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Reading Empson

Sean Sheehan

Some Versions of Pastoral and Related Writings: William Empson, ed Seamus Perry, Oxford University Press, 453 pp, £90, ISBN: 978-0199659661
The Structure of Complex Words and Related Writings: William Empson, eds Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini, Oxford University Press, 453 pp, £90, ISBN: 978-0199659661

Literary criticism doesn’t come much sharper or more succinct than on the opening page of Empson’s first essay in Some Versions of Pastoral, commenting on the lines from Gray’s “Elegy” (“Full many a gem …”) about precious stones at ocean depths remaining forever unseen and beautiful flowers in remote places that are never visited. The images are deployed to illustrate the intrinsic worth of people whose class position denies them opportunities readily available to others. By comparing “the social arrangements to Nature”, Empson remarks of Gray, “he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not” and, because a gem doesn’t mind being in a cave and a flower prefers not to be picked, Gray’s verse encourages us to think that the injustice of a person’s lowly position is all for some ultimate good.

This is penetrating stuff but, as if shielding himself from its Marxist implications, he goes on to say that the poem’s sentiment has a permanent truth because the potential of some people will always be wasted and this has to be stoically accepted: “its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity”. Empson’s amplitude can hold on to old-school verities about literature’s eternal values and at the same time expose ideology in a poem. By having simple country folk articulate strong feelings and thoughts in the language of a ruling class, partial truths can be passed off as universal ones, implying “a beautiful relation between rich and poor … from seeing two sorts of people combined like this you thought better of both.”

Some Versions of Pastoral ranges across literary styles and social realities in ways that are complex, idiosyncratic and personal, leaving early reviewers as puzzled as readers of the book still are about what the author means by pastoral. At the end of the first essay, “Proletarian Literature”, Empson declares his purpose in the rest of the book as being to show “the pastoral process of putting the complex into the simple”. Seamus Perry, discussing the issue in his introduction, broadens this out to mean the manner of casting one thing in terms of another. This opens a wide hermeneutical window but, unfortunately, when the editor elaborates on what he takes Empson to mean the reader is none the wiser. Perry’s comparisons – “like putting something into French; also, to mix something up with something else, like putting oil into water” – only serve to make more baffling what Empson is up to. Translation ought not to express what is complex in one language into a simple form in another ‑ while mixing oil with water is not going to clarify the nature of either.

Perry has edited the first scholarly edition of Some Versions of Pastoral. To suggest that his introduction might have been better if more positively judgmental about Empson’s distinction as a literary critic is really to carp in the face of his industrious and always helpful 116-page commentary that comes after the original text. Instead of the reader feeling continually obliged to glance at footnotes on the page or follow up every numbered citation in endnotes, readers are left to themselves to consult the commentary as and when there is a felt need. This may occur frequently, given Empson’s propensity for allusiveness and abrupt references that shift unannounced from one thing to another. In the chapter on Marvell’s “The Garden”, after a close reading of what are taken to be the three central verses there is a shift to Donne’s “The Ecstasy”, then to a pun in As You Like It and concluding comments on how “the good” is perceived in the Iliad. Empson intuitively senses the connectedness of the references but readers may feel in danger of floundering while trying to track the associations that to him are so obvious. It is no wonder that Empson acquired a reputation as the mandarin critic par excellence.

The chapters that make up Some Versions of Pastoral were mostly first published as articles in Japanese journals – Empson found teaching work in Japan after the discovery of a condom in his college room in Cambridge robbed him of the prospect of a fellowship – and it’s tempting to wonder to what extent the pastoral was in his mind when writing some of them. Not being able to pin down how the genre might suggest a common purpose in the book’s seven chapters might best be taken on board as expressions of a latitude that Empson grants to himself. It may be enough to take the chapters as “versions” of his wide-ranging thought and his ability to make new connections and stimulate cultural sensibilities in the process. When the pastoral convention is parodied and the rustic becomes the fool, Empson sees Shakespeare dialectically turning it on its head again. Making Bottom’s openness to fairies index his affinity with mysterious forces of the psyche, he remarks how “the clown has the wit of the Unconscious”. Such an insight into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, typical of Empson’s dazzling intellect, came thirty-five years before Peter Brook’s production of the play.

