William Empson

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir William Empson (September 27, 1906 – April 15, 1984) was an English critic and poet, reckoned by some to be the greatest English literary critic after Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt and fitting heir to their mode of witty, fiercely heterodox and imaginatively rich criticism. Jonathan Bate has remarked that the three greatest English literary critics of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries are, respectively, Johnson, Hazlitt, and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest." Empson has been styled a "critic of genius" by Sir Frank Kermode, although the latter has lamented his lapses into what he regards as willfully perverse readings of certain authors, and the scholar and critic Harold Bloom has confessed that Empson is among a handful of critics who matter most to him, in particular, because of the force and eccentricity (Bloom's expression is "strangeness") of character as revealed in their critical work. Empson is often associated with the New Critics, especially for his emphasis on close reading of the text itself.

The eccentricity or perversity of some of his interpretations, as well as Empson's rather blunt and brusque manner of dealing with criticism of his position, landed him a good deal of criticism both during his life and after his death, leading to his reputation in many circles as a "licensed buffoon."


Empson attended a prep school, where he first discovered his great skill and interest in mathematics. He won an entrance scholarship to Winchester College, where he excelled as a student and received what he later described as "a ripping education," in spite of the rather rough and abusive milieu of the school: A long standing tradition of physical force, especially among the students, figured prominently in life at such schools.

In 1925, Empson won a scholarship to study at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and achieved a double first in Mathematics and English in 1929. His supervisor in Mathematics, the father of the mathematician and philosopher, Frank P. Ramsey, expressed regret at Empson's decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, a discipline for which Empson showed great talent; and I.A. Richards, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson's first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:

At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Taking the sonnet as a conjurer takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by "You could do that with any poetry, couldn't you?" This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, "You'd better go off and do it, hadn't you?"

Despite Empson's great precocity and skill in both English and Mathematics, he was asked to leave Cambridge due to infractions against propriety—a servant discovered prophylactics in his room—a fitting symbol of Empson's cheerful disregard for prevailing moral norms as well as of his grand appetite for life. As a result, not only did Empson never receive his M.A. in English, but he had his name stricken from the College records, was prevented from assuming a comfortable fellowship at Cambridge, and, astonishingly, was banished from the city of Cambridge, none of which seems, in retrospect, to the detriment of his subsequent critical output or eminence.

Professional career

After his banishment from Cambridge, Empson supported himself for a brief period as a freelance critic and journalist, living in Bloomsbury, London, until 1930, when he signed a three-year contract to teach in Japan after his tutor, Richards, had failed to find him a post teaching in China.

He returned to England in the mid-1930s, only to depart again upon receiving a three-year contract to teach at Peking University, where, upon his arrival, he discovered that due to the Japanese invasion of China, there was no longer a post available. Empson joined the exodus, with little more than a typewriter and suitcase, of professors at Peking University in continual evasion of the invading force, teaching whole courses on English poetry without texts or other aids, and would not arrive in England until January of 1939.

He later became head of the English department at the University of Sheffield, and in 1953, became professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London, for a year.

Critical focus

Empson's critical work focuses largely on pre-modern works in the English literary canon. He was a great critic of John Milton , William Shakespeare (Essays on Shakespeare), Elizabethan drama (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 2, The Drama), and published a monograph on the subject of censorship and the authoritative version of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (Faustus and the Censor); but he was also an important scholar of the metaphysical poets John Donne (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy) and Andrew Marvell. Rather more occasionally, Empson would bring his critical genius to bear on modern writers; Using Biography, for instance, contains papers on Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling as well as the poetry of Yeats and Eliot and Joyce's Ulysses.

Literary criticism I: Style, method, and influence

Empson is today best known for his literary criticism, and in particular, his analysis of the use of language in poetical works: His own poetry is arguably undervalued, although it was admired by and influenced English poets in the 1950s. In his critical work, he was particularly influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose own work is largely concerned with the nature of language in its relation to the world and to its speakers. Empson's best known work is the book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which, together with Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words, mine the astonishing riches of linguistic ambiguity in English poetic literature. Empson's studies unearth layer upon layer of irony, suggestion, and argumentation in various literary works—a technique of textual criticism so influential that often Empson's contributions to certain domains of literary scholarship remain significant, though they may no longer be recognized as his. For example, the universal recognition of the difficulty and complexity (indeed, ambiguity) of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 94" ("They that have power…") in light of the preceding and following sonnets is traceable to Empson's sophisticated analysis of the sonnet in Some Versions of Pastoral. Empson's study of "Sonnet 94" goes some way towards explaining the high esteem in which the sonnet is now held (now reckoned as among the finest sonnets in the collection), as well as the technique of criticism and interpretation.

