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Manual William Empson, Volume 2: Against the Christians

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Indeed, it is this commitment to unraveling or articulating the truth in literature that aligns Empson so perfectly with Dr.

Johnson and that permits him unusual avenues to explore sociopolitical ideas in literature in a vein very different from contemporary Marxist critics for example, Fredric Jameson or scholars of New Historicism such as Stephen Greenblatt. Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that:. Gray's Elegy is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:.

William Empson | Poetry Foundation

Already, the heat of Empson's political views find their way into these lines, though perhaps even here there is nothing more ideological than an ordinary sense of fairness or justice. He goes on to deliver his political verdict with a subtle, although astute, psychological suggestion:. Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the "bourgeois" themselves do not like literature to have too much "bourgeois ideology.

Seven types of ambiguity by William Empson.

Despite the overtly political issues grappled with in these passages, Empson is as sensitive to the moral dimension, producing an astute interpretation of the poetic achievement of Gray. Empson's remarks in the very next paragraph are reminiscent of Dr. Johnson in their pained insistence:. And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy.

And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way "bourgeois," like this one; they suggest to readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree. Perhaps, these remarks deliver Empson from the hands of all who would choose to ignore or deny the existence of something like aesthetic value, from the hands even of Marxist critics; but perhaps, also, they suggest that as critics of the experiential reality of literature, individuals like Dr.

Johnson staunchly conservative and Anglican and Empson staunchly radical and atheist transcend the political categories one supposes even partly describe them. One wonders if a critic or indeed an artist of genius, in any aesthetic domain, should ever be reducible to the facts of his political, sexual, or religious orientation; should ever, that is, be incapable of enlightening or moving even those with decidedly different political, sexual, or religious commitments.

Despite the complexity of Empson's critical methods and attitude, his work, in particular, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had a significant impact on the New Criticism, a school of criticism which directed particular attention to close reading of texts, among whose adherents may be numbered F. Leavis , although, as has been noted, Empson could scarcely be described as an adherent or exponent of such a school or, indeed, of any critical school at all any more than Johnson could be. Perhaps it should be expected, then, that Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy formulated by William K.

Wimsatt, an influential New Critic.

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Indeed, Empson's distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in his distinctive dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism, ironically referring to it as "the new rigour," as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, p. Similarly, both the title and content of one of Empson's volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the "Death of the Author.

Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre —Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida" "very disgusting" Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon.

Empson's Milton's God is often described as a sustained attack on Christianity and defense of Milton 's attempt to "justify God's ways to man" in Paradise Lost. Empson argues that precisely the inconsistencies and complexities adduced by critics as evidence of the poem's badness, in fact, function in quite the opposite manner: What the poem brings out is the difficulty faced by anyone in encountering and submitting to the will of God and, indeed, the great clash between the authority of such a deity and the determinate desires and needs of human beings.

I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka , and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious Milton's God, , p. Empson notes that it is precisely Milton's great sensitivity and faithfulness to the Scriptures, in spite of their apparent madness, that generates such a controversial picture of God: It requires a mind of astonishing integrity to, in the words of Blake , be of the Devil's cause without knowing it. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy… Milton's God, , p.

The tendency in surveys of Empson's achievement in Milton's God is, depending on one's politics, to marvel or bristle at the audacious perversity of his central thesis—though something of the same perversity was tidied up and reinterpreted in Stanley Fish's much lauded work on Milton for example, Surprised by Sin ; this unfortunate tendency eclipses many of Empson's great insights and his grand intelligence, humanity, and humor in reading the poem, and ignores the significance of the work as a presentation of one of the few instances of an effort to immunize the aesthetic achievements of the poem from those available only to individuals with certain doctrinaire religious commitments.

Although perhaps not as influential as, say, Fish's work, Milton's God, remains of great significance to any critically-minded reader of Paradise Lost and it is a far more human presentation of the reasons for, and the character of, the hold the poem has upon us. Empson portrays the work as the product of a man of astonishingly powerful and imaginative sensibilities and great intellect who had invested much of himself in the poem. Indeed, despite its lack of influence, certain critics view Milton's God as by far the best that is to say, the most valuable sustained work of criticism on the poem by a twentieth century critic.

Harold Bloom includes it as one of the few critical works worthy of canonical status in his The Western Canon and the only critical work focusing solely on a single piece of literature. Regardless, Milton's God is an enriching and enjoyable experience of a critic of genius, wit, and humanity encountering one of the towering achievements of English narrative poetry. Empson's poetry is clever, learned, dry, aethereal and technically virtuosic - not wholly dissimilar to his critical work: his high regard for the metaphysical poet John Donne is to be seen in many places within his work, tempered with his appreciation of Buddhist thinking, and his occasional tendency to satire.

He wrote very few poems and stopped publishing poetry almost entirely after His Complete Poems [edited by John Haffenden, his biographer] is pages long, with over pages of notes. Empson was a charismatic personality, variously described as gruff, scornful, brusque, cold, and of immoderate appetites sex and alcohol being the most obvious , partly because he was also a roundly paradoxical figure. He was deeply sympathetic to the cause of Maoist revolutionaries in China, but was brought up in the cavernous luxury of a rural estate in Yorkshire with all the attendant prerogatives of a member of the landed gentry.

