said Roy Campbell; "His gaiety, his physical enjoyment of his own poetry were infectious," said G.

S. Fraser; "he has one of the most capacious and reflective minds I have ever encountered", said former teacher I. A. Richards, adding, "above all, he has the gift of vivifying the interests of those around him." Bringing to life this improvisational elusiveness, it is to this Empson that Haffenden has devoted his research and writing, with evident labour and love.

Susan J. Wolfson is professor of English, Princeton University.

William Empson: Volume Two: Against the Christians

Author - John Haffenden
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 797
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 97801996608

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