Empson's skill in discovering a rich variety of interpretations of poetic literature was more than a wildly indulged semantic refinement. Empson is as much interested in the human or experiential reality of great works of literature—the deep truths communicated, often only by intimation, to the reader. Indeed, it is this commitment to unraveling or articulating the truth in literature that aligns Empson so perfectly with Dr. Johnson and that permits him unusual avenues to explore sociopolitical ideas in literature in a vein very different from contemporary Marxist critics (for example, Fredric Jameson) or scholars of New Historicism (such as Stephen Greenblatt). Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that:

Gray's Elegy is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. … By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. … The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death.

Already, the heat of Empson's political views find their way into these lines, though perhaps even here there is nothing more ideological than an ordinary sense of fairness or justice. He goes on to deliver his political verdict with a subtle, although astute, psychological suggestion:

Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the "bourgeois" themselves do not like literature to have too much "bourgeois ideology."

Despite the overtly political issues grappled with in these passages, Empson is as sensitive to the moral dimension, producing an astute interpretation of the poetic achievement of Gray. Empson's remarks (in the very next paragraph) are reminiscent of Dr. Johnson in their pained insistence:

And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way "bourgeois," like this one; they suggest to readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree.

Perhaps, these remarks deliver Empson from the hands of all who would choose to ignore or deny the existence of something like aesthetic value, from the hands even of Marxist critics; but perhaps, also, they suggest that as critics of the experiential reality of literature, individuals like Dr. Johnson (staunchly conservative and Anglican) and Empson (staunchly radical and atheist) transcend the political categories one supposes even partly describe them. One wonders if a critic (or indeed an artist) of genius, in any aesthetic domain, should ever be reducible to the facts of his political, sexual, or religious orientation; should ever, that is, be incapable of enlightening or moving even those with decidedly different political, sexual, or religious commitments.

Despite the complexity of Empson's critical methods and attitude, his work, in particular, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had a significant impact on the New Criticism, a school of criticism which directed particular attention to close reading of texts, among whose adherents may be numbered F.R. Leavis, although, as has been noted, Empson could scarcely be described as an adherent or exponent of such a school or, indeed, of any critical school at all (any more than Johnson could be). Perhaps it should be expected, then, that Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy formulated by William K. Wimsatt, an influential New Critic. Indeed, Empson's distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in his distinctive dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism, ironically referring to it as "the new rigour," as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, p. 122). Similarly, both the title and content of one of Empson's volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the "Death of the Author." Despite the fact that some scholars regard Empson as a progenitor of certain of these currents of criticism, he was vexed enough about this view to comment:

Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre—Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting" (Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon).

Literary Criticism II: Milton's God

Empson's Milton's God is often described as a sustained attack on Christianity and defense of Milton's attempt to "justify God's ways to man" in Paradise Lost. Empson argues that precisely the inconsistencies and complexities adduced by critics as evidence of the poem's badness, in fact, function in quite the opposite manner: What the poem brings out is the difficulty faced by anyone in encountering and submitting to the will of God and, indeed, the great clash between the authority of such a deity and the determinate desires and needs of human beings.

…the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious (Milton's God, 1965, p. 13).

Empson notes that it is precisely Milton's great sensitivity and faithfulness to the Scriptures, in spite of their apparent madness, that generates such a controversial picture of God: It requires a mind of astonishing integrity to, in the words of Blake, be of the Devil's cause without knowing it.

[Milton] is struggling to make his God appear less wicked, as he tells us he will at the start (l. 25), and does succeed in making him noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one; though, after all, owing to his loyalty to the sacred text and the penetration with which he make its story real to us, his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy… (Milton's God, 1965, p. 11).

The tendency in surveys of Empson's achievement in Milton's God is, depending on one's politics, to marvel or bristle at the audacious perversity of his central thesis—though something of the same perversity was tidied up and reinterpreted in Stanley Fish's much lauded work on Milton (for example, Surprised by Sin); this unfortunate tendency eclipses many of Empson's great insights and his grand intelligence, humanity, and humor in reading the poem, and ignores the significance of the work as a presentation of one of the few instances of an effort to immunize the aesthetic achievements of the poem from those available only to individuals with certain doctrinaire religious commitments.

Although perhaps not as influential as, say, Fish's work, Milton's God, remains of great significance to any critically-minded reader of Paradise Lost and it is a far more human presentation of the reasons for, and the character of, the hold the poem has upon us. Empson portrays the work as the product of a man of astonishingly powerful and imaginative sensibilities and great intellect who had invested much of himself in the poem. Indeed, despite its lack of influence, certain critics view Milton's God as by far the best (that is to say, the most valuable) sustained work of criticism on the poem by a twentieth century critic. Harold Bloom includes it as one of the few critical works worthy of canonical status in his The Western Canon (and the only critical work focusing solely on a single piece of literature). Regardless, Milton's God is an enriching and enjoyable experience of a critic of genius, wit, and humanity encountering one of the towering achievements of English narrative poetry.


