Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Marshall Brown reviews Some Versions of Pastoral and Related Writings and The Structure of Complex Words and Related Writings

William Empson. Some Versions of Pastoral and Related Writings, ed. Seamus Perry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 453 pp., and The Structure of Complex Words and Related Writings, ed. Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 6114 pp.

Review by Marshall Brown

17 November 2021

Roughly five pounds of printed matter with at least two more volumes to come now put William Empson in the company of T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes as the only literary critics I can think of to be the object of full-scale critical editions. Some Versions of Pastoral and Related Writings offers 190 pages of text, twenty-nine valuable pages of related writings including short pieces by Empson and an essay by James Smith that influenced Empson's book, 206 pages of editorial annotation, and a fourteen-page index. The Structure of Complex Words and Related Writings is more proportionate. But the editorial work and concomitant achievements are immense in both.

Working with the edition requires some patience as the format is decidedly unwieldy with unsignaled notes at the back, divided between substantive matters that are swamped by records of every trivial quotation inaccuracy, and then a separate section listing every textual variant and typo. Not so for the lucid, meticulous, and admirably calibrated introductions by three of the best Empson scholars. Like many critics, they note keywords, including a number that had not caught my attention; they track consistencies and inconsistencies; Seamus Perry traces the origins of Some Versions, helpfully comparing it with Seven Types of Ambiguity; Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini focus on Empson's responses to I. A. Richards and then turn to the internal organization of The Structure to show how the chapters contribute to a general argument even though many were written and often published years before the book. These will remain standard essays about the works.

The edition's real triumph, though, lies in intellectual history. Perry's source tracking of vague or veiled allusions is especially remarkable, as when an incidental quotation from Don Quixote "seems to be a memory of [Max Beerbohm's] Zuleika Dobson" (p. 347). But Thaventhiran and Collini are not far behind, including unearthing a previously unrecorded review of The Structure by Raymond Williams. And well beyond merely identifying sources and allusions, the notes to both texts concisely and precisely distill the nature of Empson's interest in each background book, amounting to a reconstruction of his early intellectual milieu, in the aggregate probably even surpassing the magisterial two-volume biography by John Haffenden.

How can all this information be used? Perhaps most readily it can launch investigations of Empson and his era by recovering forgotten works or connections. For example, the first chapter of The Structure quotes a phrase poking fun at G. K. Chesterton from The Bulpington of Blup, a little-read late novel by H. G. Wells. The note that records Empson's substantial interest in both writers led me to explore the novel. An antibildungsroman, it narrates the development of Theodore Bulpington's consciousness and the decay of his conscience from childhood through middle age. A coward by nature, Bulpy (as he is known to his childhood friends) presents himself through increasingly brazen lies as a war hero, self-christened as the Bulpington of Blup. But a second ideal also hovers over Theodore in his childhood friend Edward Broxted, an insincere conscientious objector who becomes a famous scientist. In the last chapter Wells has Theodore exalt his self-deluding romance over the brutal realisms of science, but his obsession with "Teddy" Broxted remains. Moral and intellectual heroisms are complementary falsehoods.

One image that still shadows Empson is of the prize-winning mathematics undergraduate who moved on to become a scientist of words. So, at one moment, the editors of The Structure seem to miss the comedy of Empson's comment on "a charming little book . . . which uses the analogy of projective geometry all the way through," to the degree that, two sentences later, Empson calls it "so suggestive that it no longer suggested anything" (pp. 306–07). The appended note sounds straight faced, unless perhaps meant as a little joke from the editors: "Empson's account of the argument of this book may be clearer to those, like Empson himself, who have studied mathematics . . . to a reasonably high level than to those who haven't" (p. 532). Yet Empson's point, in substantial conformity with Wells's, is that science by itself offers no more salvation than does religion. "We had better stick to what the fool of a conscious mind is doing," he continues, endearingly invoking one of his favorite complex words (p. 307). For the truth is that Empson opposed systems and absolutes of all sorts. "Some versions," yes, likewise "seven types," but as frustrated readers know, Empson’s “structures” are ever “elaborate and changeable," never truly singular, let alone fixed (p. 41). 

Wells's novel illuminated for me the role of the isolated chapter in The Structure that seems to puzzle most critics. "'All' in Paradise Lost" figures in this edition as "a very short chapter, which tidies up some of Empson's thinking shortly before the book's publication" (p. 470). All, writes Empson, "is useful to Milton because of its very obscurity" (p. 100). Written last but placed early in the book, this chapter—startlingly short, dense, and, surely, usefully obscure—is an essential launching pad but hardly a tidying up. As I realized more clearly from reading the sympathetic Wells, all is everything that the democratic pluralist, anti-Romantic Empson resisted. To illustrate "the inclusive co-existence of diverse reactions in 'any tolerable society,'" Perry quotes a sentence from Seven Types of Ambiguity that forecasts Empson's great, posthumous essay on the Globe Theatre: "‘Once you break into the godlike unity of the appreciator [think of the romanticism of Theodore Bulpington, a god-loving poet] you find a microcosm of which the theatre is the macrocosm; the mind is complex and ill-connected like an audience’" (p. xxiii). As Empson said in an interview, late in life, "you ought to admire the world and not say that everything good in it was invented in test tubes in the last century."[1] The sublime and the scientific are equally totalitarian for Empson. Apices are small points; the new editions helped me to see how the mini chapter on John Milton, dismissed by most readers, is in fact the apex of Empson's greatest book.

My follow-up has traced a rare reservation about comments by the learned and almost always savvy editors whose notes set me on my path. Your interests and discoveries will be different from mine. But for anyone hoping to probe beneath the surface of Empson's rich and turbulent texts, the materials here will be an inexhaustible treasure trove.


[1] William Empson, "An Interview with William Empson," interview by Christopher Norris and David B. Wilson, Some Versions of Empson, ed. Matthew Bevis (New York, 2007), p. 316.