- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM EMPSON

Edited by John Haffenden

Oxford University Press, $74, 729 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD

Last year, the indefatigable John Haffenden brought out the first hefty volume of his two-part biography of the English critic and poet, William Empson (volume two will appear in December). In between, as it were, he has edited a generous selection of Empson’s letters and done so with his usual painstaking thoroughness. This involves frequent inclusion of passages from letters and other writings by correspondents who provoked Empson into responding, usually at length and often repeatedly.

No collection of letters by any writer I’m aware of comes even close to matching these 50 years worth of continuing argument about literature, the criticism and teaching of which made up Empson’s life. His criticism is to be found in such works as “Seven Types of Ambiguity” and “The Structure of Complex Words”; his teaching was done in Japan, in China, for many years at the University of Sheffield in England, and after retirement in brief stints at American universities.

This is not to say that the results are always edifying to the hard-working reader; maddening, is rather the word that more than once comes to mind. Sometimes the exchanges are about topics and matters that have ceased to hold interest for us, such as questions of “feeling” and “sense” he discusses with his mentor, I.A. Richards.

The result is impenetrable stuff like the following: “A feeble attempt at putting (x) for ‘feeling (= sense not in focus of consciousness of x’ and X?” it begins and continues just as mysteriously.

Or we find him, more than once, going on at length about Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” a play that only English graduate students have read and probably only once:

“The play is morally disgusting unless you recognise that it is based on indignation about these appallingly tricky royal marriages, their immense irrelevance to the political results they entail (such as the Spanish rule over the Netherlands, always a sore), the nastiness of having to force the girls into accepting them (or even seeing the poor debauched frog having to pretend he would be able to poke the terrifying old Elizabeth).”

What? Haffenden prints some sentences from Christopher Ricks’ response to this letter, in which, after praising Empson’s “splendid interpretation,” Mr. Ricks admits he has no interest in the play “wh. just rests in my memory as bric-a-brac.”

An English reviewer of the letters noted the prevalence of pugilistic metaphors in what Empson liked to call his “argufying” mode. One of his best-known poems is titled “Just a Smack at Auden,” and there’s no denying he actively sought out rough-and-tumble verbal encounters with other critics.

In his introduction, Mr. Haffenden points out Empson’s fondness for “joke-phrases,” odd, slangy turns of speech that impart to the argufying a colloquial, informal and sometimes puzzling tone. One doesn’t — and surely Empson’s correspondents must often have felt this — know just how to take an obvious insult that is not quite obvious in its delivery.

How, for example, did the American scholar Rosamund Tuve, a specialist in Renaissance and 17th-century literature, take the following compliment: “I think that your style has greatly improved in your last book but is still very bad, simply from failure of communication.”

Simply? He goes on to suggest that if Tuve would try to write more clearly she would find “your ideas are a great deal more muddled than you suppose.”

One Penelope Doob, who sent Empson an article she’d written on a Jacobean play, Thomas Middleton’s “The Changeling,” is first thanked, then dismembered over five pages in which she is treated as another of those critics who have bought into the hated “Christian revival.” (Empson regularly and obsessively referred to Christianity as “torture-worship.”)

But, he concedes near the beginning of his reply, perhaps he has been too hasty: “Maybe I wrong you in supposing that you actually do suffer from a loathsome mental disease, putting you into what you would describe as a state of Sin. It is more likely that you talk like this because it is a skill which you have earnestly acquired, and that you murder the play because you have been taught to consider all plays as dead already.” Did Ms. Doob wonder at this moment why she’d sent along the offprint?

Absent from this very large volume are any letters to parents, siblings and family generally: a couple of short ones to his son Jacob are the exception proving the rule. Empson writes from Peiping in 1948 that his wife, Hetta, is due back from a jaunt to Mongolia. “She is very fond of Mongols,” he says parenthetically, but adds — Hetta by this time having returned — that she “tired of meals consisting only of a sheep boiled without salt.”

Most other references to his wife explain that she is staying in London while he teaches at Sheffield, of which she’s not fond. He seems to have had little need for unburdening himself to others in “sincere” confessions of any sort; instead he notes “the duty of sounding cheerful in letters.”

Sounding cheerful involved playing a role, and Mr. Haffenden described that role well in the first volume of his biography when he spoke of Empson’s critical writing as produced by “a great entertainer lavishly broadcasting as many scintillating jokes and sparkling critical jewels.”

There are fine examples in this volume as when, upon the occasion of being knighted he invites Christopher Ricks to what he calls a “boasting party.” In his introduction, Mr. Haffenden quotes John Gross who, after he became editor of the Times Literary Supplement in 1974, called Empson for a contribution. He was answered by a sing-song voice that asked “Are you in the chair already?” Gross affirmed that he was, and Empson asked, “Does it swivel?”

In a suggestive definition of humor, Robert Frost called it “the most engaging cowardice” and said that it served him to keep “my enemies in play far out of gunshot.” Empson’s jousting with his “enemies” can be seen as a form of sociable aggression by which he kept himself, as it were, in trim.

Although he didn’t engage directly with his early admirer but soon-to-be adverse critic, F.R. Leavis, he more than once spoke of the “lunatic self-righteousness of the Leavisites.” But Empson’s “play” more than once turns, over the course of a letter, into something unpleasant, verging on the lunatic, or at least the loony.

He writes to the critic F.T. Prince, thanking him for his “courteous response” to an Empson letter, yet by the end of it is telling Prince that “it is impossible to invent any convolution of your mind which would make your behaviour anything except dirty twopenny cheating.”

He was fond of using joke-phrases to demean his opponent: “I suspect all you mean is that he won’t parrot the shibboleths of your vain bibble-babble” (this to Mark Roberts). Writing to his sometime pupil Philip Hobsbaum, he hopes that Hobsbaum “will not boast of being my pupil any longer without admitting that I think all your present opinions harmfully and disgustingly wrong.”

There are many more where those came from, and although he wrote that “No man likes being promoted to the class of Licensed Buffoon,” he clearly promoted himself into that role, even as his style of buffoonery was apt to lurch out of control, at least by usual standards of civility.

Perhaps the most vivid pages in these letters are taken up with an exchange between Empson and Mr. Ricks in which the former suggests that something written by the latter can be attributed to Mr. Ricks’ “very unhealthy frame of mind.” Mr. Ricks, who deeply admired Empson’s work, responds with a devastatingly effective rebuke to the charge.

Mr. Haffenden reveals what I hadn’t known before, that Empson was an admirer of Evelyn Waugh: This makes sense, since both Waugh and Empson were “impossible” persons who talked for victory and almost always won it. Empson was perhaps a great, surely a unique, literary critic; these letters reveal his enormous gifts as a writer along with an absolutely intransigent conviction of his own rightness and the invariable wrongness of the scholars and critics with whom he engaged.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.


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