The Close Reader

The Close Reader

William Empson’s writing shaped modern criticism. A new biography restores him to his proper eminence.


William Empson “invented modern literary criticism in English.” It is no small claim. Of course, we need, in the manner of the activity in question, to submit every word in that judgment (by Empson’s biographer, John Haffenden) to close scrutiny. We would not ordinarily think of “literary criticism” as something that could be “invented,” certainly not by one individual, so there is already a suspicion that Empson is being credited here with a more specific achievement than first meets the eye. “Modern” raises another cluster of questions about how the activity Empson is alleged to have fathered differed from that practiced by, say, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge or Arnold. And even “in English” may be taken to signal that a distinctively English or perhaps Anglo-American tradition is at issue, distinct from French or German or other European models for talking about literature.

When clarified in this way, the claim starts to become intriguing rather than self-defeatingly hyperbolic. Those who recall Empson’s name only from textbook histories will associate him with the ingenious, perhaps sometimes over-ingenious, identification of multiple meanings in individual words and phrases within lines of poetry–the kind of dazzling virtuosity of interpretation that he exhibited in his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930. But, as this magnificent biography demonstrates, there was much, much more to him than that. However, any attempt at a more considered estimation of his achievement is likely to come up against a particular obstacle these days, especially in the United States, the result of a canard that was much in vogue in graduate schools in the closing decades of the twentieth century. This decreed that “criticism” should be understood as one among several possible “approaches” to the “study” of literature, the approach associated above all with the distinctive, but (allegedly) unreflective and theoretically innocent, practice of the New Critics, who were dominant in the academic study of English in the United States from the 1930s to at least the 1960s but who, it is claimed, were then superseded by the more analytical and systematic inquiries of “literary theory.” “Close reading” is thus supposed to have been discredited as a “method,” yielding to the superior knowingness of those deconstructive and politically sensitive “reading strategies” often described as “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” So even if Empson could, in any intelligible sense, be credited with fathering “modern literary criticism,” that would simply confirm that his work is outmoded, an exhibit belonging to the paleolithic period in the history of literary studies.

Among its several failings, this tendentious piece of pseudo-history confused the activity of reading works of literature with the various claims made about that activity. The conceptual inquiries lumped together as “literary theory” may illuminate aspects of the practice of literary criticism and may especially uncover the grounds of its possibility, but they cannot “replace” it. So-called close reading is really just reading–attentive, intelligent, responsive reading. Its antithesis is not “theory” but something like “slack reading,” which is certainly a much more widespread activity, even if not one actually recommended in those terms by supposedly rival approaches. Anyone seriously engaged with literature, whatever his theoretical allegiances, practices close reading; it only becomes one “approach” among others when the attempt is made to abstract some principles from it that are held to rule out the legitimacy of other ways of thinking about one’s reading.

Textbook surveys, identifying Empson with the interpretive fertility of Seven Types, sometimes classify him as a British outrider of the New Critics. But this is a fundamental error. Indeed, Empson spent much of his later career vigorously polemicizing against the New Critics, who, he believed, were attempting artificially to constrain criticism by declaring illegitimate any inferences from our knowledge of the author and his intentions, or our knowledge of the intellectual assumptions of the period, or of its generic conventions, and so on. The artificial purity of the exclusive concentration on “the words on the page” meant, in his view, trying to rule out “a process which all persons not insane are using in all their social experience.” Common “social experience” was the final court of appeal in Empson’s criticism. He may have displayed an exceptionally alert responsiveness to verbal detail, but it was always (at least after his first book) in the service of the enterprise of understanding a work of literature as a whole, of identifying the meanings its author intended to convey, of placing a particular artifact within the larger range of forms of human self-expression. Whether or not Empson can be said to have “invented” anything about this activity, he practiced it with a virtuosity recognized even by those with whom he most sharply disagreed: “I believe that before he is done,” John Crowe Ransom handsomely acknowledged in late 1952, “Empson will rank as the leading literary critic of our time.”

