The English edition of The Complete Poems of William Empson was reviewed by Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books under the sly headline "William Empson: a most noteworthy poet." Empson liked to append his own notes to his poems, and even as a young man, he asked when entering negotiations with a publisher, "If I publish a volume of verse with notes longer than the text, as I want to do, will that be a prose work or a verse one?" Add to the author's own notes the glosses and historicizing of the book's editor, John Haffenden, and you have a book with nearly three times the length of commentary as of text.
The book is divided into four broad sections: ninety-four pages of introduction, acknowledgments, bibliography and dating; 107 pages of poems; seven appendixes; and a further 266 pages of notes. I like very much poet Roy Campbell's view that "in the notes you meet Mr Empson himself, and that is a charming experience."
To judge by the good humor and diffidence of the notes, and the many letters and other private texts quoted here, Empson does seem to have been a charming man. (His notes on the poems are distinguished from Haffenden's by boldface type.) Where Haffenden's notes are expository and biographical, Empson's are quite enigmatic and puzzling–in his three-page note to the three-page poem "Bacchus," Empson wrote: "Columbus…once puzzled people about how to stand an egg on its end; the answer was to crack the shell. He is Humpty Dumpty the egg and a foam omelette because wisdom via drink requires breaking eggs…" and so on.
"It really ought to be possible to write simple, goodhumoured, illuminating and long notes to one's own poems without annoying the reader," Empson wrote in a posthumously published essay (probably dating from 1929, when the poet was just 23 years old). He saw his poems as a kind of puzzle, and the notes as a set of clues to solving them. In a preface to his 1940 volume, The Gathering Storm (a title he elsewhere accused Winston Churchill of stealing), he spoke of his notes as "like answers to a crossword puzzle" and presented this aspect as part of the pleasure of his poetry. He seems, in fact, to have thought it would have been impertinent to offer the poems without these clues, and so the notes were, to him, inseparable from the poems. He put this point playfully in 1927, in the draft of an unfinished libretto quoted in Haffenden's note to "Two songs from a libretto." The characters are a young girl, May, and her two aunts, and the sequence begins by referring to T.S. Eliot's quotation from philosopher F.H. Bradley in his notes to The Waste Land:
[May:] What did Professor Bradley say whom T.S. Eliot quotes?
[Aunt 1:] Surely but only in the notes.
[Aunt 2:] Why, should I have read all the notes?
[May:] His notes are part of what he quotes
The best of Empson's poems are the slighter of his works, expressing vulnerability, bewilderment or wonder. These often are poems of beautiful poise and tenderness; the two short stanzas of "The Extasie" are a good example:
Walking together in the muddy lane
The shallow pauses in her conversation
Were deep, like puddles, as the blue sky;
So thin a film separated our firmaments.
We who are strong stand on our own feet.
You misunderstand me. We stand on the reflections of our feet.
Unsupported, we do not know whether to fall upwards or downwards,
Nor when the water will come through our shoes.