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.
The poem effects a kind of reversal, its simple language and limpid imagery twisting around something unsaid, around a current of confusion that is not named but is felt in its discomforted air. The knotted first image reveals this–"deep, like puddles, as the blue sky"–the contradictions here, the running together of shallowness and immensity, are the first hint at the uncertainty and confusion that lie beneath the thin film of the poem's composure.
"Camping Out" is another good example, and to my mind the best of Empson's poems. He managed here to draw a Metaphysical poem from an everyday act: "And now she cleans her teeth into the lake," it begins, and then the poem reads in the splatters of toothpaste on the water's surface "a straddled sky of stars," concluding: "Who moves so among stars their frame unties;/See where they blur, and die, and are outsoared." The central image is similar to that of the poem just quoted–but where "The Extasie" speaks of the real sky mirrored in a puddle, here the image is inverted so the sky is replaced, indeed is created, by the spreading pattern of white toothpaste floating on the lake.
Was Empson an important poet? He was certainly an important writer, and his critical works–most famously, his Seven Types of Ambiguity–will always be worth reading. Like his criticism, his poems are very much of their time–they are a necessary instruction in the aesthetic values of high Modernism, and they make the most sense when considered amid the work of his contemporaries, including Eliot. Empson consistently derided and dismissed his own poetry, and he eventually stopped writing it, arguing that "if I'd gone on it would have got appallingly boring. It's only because I stopped in time that you still think it's poetry." Introducing the epigrammatic "Let it go" on a recording of his poems, he simply said: "'Let it go' is about stopping writing poetry."
It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can't
Tell or remember even what they were.
The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don't want madhouse and the whole thing there.
If this is simply about his decision to write no more poems, we must understand that the dangers of "madhouse and the whole thing there" lie in the direction of poetry, and that more poems would have led to things going "so far aslant." But you never know with Empson; you're never sure whose voice speaks, or what it portends, or whether this is just a well-considered move within the construct of the poem. Discussing Empson's annotations, Haffenden avers, "Though tricky, his poems were not intended to be tricksy." This is generous, but occasionally untrue. In his signature modesty, Empson spoke of his own verse as "clotted," and he confessed, in a letter to Eliot, his "air of having to be clever all the time." Before a reading of the poem "Bacchus," Empson used the very word Haffenden denies, describing the poem as "slightly tiresome to listen to, really, because it is so tricksy." This was always a tendency of the poetry, and if one does not adopt the view of poetry-as-puzzle, his work can be frustratingly obscure, and sometimes raises the question of whether it is worth the considerable effort and concentration it demands.
English poet and critic Craig Raine has argued that Empson's verse suffers from what he calls "the undistributed middle"–beginnings and conclusions are presented without adequate connection, and so "the reader doesn't get it." And then the poems can often seem inconsequential. Yet poets as various as Geoffrey Hill and John Fuller and John Berryman have spoken up for Empson's verse. Berryman noted in the margins of his copy of the 1949 issue of Empson's Collected Poems, "a poetry matter-of-fact, alert, spare; & yet elegant." All of these terms apply, and I would emphasize, too, that Empson was, for all his complications and complexity, a poet of tremendous feeling.
In a 1963 interview reprinted as the second appendix to this volume of the Complete Poems, William Empson spoke of his interlocutor's "beautiful sympathy," and the phrase fittingly describes the careful and affectionate tone of Haffenden's introductory essay and copious notes to Empson's work. Haffenden has done an excellent job of unraveling the poems and situating them within their literary and personal contexts.
I'm left with an odd tension over Empson's ultimate significance, and yet am wholeheartedly convinced of the value and achievement of what Haffenden has done in preparing and presenting Empson's work. This is both a collected and a variorum edition, and the editor's devotion to Empson (this is the sixth book of the poet's writing that he has edited), his thorough knowledge of his subject and his careful unraveling of allusion and reference are of great value. The book will not reinvent Empson's verse or make its difficulties much easier, but Haffenden's dedication and "beautiful sympathy" have created an affable and engaging context for it. Despite the poetry sometimes being frustrating, and even though the hundreds of pages of notes occasionally distract from the poems themselves, The Complete Poems of William Empson is an extraordinary book.