During his lifetime (1906-84), William Empson published four books that lastingly shaped the activity of criticism: Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), The Structure of Complex Words (1951) and Milton’s God (1961). He is also generally regarded as one of the best minor poets of the twentieth century. His poetry, nearly all of it written between the late 1920s and the end of the ’30s, has a cerebral exactness and a marked formal elegance (he excelled in unfashionable forms such as the villanelle). Several poets of the next generation claimed to take much of their inspiration from Empson: Robert Lowell wrote to him in 1958 to say, “I think you are the most intelligent poet writing in our language and perhaps the best. I put you with Hardy and Graves and Auden and Philip Larkin.” Even before Empson died, both his poetry and his criticism had already lost some of their appeal, the flame being kept alight by small bands of devoted admirers. But the fashionable orthodoxies in whose name he was demoted have in their turn lost their glamour and started to fade, so it is possible that the publication of this two-volume biography will help to gain him new readers and to restore him to his proper eminence.

Empson came of Yorkshire gentry stock; a certain patrician confidence sustained him through his geographically unsettled existence and his at times extravagantly penurious bohemianism. He went to Cambridge in 1925 to study mathematics, which he did for three years (he is rare among literary critics in his level of scientific literacy). He then switched to the recently established course in English for an additional year, 1928-29. By virtue of being in the same college, he had the good fortune to be taught by I.A. Richards, then the intellectual pinup of the Cambridge English faculty, who had recently embarked on his legendary lectures on “practical criticism.” Empson wrote an essay for his supervisor exploring how multiple meanings worked in poetry; the essay grew unmanageably large; recognizing the quirky brilliance of his pupil, Richards recommended him to go away and work up the piece for publication. Thus it was that one of the landmark works of modern literary criticism began life as an undergraduate essay by someone who was only in his first year of studying English. When Seven Types was published, Empson was just 24.

Upon graduating in 1929, Empson was elected to a junior fellowship at Magdalene College and looked set for an orthodox academic career. But that summer a member of the college staff discovered condoms in Empson’s room. The conventional, and largely elderly, fellows panicked; Empson’s fellowship was rescinded and he was ordered to leave Cambridge. The scandal plunged him into several years of a hand-to-mouth existence that may, indirectly, have enriched his thinking more than the predictable routines of an established academic post would have done. Periods as a freelance reviewer in London punctuated longer spells teaching, first in Japan and then, from 1937 to 1939, in China, where he endured considerable physical hardship and some danger as he shared in his colleagues’ retreat in the face of the Japanese invasion. He returned to Britain in 1940, convinced of the need to do his bit in resisting Hitler. He spent some six years working for the BBC, mainly broadcasting to the Far East: During this time he wrote practically no criticism, cheerfully accepting that his talents should be directed toward making a modest contribution to a great cause.

In 1947, by then married and with two children, he returned to a British Council-sponsored teaching post in Peking, where he took a sympathetic view of the early years of Communist revolution (his own politics were always of a firmly social-democratic kind, though Hetta, his South African-born wife, was for a while a member of the party). But the conditions required for the independent, disinterested teaching of English literature began to decline sharply in 1950, and in 1952 Empson finally resigned his teaching post and returned to Britain, becoming a professor of English at Sheffield University the following year. This would not have been regarded as one of the plum appointments within British academic life, but he desperately needed a regular income to provide for his family, and it pleased him to be teaching in his native Yorkshire. He had an unconventional way of being a professor, as he did of being a husband, father and everything else; but he did the things that mattered well enough and stayed in this post until his retirement in 1971. His career included several spells teaching at American universities, including the Kenyon summer school of criticism in its heyday. Writing from Kenyon in 1950 he joked: “My position here really seems to me very dramatic; there can be few other people in the world who are receiving pay simultaneously and without secrecy from the Chinese Communists, the British Socialists, and the capitalist Rockefeller machine. Practically a little friend of all the world.”

