Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

James Chandler reviews On Empson

Michael Wood. On Empson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017. 224 pp.

Review by James Chandler

On Empson opens in medias res with a moment in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) when Empson “decides to linger in Macbeth’s mind.” It is the famous speech that begins: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly” (p. 1). Michael Wood follows Empson’s dance through this passage, but pauses to consider Empson’s pirouette upon a “single flat little word”—catch—among the verbal “monsters” at large in Macbeth’s torturous casuistry: “if the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success” (pp. 2, 1). Empson’s meditation eventually leads him to call this simple little word “a child scratching at the moon as she rides the thunder-clouds,” and this in turn leads Wood to say of Empson that his achievement here is “to create a whole separate piece of verbal theater and to produce something seemingly unrecognizable as criticism” (p. 2). In the blink of an eye, Empson’s meta-theater becomes the object of Wood’s meta-criticism, and this book’s operational mode is efficiently established without being named. One could imagine that in other hands than these, such an arrangement might tend to rarefaction and diminished interest. Yet in Empson and Wood’s hands, it is a ground plan for staging vibrant critical engagements, rich in complexity but rendered by both writers in tellingly crisp formulations. Wood praises Empson for his talent with epigram, but Wood too is unexcelled among contemporary writers on literature in his capacity to produce a critical punchline. Few can pack such a wallop in a short sentence—without succumbing, as most of us do, to the temptation to run it past its natural endpoint.

The origin of Seven Types, Wood reminds us, is the stuff of academic legend. Empson arrived as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1925 to study mathematics. That was the year in which I. A. Richards launched his famous classroom experiments in practical criticism there, circulating poems to his students for detailed comment without the aid of such philological markers as authors and dates. Though enrolled for math, Empson sat in on this course in 1925 and then later switched to the English tripos, which Richards himself had recently had a hand in establishing. In 1929, Empson successfully enlisted Richards for his formal supervision. It was in that year that the twenty-three-year-old Empson brought a piece of critical exegesis to Richards, received encouragement for it, and returned the next week, so Richards tells the story, with a rough draft of 30,000 words that would form the core of Seven Types. The book would be published the following year, and among the many reasons for its great success over the coming decades was its perfect complementarity to Richards’s foundational work. For while we may think of Richards as the founder of “practical criticism” as we know it, he is himself, in the end, better seen as an observer and scientist of practical criticism than as, well, a practitioner of it. One looks in vain to his books—least of all his field-changing Practical Criticism (1929)—for extended examples of Richards engaged in the close reading of a poem. His subject of analysis in that book is the “protocols” of close reading generated by his students—failed efforts, for the most part, on Richards’s reckoning.[1]

At the point when the young Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity, he was also a published poet, with several poems to his credit that would eventually grace the pages of prestigious twentieth-century anthologies. In that same year, 1930, Empson was offered a junior research fellowship at his own college, Magdalene, and seemed destined for a long career as a Cambridge don. Before taking up the fellowship, however, a pack of condoms was discovered in his rooms and he was expelled. The life he lived instead took him first to Tokyo University for three years; then back to England, where he published Some Versions of Pastoral (1935); then to Peking University, exiled by the Chinese government, in 1937; back again to London during the war to work for the BBC Overseas Service; and back once more in 1947–1952 to China, where he completed The Structure of Complex Words (1952). In 1953, he accepted a professorship at the University of Sheffield, from which he retired in 1971. It was at Sheffield that he published Milton’s God in 1961. So here we have a prodigy who found himself at the scene of a critical revolution in Richards’s Cambridge and then immediately embarked on a long history of on-and-off exile in East Asia during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. (Another connection with Richards is that in East Asia Empson became active in Richards’s “Basic English” movement, until it ran out of steam.)

Part of the skill of Wood’s essayistic On Empson is that it loosely follows the trail of this career without losing the knack for the sort of meta-critical engagement it signals at the start, which is to say that the book is as much a story of certain concepts and arguments as it is of a life. Ambiguity itself is perhaps the central protagonist in the conceptual story. It anticipates, and to some extent stands in for, other concepts that became central to the varieties of New Criticism for which the work of Richards and Empson prepared the way: “paradox” in Cleanth Brooks, “tension” in Allen Tate, and “irony” everywhere.[2] Young Empson’s attachment to the notion of ambiguity clearly derives from Richards, for whom the question of multiple meanings was already implicit in The Meaning of Meaning (1923), which Richards cowrote with C. K. Ogden. It became more central to the project of practical criticism as Richards came to see communication, and the reasons for its failure, as lying at the heart of his study of poetry. “The one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse,” so Richards would declare in the Introduction to Practical Criticism, “is improvement in communication.”[3] From Richards, too, Empson derives a certain propensity to a quasi-scientific mode of critical induction, and with this, a love of categories together with a sense of their provisionality: lists of categories appear prominently in both Practical Criticism and in Seven Types but without rigid application in either case. Wood excels both in laying out the titular seven categories of Empson’s first book and in showing how flexibly Empson regards them.

