WILLIAM EMPSON, VOLUME I: AMONG THE MANDARINS
By John Haffenden
Oxford, $45, 695 pages
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Fat biographies of 20th-century English writers are currently in fashion. Earlier this year the third and final volume of Bevis Hillier’s 2000-page work on John Betjeman appeared, and now John Haffenden weighs in with just short of 700 pages on the English critic and poet William Empson. You might think that so long a book would suffice for Empson; but wait, it’s merely volume one, and takes its subject only up to age 33 (Empson died in his 78th year). Mr. Haffenden, who is professor of English at the University of Sheffield where Empson taught for many years, is a practiced biographer, author of a life of John Berryman, and since Empson’s death in 1984 he has been busy amassing material and bringing out volumes of Empson’s essays that never found their way into print when Empson was alive.
Mr. Haffenden has left no stone unturned in his quest to get down the facts, many of them bizarre, about the unruly genius he believes his subject to be. It is a devoted and exhaustive enterprise that only the most curious reader will not be worn down by. The central facts of Empson’s earlier life as painstakingly recounted by Mr. Haffenden reveal an individual who was intransigent in his relation to authority, careless about — indeed hostile to — anything that looked like prudent behavior, and eager to follow the flights and perchings (the latter never for long) of his extraordinary mind.
His earlier years were spent at Yokefleet Hall in Yorkshire, the youngest child of four, and with a heritage that included literary and political distinction. He excelled in the impressive intellectual atmosphere of school at Winchester, then at Magdalen College in Cambridge where he took a degree in the sciences. (His seriousness about science would permeate the poems he began to write and publish at Cambridge.)
He went on to take a degree there in English, studying under the electrifying I.A. Richards, whose “Practical Criticism” (1929) revealed how much difficulty students had in attending to the sense and feeling of poems. Empson wrote some essays for his tutor that investigated the complicated interactions of a poem’s words — essays that would very soon become the substance of his first and most famous book, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1930). But by the time it was published, he had been expunged from his college’s rolls, even banished from the precincts of Cambridge, because he was discovered to have kept a supply of condoms in his rooms, also to have entertained a young woman there. The punishment was severe and, so it seems to us, absurd; but it set the stage for an uprootedness that would characterize his life in the 1930s: two years teaching at a Japanese university; a three-year period of London literary activity, heavy drinking (a given then and later) and — witnesses agree — residence in conditions that might best be described as squalid.
In 1935 he published his first book of poems and his second book of criticism, “Some Versions of Pastoral.” There followed two years of teaching in China under the most adverse conditions — the Sino-Japanese war, the absence of books, forced migrations from here to there. He left China in 1939, returning to England via the United States, and joined the Overseas Services of the BBC, for which he would work throughout World War II.
Mr. Haffenden’s labors have been prodigious, including trips to the far East to nose out the facts of Empson’s teaching in Japan and China. As a consequence, he is reluctant to pass up detailing and quoting at length from all possible sources of information. In an important way, the biographer’s urge to get everything into his account accords with the temperament and principles of his subject, who believed that anything, whether in literature or in life, was the better for its manifesting multiple possibilities of meaning and implication. A poem’s ability to suggest various meanings was, to Empson’s mind, an indication that it should be praised rather than disparaged for its plural significances. In a related manner, he became fascinated with the ambiguous possibilities of expression he discerned in representations of the Buddha, and wrote an essay (now lost) about his findings. This penchant for ambiguity — for both/and rather than either/or — showed itself in sexual matters as well; in his attraction to both males and females, as Mr. Haffenden puts it, he “always left open the by-way of bisexuality.” Undoubtedly the most outlandish instance of this hospitality to ambiguity occurred when, in Japan, he got drunk and made a pass at a taxi driver, later explaining that “the Japanese men and women look so alike that I made a mistake.” As with so many of Empson’s claims, one wonders how to take it: Mr. Haffenden says that it is made “with absurd implausibility.” But Empson may have thought such implausibility made it the more worth claiming.
“Seven Types of Ambiguity” and “Some Versions of Pastoral” will continue to be read for something other than their objective presentation of judgments about literature to be agreed or disagreed with. The critic Barbara Hardy once called “Seven Types” a book that was “exciting about literature and exciting as literature. It was amused, amused by itself.”
And Mr. Haffenden describes that excitement as centrally produced by a “great entertainer lavishly broadcasting as many scintillating jokes as sparkling critical jewels.” In other words, Empson was always writing “literature,” exploiting the kinds of complicated doubleness of sense and tone in the works he wrote about. Mr. Haffenden quotes a paragraph from his chapter in “Alice in Wonderland in Some Versions” and remarks that it is “apparently casual and freewheeling,” words that apply equally to all of Empson’s prose.
And not to his prose only, since the difficult, often obscure poems he wrote in the late 1920s and 30s (after that he stopped writing poems) challenge our attempt to settle into any confident reading of them. One of the (relatively) easier ones, the well-known villanelle “Missing Dates,” begins “Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills. / It is not the effort nor the failure tires. / The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.” Mr. Haffenden calls it one of his greatest poems for its “sheer emotionalism.” Yet on the recording Empson made of it, he reads the whole poem in a melodramatic, even ghoulish voice, as if he were some evil magician casting a spell.
Could this be less an expression of sheer emotionalism than one more dark, if scintillating, joke? If we find greatness in some of the work of his contemporaries such as Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin (to say nothing of predecessors like Frost, Eliot, Yeats), then perhaps a better word than greatness should be found for Empson’s undeniably individual, yet queer and eccentric, verse.
Perhaps his most moving attempt to state the human condition in memorable words comes in the final stanza of one of his best poems, “This Last Pain.” It may serve as an epitaph for Empson’s inimitable procedure as a poet-critic, and for the troubled brilliance of his life as Mr. Haffenden has so fully presented it:
Imagine, then, by miracle,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what
gods give must be)
What could not possibly be
And learn a style from a despair.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and is the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”