Toward the end of the second volume of Haffenden’s huge biography, there are several extended descriptions, poignant veering toward dispiriting, of the increasingly frail Empson holed up in uncongenial quarters (and uncongenial isolation–he was a natural party animal) in various American universities as he tried to supplement his inadequate pension. It is hard not to feel a frustrating sense of waste about these episodes: Empson was by now one of the imperishable names in the canon of great critics, yet he spent several deeply unrewarding semesters dragging unwilling undergraduates through their five-finger exercises in English literary history, neglected by local scholars, drinking too much (as usual), lonely. Even here it is his indomitable and mostly uncomplaining cheerfulness that comes through, a kind of sunny resolution that was of a piece with the courage he had shown in the face of larger challenges. He was, by any measure, a singular man, yet one who did not protest too much when his later years dealt him more than his share of unrewarding labor and commonplace tedium.

John Haffenden’s labors, though presumably more rewarding, have been on a heroic scale, even by the standards of devoted biographers, since he embarked on this task a quarter of a century ago. Along the way he has edited volumes of occasional or unfinished writings by Empson, as well as a meticulously annotated Complete Poems in 2000 and a wonderfully usable Selected Letters in 2006. Now finally the biography has seen the light of day in all its amplitude. It is a quite magnificent work, far outstripping the conventional kind of literary biography so beloved of commercial publishers, those unanalytical narratives of daily trivia and sexual gossip whose chief function sometimes seems to be the indulgence of readers’ nostalgic fantasies of belonging to a past social elite. Haffenden’s research trips have constituted an Empsonian odyssey in themselves, extending across China and Japan as well as Britain and the United States, and his wide scholarly reading has allowed him to reconstruct his subject’s milieus in fascinating detail, including absorbing accounts of Cambridge in the 1920s, the BBC during World War II, Peking during the Communist revolution of the late 1940s and so on. In addition, these volumes, unlike those that only clumsily mine their subject’s books for biographical material, are exceptionally perceptive and illuminating about Empson’s writing and thinking.

If this biography has a fault, it lies in its very amplitude: It is simply too long. Haffenden has been a little self-indulgent in allowing himself to include too much information about, for instance, the remoter reaches of the family background (by which he is clearly charmed) and the minutiae of departmental life in Sheffield (where he has spent most of his own academic career). But this is a venial failing, forgivable in a biographer who has devoted a quarter of a century’s labor to such a remarkable figure.

One of the most valuable things this biography helps us to do is to identify the ethical drive at the heart of Empson’s criticism. He could be wonderfully scornful of the deformations of scholasticism in the study of literature, “the vast facade of imbecility” created by theories that interposed barriers between reader and work. He may have been over-optimistic to think that his always learned and often elaborate works were actually going to be read by that “ordinary tolerably informed reader” whom he professed to address, but it was an ideal that saved him from the more hermetic excesses of professionalism. And this in turn underwrote literature’s educative power: “The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.”

In terms of imaginative sympathy, Empson was a “globalist” avant la lettre. He was, for example, far more knowledgeable about and sympathetic to both Buddhism and Confucianism than most Westerners of his generation, and this “worldmindedness,” as he called it, helped to make him much more quizzical about those Christian beliefs and symbols that were so easily taken for granted even by nonbelievers. After his return to England in 1952, he became somewhat obsessed with the influence of “the neo-Christians” among literary critics, and he embarked on a long and outspoken campaign to make readers alert to the ethically appalling nature of many Christian tenets (something that may cause greater difficulties for Empson’s reputation in the contemporary United States than in more secular Britain). He took every opportunity to denounce the savagery and sheer horribleness of ostensibly familiar biblical teachings such as “the doctrine that God is a sadist who could be bought off torturing all mankind by having his son tortured to death.” Milton’s God is on one level an interpretation of Paradise Lost, but on another it is a sustained polemic against the humanly disfiguring consequences of the central teachings of Christianity about atonement, redemption and damnation.