Empson's poetry is clever, learned, dry, aethereal and technically virtuosic - not wholly dissimilar to his critical work: his high regard for the metaphysical poet John Donne is to be seen in many places within his work, tempered with his appreciation of Buddhist thinking, and his occasional tendency to satire. He wrote very few poems and stopped publishing poetry almost entirely after 1940. His Complete Poems [edited by John Haffenden, his biographer] is 512 pages long, with over 300 pages of notes. In reviewing this work, Frank Kermode commended him as a most noteworthy poet, and chose it as International Book of the Year at the TLS.

Person and character

Empson was a charismatic personality, variously described as gruff, scornful, brusque, cold, and of immoderate appetites (sex and alcohol being the most obvious), partly because he was also a roundly paradoxical figure. He was deeply sympathetic to the cause of Maoist revolutionaries in China, but was brought up in the cavernous luxury of a rural estate in Yorkshire with all the attendant prerogatives of a member of the landed gentry. He was a scholar of singular imagination, erudition, and insight, specializing in the highly traditional domain of pre-modern English literature at the heart of the canon (Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysical Poets), but his work is marked by great humor, the indulgence of an eloquent and cavalier dismissiveness (reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's critical bon mots), and an astonishingly rich and varied erudition. He was esteemed as the revolutionary forefather of modern literary criticism, but disavowed "theory" altogether and evinced a deep concern for distinctly psychological elements in literature: The emotions of desire and love, the sensibility and intentions of authors. He was an intellectual and scholar who spent a good portion of his early years inhabiting the persona of an imperial adventurer (more a Richard Francis Burton than a C.S. Lewis). In short, Empson was as much a grand and exuberant personality as a refined, sophisticated, and erudite scholar; and it is precisely this great reckless energy for life, this willingness to throw his entire self into the interpretation and criticism of literature, that informs his critical work and serves to renew in the common reader a sense of the wholly and inalienably human investment in canonical literature: a sense of how Milton or Shakespeare or Donne can matter deeply to all and any of us.

Examples of Empson's literary criticism

From "They That Have Power" in Some Versions of Pastoral:

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; 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. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone. The business of interpretation is obviously very complicated. Literary uses of the problem of free-will and necessity, for example, may be noticed to give curiously bad arguments and I should think get their strength from keeping you in doubt between the two methods. Thus Hardy is fond of showing us an unusually stupid person subjected to very unusually bad luck, and then a moral is drawn, not merely by inference but by solemn assertion, that we are all in the same boat as this person who story is striking precisely because it is unusual. The effect may be very grand, but to make an otherwise logical reader accept the process must depend on giving him obscure reasons for wishing it so. It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, so reliable a bass note in the arts, needs to be counted as a possible territory of the pastoral.

From "Ulysses: Joyce's Intentions" in Using Biography:

When I was young, literary critics often rejoiced that the hypocrisy of the Victorians had been discredited, or expressed confidence that the operation would soon be complete. So far from that, it has returned in a peculiarly stifling form to take possession of critics of Eng. Lit.; Mr. Pecksniff has become the patron saint of many of my colleagues. As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good. The study of English authors of the past is now centred in the universities, and yet there must be no censorship—no work of admitted literary merit may be hidden from the learners. Somehow we must save poor Teacher's face, and protect him from the indignant or jeering students, local authorities or parents. It thus came to be tactily agreed that a dead author usually hated what he described, hated it as much as we do, even, and wanted his book to shame everybody out of being so nasty ever again. The is often called fearless or unflinching criticism, and one of its ill effects is to make the young people regard all literature as a terrific nag or scold. Independently of this, a strong drive has been going on to recover the children for orthodox or traditional religious beliefs; … and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion. The concordat was reached over his dead body.


  • Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)
  • Some Versions of Pastoral (1935)
  • The Structure of Complex Words (1951)
  • Milton's God (1961)
  • Using Biography (1985)
  • Essays on Shakespeare (1986)
  • Faustus and the Censor (1987)
  • Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy (1993)
  • Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 2, The Drama (1994)
  • Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture (1987)
  • The Strengths of Shakespeare's Shrew: Essays, Memoirs and Interviews (1996).
  • The Complete Poems of William Empson—ed. Haffenden
  • The Royal Beasts and Other Works—London: Chatto & Windus, 1986.
  • Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection (ed. by David Pirie), 1972—Introduction

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Day, Frank. Sir William Empson: An Annotated Bibliography. Taylor & Francis, 1984. ISBN 9780824092078.
  • Haffenden, John. William Empson: Vol. 1: Among the Mandarins. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199276592.
  • Haffenden, John. William Empson: Vol. 2: Against the Christians. Oxford University Press, 2006. USA. ISBN 9780199276608.
  • Norris, Christopher (ed.). William Empson: The Critical Achievement. Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 9780521353861.


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