William Empson (1906-1984) is best remembered as one of the most important and idiosyncratic literary critics of the 20th Century but he was also an influential poet whose output, though small, was held in high esteem by such figures as W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell. Empson was born in Yorkshire into the comfortable lifestyle of the landed gentry, though he was never to be a conventional product of this background. He displayed an early aptitude for maths, winning scholarships to Winchester public school and, in 1925, to Magdalene College, Cambridge University. Initially Empson studied Maths, but switched to English in his final year. Empson was fortunate in having as his tutor I. A. Richards, one of the founding fathers of English Literature as an academic discipline and already well-known as a proponent of the “practical criticism” method. It was to Richards that Empson showed an essay analysing the ambiguities to be found in the work of the great English poets. Recognising its quirky genius Richards encouraged Empson to work up the piece into a full publication. Seven Types of Ambiguity was published when Empson was just twenty four, its “interpretive fertility” (Stefan Collini) revealing the riches that might be unearthed through the close reading of a text. These ideas helped inspire the New Criticism movement in America, and in general revolutionised the way in which literary criticism functioned, though Empson spent a great deal of his later career denouncing the New Critics’ insistence on taking only the text into consideration, thereby isolating it from its wider cultural context. Seven Types of Ambiguity made Empson’s name and he was nominated for a fellowship at Magdalene College. However, when contraceptives were discovered in Empson’s rooms the ensuing scandal meant the fellowship was rescinded and Empson was plunged into financial hardship. This crisis, though painful, was also the catalyst for a period of stimulating travel in the Far East which was to exert a powerful influence on his imagination. First Empson took up a teaching post in Japan followed, in 1937, by an invitation to teach at the University of Peking. However, when he arrived Empson found the staff on the brink of leaving in the face of the Japanese invasion. Empson fled with them and lived a peripatetic existence for two years teaching English poetry entirely from memory. Empson loved China, despite the hardships, and became very knowledgeable about Buddhism which he respected (as opposed to Christianity which he found morally repugnant and criticised openly). Despite these upheavals, Empson found time to publish his second groundbreaking book of criticism Some Versions of the Pastoral in 1935. The majority of his poetry was also written during the 20s and 30s. He returned to England at the outbreak of the Second World War and was employed by the BBC making broadcasts to the Far East. Empson married Hetta Crouse in 1941 and the couple had two sons. After the war Empson returned to Peking University for a further five years where he witnessed the rise of communism, leaving in 1952 when teaching conditions became more restricted. He was offered a professorship at Sheffield University which he accepted, remaining in post until his retirement in 1971. His post-war publications were few; only three more books of criticism appeared in his lifetime, but all of them are considered classics in their own right. After his death in 1985, Empson’s reputation suffered, partly because of his sometimes open hostility to the new literary theorists who were then in the ascendancy. A re-evaluation has been underway for a while, with Empson’s refusal to be part of any kind of school being recognised as a virtue.

His poetry is notable for its intellectual precision and sometimes abstruse learning. Empson, a crossword puzzle fanatic, once said his poems should be approached in the same spirit. Though not to be taken entirely seriously, his remark does touch on the playfulness of his verse, influenced by his love of John Donne and the elaborate conceits of the metaphysical poets. However, like Donne, his poems are also an investigation into the nature of existence and are moving in their acknowledgement that “life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.” This spirit gives his best poems a pained quality beneath the surface dazzle.

Contradiction is at the heart of his three Archive poems, which are among his most celebrated. In ‘Aubade’ the simple narrative of a lover trying to decide whether to stay or leave becomes a means of probing the question of how we should live, the dilemma enacted in the two opposing statements repeated through the poem. Form was always a key concern in Empson’s poetry and ‘Missing Dates’ also employs a complex structure, the villanelle, its circularity emphasising the inevitability of waste. The short, late poem ‘Let it Go’ – said by Empson to reflect a decision to give up writing poetry – is equally piercing in its acknowledgement of the “deep blankness” beneath the surface confusion of life. Empson’s reading style has a certain patrician asperity, but his love of what he called “the singing line” ensures this is combined with a serious music.

Poems by William Empson

Missing Dates - William Empson

Books by William Empson