Although The Structure of Complex Words, his most forbidding and unshapely book, bristles with formulas and other bits of homemade quasi-scientific machinery, Empson was not primarily a theorist, and it is a mistake to try to locate his significance in systematic or abstract terms. His critical practice is what matters above all else, a practice conducted in the light of what Haffenden nicely terms “his belief that language is always answerable to intelligence.” And, going further, the tone in which he conducted that criticism is what constitutes the chief glory of his writing. Empson never lost either his patrician briskness nor his intellectual assurance, but he seasoned the mix with a genuine cosmopolitanism and an openness to social experience that disregarded the usual boundaries of class and nation. The residue of this extended education in human sympathy is present in the calmly decisive way his writing from time to time delimits the importance of the intricate details of literary interpretation that are its main business.

A particularly memorable instance of this occurs in Some Versions of Pastoral when he observes that the ideas he is discussing are compatible with socialism but not with “a rigid proletarian aesthetic.” He goes on:

They [the ideas of pastoral] assume that it is sometimes a good thing to stand apart from your society so far as you can. They assume that some people are more delicate and complex than others, and that if such people can keep this distinction from doing harm it is a good thing, though a small thing by comparison with our common humanity.

The declarative simplicity of these sentences gives them a kind of moral grandeur, an effect enhanced by the confidently grounded sense of proportion expressed in the final clause.

This accepting spaciousness of view is what gives so much of his writing its force. “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.” It is important not to be distracted by the quasi-demotic of “trick” here: Empson is not belittling or rug-pulling. We “pretend” in this way, but that is not a bad thing to do: It makes life livable, enables us to cope with its inevitable limitedness. There is a subterranean affinity here with the refrain from “Aubade,” one of his most frequently anthologized poems: “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” (As Paul Alpers, one of the best commentators on Empson, has put it: “The strength of knowing how we stand is at the heart of the greatness of Some Versions of Pastoral.”) One further passage from that book is representative in both its brevity and its pregnancy: “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.” By this point, the connection with a particular literary genre comes to seem almost incidental; Empson has brought us to realize that pastoral is not fundamentally a matter of swains and shepherds but rather of obtaining a steadying, encompassing perspective on life. Yet that perspective is not complacent or inert; it allows room for “the feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit” while at the same time registering the potential destructiveness of dwelling on that insight. But the insight remains, inducing both a sense of modesty or even humility and a sense of soaring, untrammeled potential.

I’m not so sure that Empson “invented” anything. The 1920s and ’30s saw important changes in the ways that category of sophisticated readers we term “literary critics” attempted to make their interpretations persuasive. Eliot, Richards, Robert Graves and Laura Riding, John Crowe Ransom and his followers–all played their parts in these changes alongside Empson, and there is no easy way to disentangle his particular influence on subsequent critical practice. But perhaps no other critic displayed Empson’s sustained alertness and fertility as a reader, especially of poetry, and certainly no other critic wrote with his dazzling mixture of sensibility, analysis, argument and wit, though it may be that the ethical force of his writing, that steady solidarity with the core experience of being human, is still underrated or misperceived, partially hidden by the smoke from the firework display.

John Haffenden’s remarkable biography now enables us to reconstruct the core experience of being Empson. His strangeness and eccentricity come through strongly; the unnerving mix of his remoteness from, yet centrality to, our contemporary concerns and values is made vividly present; and the social and intellectual world in which he moved and had his being is reconstructed in loving detail. But the qualities that seem to me to stand out, though Haffenden is too accomplished a biographer to parade them in the abstract, are Empson’s courage, generosity of spirit and–what may seem an implausible thing to say about a figure of such marked originality and at times willful abrasiveness–lack of egotism. Finally, although it may seem either an obvious or, worse, a patronizing judgment, what leaps from the page throughout these long volumes is Empson’s peculiarly pure, independent intelligence. The term “literary criticism” has at different times been used to refer to a cluster of endeavors that are variously attendant upon the act of reading, but Empson may have been more incisively and sustainedly intelligent about individual works of poetry and drama than any of the other contributors to the incomparably rich corpus that makes up “modern literary criticism in English.” It is no small claim.

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