He was a scholar of singular imagination, erudition, and insight, specializing in the highly traditional domain of pre-modern English literature at the heart of the canon Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysical Poets , but his work is marked by great humor, the indulgence of an eloquent and cavalier dismissiveness reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's critical bon mots , and an astonishingly rich and varied erudition. He was esteemed as the revolutionary forefather of modern literary criticism, but disavowed "theory" altogether and evinced a deep concern for distinctly psychological elements in literature: The emotions of desire and love, the sensibility and intentions of authors.

He was an intellectual and scholar who spent a good portion of his early years inhabiting the persona of an imperial adventurer more a Richard Francis Burton than a C. In short, Empson was as much a grand and exuberant personality as a refined, sophisticated, and erudite scholar; and it is precisely this great reckless energy for life, this willingness to throw his entire self into the interpretation and criticism of literature, that informs his critical work and serves to renew in the common reader a sense of the wholly and inalienably human investment in canonical literature: a sense of how Milton or Shakespeare or Donne can matter deeply to all and any of us.

The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so, is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral; in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone.

The business of interpretation is obviously very complicated.


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Literary uses of the problem of free-will and necessity, for example, may be noticed to give curiously bad arguments and I should think get their strength from keeping you in doubt between the two methods. Thus Hardy is fond of showing us an unusually stupid person subjected to very unusually bad luck, and then a moral is drawn, not merely by inference but by solemn assertion, that we are all in the same boat as this person who story is striking precisely because it is unusual.

Starting to see other possibilities that life might offer, Empson was keen on exploring his intellectual life in different spheres of experience. In a letter to I. It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange. The contradictions cover such a range. The talk would talk and go so far aslant. Teaching at Lianda at the time of war could not possibly be a model of professionalized and specialized literary studies.

It was a profoundly personal experience. Empson reported that his time at Lianda was a period of remarkable intellectual fecundity, productivity, and creativity, despite, or rather because of, the difficult circumstances. The perils of war and shortage of daily supplies, for example, imposed on Empson and his colleagues an extraordinary sense of responsibility, and at the same time helped to create a community of sympathy that would render the profession of teaching and practice of literature purposeful and rewarding.

We devoted all of our daytime to writing, except the time for teaching and eating. Empson endured the hardships of the journey across the rough terrains with Lianda and survived the perils of war. His students and colleagues respected him because of his unwavering dedication to his work in China and his solidarity with colleagues and students in defiance of aggression and oppression. This is perhaps where Empson differed from his mentor Richards.

Recensie(s)

The difference between them lies in their practice of criticism and in their understanding of intellectual commitment and communal solidarity at the time of war and hardship. While China, for Empson, was a place of exile and serious intellectual work, it was, for Richards, a site of linguistic experiment with Basic English.

His experience of China contributed substantially to his understanding of the use and value of literature and of the role of the critical intellectual. Empson made an effort to be close to the original in translating the poem into English. The poem depicts the pathos of two lovers who must part each other by the imperatives of the revolutionary task. Setting off to the frontline fighting the Japanese, Wang Gui encounters a rare moment of tender love and restrained emotional torrent with his lover Hsiang-Hsiang, who could not imagine herself being separate from her soldier-lover.

Make one of me and one of you, And both shall be alive. Were there no magic in the dolls The children could not thrive. When you have made them smash them back: They yet shall live again. Again make dolls of you and me But mix them grain by grain. So your flesh shall be part of mine And part of mine be yours. Brother and sister we shall be Whose unity endures. The poem records the emotional turbulence characterizing love in the time of war and the poignancy of the need for self-sacrifice. The poem rehearses the Empsonian question about life as an experience of possibilities and impossibilities.

At the heart of the poem lies the symbol of a more radical paradox of the desire for physical inseparability and the pathos that follows the realization of its impossibility. In the process of creating the doll-couple, Hsiang-Hsiang performs a symbolic marriage and thereby expresses her unreserved love for her soldier-lover, which is disrupted by the painful realization of the need to part. Always the sister doll will cry, Made in these careful ways, Cry on and on, Come back to me, Come back, in a few days. But it was perhaps unnecessary for him to know Li Ji or that much about the poem.

If there is anything in common between them, it is this understanding of literature as organically connected with life and reality. His decision to stay on teaching in Peking after the Communist victory in was evidence of his solidarity with this new nation.

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Empson’s “Sacred Mountain”: Poetry, Criticism, and Love

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 victory of revolt against tyrants, supported by the countryside alone, practically 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.

Unlike his wife Hetta, who accompanied him throughout the period of his appointment at Peking, Empson was not formally a member of the British Communist Party. His leftist political sympathy was not just a political ideology, but also a critical and aesthetic response to the realities in China that fell far short of the minimum standard of human decency.


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The peasant singing is faintly like Russian singing, and very unlike the strained voice of the Chinese ruling- class music, popular in the cities through opera. Basing the revolution on the peasants thus gave a fair case for letting in European techniques; but even so the Cantata … always keeps voice and orchestra separate….

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I thought it hauntingly beautiful, all the more in the late dusk in the great square with a tense audience waiting for the liberation of the city. The concept of ambiguity recognizes the potentialities of diversity and multiplicity in language and the value of literature as knowledge of possibilities and impossibilities in life, and in practice, it makes possible a democratic form of criticism in analysis and interpretation. Escape is not exactly a struggle against a specific government policy, a particular ideology, a political authority, or even an identifiable external object, but neither is it non- action, passivity, or non-resistance.

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