In another chapter, the feelings in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt …”) about “W.H.” are linked to the portrayals of Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1 and Angelo in Measure for Measure. The public success of all three of these men is bound up with aspects of personal dishonesty on their part but responses to them are complicated for Empson by ambivalence in the space they inhabit. The nature of this space is only touched upon and not developed beyond the glancing, probing observation that pastoral is at home with the “feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so”. Some Versions of Pastoral proffers remarks like this, eminently quotable, leaving the rest to the reader’s interpretative imagination in ways that have little to do with the type of literature usually referred to as pastoral.

At other times, Empson pays granular attention to a text and spells out the point he wants to make. In the “Milton and Bentley” chapter he scrutinises Richard Bentley’s notorious emendations to Paradise Lost and in the process detects indications of the heretical argument that would later be developed in Milton’s God. Bentley’s contention that “an acquaintance of our Poet’s, entrusted with his Copy, took strange Liberties with it, unknown to the blind Author” is his justification for a corrective edition of the epic. It allowed Bentley to omit a passage in Book 4 (977-87) where Satan confronts Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. The spears of the angels, hemming in Satan, become like ripe wheat waving in the wind. This does not alarm Bentley but when the ploughman in “doubting stands / Least on the threshing floor his hopeful sheaves / Prove chaff” there is cause for concern. Seeking to defend the truths of religion from profane insinuations, Bentley objects to an image that has God, the “ploughman”, viewing his phalanx of angels as sheaves of possibly doubtable quality. Empson concurs: “It certainly makes the angels look weak. If God the sower is the ploughman, then he is anxious; another hint that he is not omnipotent.”

Empson is kindled by Bentley’s editing, using him as a foil for his own critical reading of Milton’s verse. Such is the acuity of his responses that

some thirty years later, when Christopher Ricks is defending the poet in Milton’s Grand Style, he finds himself, in turn, being stimulated by Empson’s essay. When Fowler produces the most authoritative edition of Paradise Lost in 1968, he marks lines 980-5 as the epic’s “most discussed simile”.

The productive engagement between literary critics that Empson engenders is a far cry from Bentley’s bossy rewrite that changes the closing lines of Paradise Lost

Some natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon:
The World was All before them, where to choose
Their place of Rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.


Then hand in hand with social steps their Way
Through Eden took, WITH HEAV’NLY COMFORT

Bentley’s theological McCarthyism finds under the bed a suspicious naturalism in the idea of solitary wandering (“Erratic Steps? Very improper: when in the Line before they were guided by Providence …”) and its suggestion that the body might be possessed with a godless autonomy.

The patrician flavour that is concomitant with Empson’s mandarin style of writing shows itself in a supreme confidence in the value and rightness of what he has to say. While probably related to his elitist background and education, it emerges as characteristic of the man whom, when some work by Derrida is sent to him, dismisses “those horrible Frenchmen” who were “so very disgusting, in a social and moral way”. Terry Eagleton, in Against the Grain, describes his literary style as “genial, cavalierly unbuttoned” but draws attention to what makes him such a fine critic: a firm rejection of mystification; embrace of the indeterminacy and complexity at the heart of language; and a commitment to humanist values. The irony, of course, is that such qualities also distinguish Derrida’s achievement.

The first book to be published in Oxford University’s series The Critical Works of William Empson was The Face of the Buddha (2016). The Structure of Complex Words accompanies the arrival in 2020 of Perry’s edition of Some Versions of Pastoral, and two more volumes, Seven Types of Ambiguity and Milton’s God, are forthcoming. The Structure of Complex Words may not be the least read of the five – that distinction must go to the relatively unknown The Face of the Buddha, a book that was thought to have been lost after the person entrusted with the manuscript reckoned he had left it in a taxi – but its first two chapters are taxing in places and most readers will skip paragraphs. This is due to what an early reviewer referred to as the turning of “meaning” into “algebra”. It is not hard to see what the critic meant: Empson introduces a taxonomy that is too abstract for its own good and even when, in the third chapter, attention is turned to a literary text (Pope’s Essay on Criticism) he informs readers that one of the ways “wit” is being used in the poem could be represented as “3c + ? 2 = 1a - -. 1£1”.