Wood’s framing of the Empsonian treatment of ambiguity is cunningly worked out with a stress on the category of “intention.” Though Wood doesn’t say so, the recognition of Empson’s emphasis on this category is already helpful in distinguishing Empson from his mentor, for the schema that Richards adapted from the neuroscientific work of C.S. Sherrington to frame his experiments in Practical Criticism had very little to do with questions of intention. Empson, as Wood demonstrates, went out of his way to stake out ground against the “intentional fallacy” advanced by Wimsatt in the 1940s.[4] Empson’s discussions of intentionality lead to some wild and wildly disparate claims, which Wood patiently tracks and parses. But Empson’s overall insistence on intention as a point of bearing for criticism has implications for how Empson, by contrast with Richards, understands constraint in the operations of ambiguity. At the same time, Empson’s notion of an intentionalist framework for interpretation also resists a certain kind of philological historicism. Working from a manuscript draft of an unpublished article by Empson, Wood makes deft use of Empson’s response to Rosamund Tuve’s historicist skepticism about what she takes to be Empson’s claim that he can “taste a poem [by George Herbert] better with no knowledge” and Empson’s boast that he knows “what was going on in Herbert’s mind when he wrote it” simply by virtue of being a critic. This is just, as he puts it, “what critics do,” and if Tuve is a critic “she too ought to have ‘la clef de cette parade sauvage’ [Rimbaud’s words]” (p. 24). Meanings proliferate in the wild sideshow of interpretation, but criticism implies possession of the key to how they behave.

The play in Empson’s work between proliferating ambiguities and intentionlist keys is something that Wood follows through the four major books of criticism published during Empson’s lifetime (and indeed in essays and posthumous works as well). The terms undergo some shapeshifting. Ambiguity appears as irony in Some Versions of Pastoral and often paradox in The Structure of Complex Words and Milton’s God. Tensions are everywhere, especially in the competing energies of centrifugal ambiguity and centripetal intention. The interest throughout is Wood’s canny work in making sense of Empson where he can, and, where he cannot, finding ways to admire insights that fail to cohere in a larger story. Less generous than Wood were the Chicago critics, for whom Empson and (to a lesser extent) Richards were bêtes noires. Crucially, the Chicago critics—especially R.S. Crane and Elder Olson—rejected a premise identified by Wood in Empson and in later critics with whom Empson is ultimately aligned despite some basic disagreements. This premise is what Wood calls a “loyalty to language” (p. 19). The Chicago critics took this premise to amount to an unsound stress on language as the material cause of poetry, and this amounted to an inversion of Aristotle’s hierarchy of causes, in which the formal cause and ultimately the final cause must have explanatory priority. For Crane and Olson, the tension between ambiguity and intention was just a travesty of the far richer kind of analysis made possible by the fourfold Aristotelian causal framework.

A final word on Wood’s great talents as a reader. A bonus pleasure of this slim volume is that it enables us to see Wood at work, by way of his meta-commentaries on Empson, on texts he is not wont to write about. In his long career—he tells us that he trailed Empson at Cambridge by only thirty years—Michael Wood has certainly written on a massive range of subjects. But here we have him on Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Henry IV; on John Donne and John Milton; on Emily Bronte and Henry Fielding; on the great Buddhist temples at Nara; and of course on Empson’s own poetry. I won’t say much about Wood’s work with Empson’s poetry in this book. He shows me more in it than I have ever seen, but I still fail to find many of the poems compelling. There may be something in me that does not love a villanelle. Wood does not address what may be Empson’s most discussed villanelle, “Missing Dates” (“The waste remains, the waste remains and kills”), nor another famous poem built on a refrain, “Just a Smack at Auden” (“Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end”). But Wood does produce virtuosic readings of both the early villanelle “Last Pain” (“It is the pain, it is the pain, endures”) and a later poem “Aubade,” which, though not a villanelle, is structured by refrain (“The heart of standing is we cannot fly”). A striking feature of Wood’s approach to these poems is to read past or through a certain sense of formal automatism proliferating through the verses. That is, Wood allows their repetitive devices to be overridden in the positing of a more or less coherent “speaker”— one whose narrative the poem is supposed to enact as if we were dealing with a dramatic monologue in the manner of Browning or Tennyson. Might we take this as Wood’s finding in the poems a large echo of the paradox of ambiguity and intention he finds in Empson’s critical project? The question itself bespeaks the subtlety and depth of Wood’s writing in this fine book.

[1] See, for example, I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York, 1929), p. 4.

[2] See Cleanth Brooks, “The Language of Paradox,” in Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York, 1975), pp. 3–21, and Allen Tate, “Tension in Poetry,” in Tate, Reason in Madness: Critical Essays (New York, 1941), pp. 62–81.

[3] Richards, Practical Criticism, p. 10.

[4] See W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and M. C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Sewanee Review 54 (Jul.–Sept. 1946), pp. 468–88.