But this, coming across as logico-semantic guff, can be safely ignored because the central argument of the book is soundly comprehensible and developed in impressive detail. Empson wants to show that the way words work in literature cannot be reduced to a binary distinction between their emotive and cognitive force. As he first insisted in Some Versions of Pastoral, words are invested with their history and as such are subject to change and it is this awareness that informs the chapters in The Structure of Complex Words. As well as wit in Pope, he scrutinises fool in King Lear, honest in Othello, candid in Jane Austen. He looks at Doctor Faustus, the Henry IV plays, Troilus and Cressida and The Changeling, as well as the poetry of Donne, Crashaw and others. The book comes to an appropriate end with a chapter about the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (first published in 1928 and referred to over eighty times by Empson) and the general inadequacy of most dictionaries that incestuously breed one verbal definition with another without offering signposts to the historically inflected and shifting semantic landscapes they inhabit.

The new edition of The Structure of Complex Words benefits considerably from the more than one hundred pages of commentary, in the same format as used in Some Versions of Pastoral. They are equally necessary because, as per Empson’s style, few concessions are made to the reader looking for orientation. In lieu of the absence of an introduction and references (in a book that names some forty thinkers across a range of disciplines from philosophy to science), the editors, Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini, provide both with clarity and consideration. They acknowledge the difficulties of the book’s structure – “its logic is not always evident or compelling” – but provide heuristic suggestions. With the chapter on Lear, for instance, they observe how it stands on its own feet as an exemplary piece of literary criticism, engaging with the reactions of AC Bradley and Orwell to Lear’s “false renunciation”’ of power, that draws out the play’s exposure of the world as “a place in which good intentions get painfully and farcically twisted by one’s own character and by unexpected events”. Empson, having reached this humbly humanist conclusion, admits that he is not sure how it fits into his elaborate categories of types and algebraic-style “equations”. When it comes to the three chapters on “honest” in Othello, the editors virtually admit that only the first makes rewarding reading and that what Empson called his “little bits of machinery” in the other two chapters can be safely ignored. He never lost his love of mathematics (his first degree was in the subject) and he had the habit of filling the flyleaves and endsheets of many books he was reading with equations.

Empson’s reputation as a severely intellectual critic of literary texts can be offputting for anyone coming to him for the first time but it’s a misleading view of the man and his writing. His mission was in another direction altogether, seeking to clarify what appears abstruse by establishing roots in ordinary life. In a 1935 article on linguistics, appearing as one of the appendices in Thaventhiran’s and Collini’s book, he writes of the “fallacy” of approaching language in the objective mode of the scientist: “we would have no hope of dealing with the subject [language] if we had not a rich obscure practical knowledge from which to extract the theoretical”. Nearly two decades later, responding to a critical remark about his analysis of Hopkins’s “The Windhover”, Empson wants to demystify the poem’s language. Commenting on the lines “sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine”, he writes: “Surely the newly ploughed furrows are what ‘shine’, not the plough; at least they do in the heavy wheatland I come from – they look greasy.”

This recourse to the experience of life when reading literature is a key to Empson’s singularity as a critic but it is easy to be distracted by his intellectualising pose. Adding to the value of the new edition of The Structure of Complex Words is its “Related Writing” section, consisting of some essays, book reviews and letters to IA Richards and to his friend and publisher Ian Parsons. These writings open little windows onto Empson the man as he ages from a daring young person in his twenties to an occasionally cranky Tory passing his seventieth birthday. For someone who said of his own poetry that it was better read than listened to, it is a surprise to come across his remark on an edition of lesser-known Tudor and early Stuart tracts. He appreciates the book’s value but is perturbed by its occasional use of italics, as when the son of a house attempts to seduce a beggar woman who has come to the door: “‘Well,’ saith she, you are a wanton.’” Empson is aghast: “This is an awful italic; it makes her say, ‘Oh, my goodness me’, with the smart coyness of the “nineties”. The stress should be on well and wanton.”

Empson’s ear for nuances of intonation was as sharp and precise as the intellect he brought to bear on an historical understanding of patterns of thought and feeling in written texts. These annotated volumes from Oxford University Press, paying the scholarly respect Empson deserves, should become the definitive editions of Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words.


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).