Byline: William H. Pritchard, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Last year, the indefatigable John Haffenden brought out the first hefty volume of his two-part biography of the English critic and poet, William Empson (volume two will appear in December). In between, as it were, he has edited a generous selection of Empson's letters and done so with his usual painstaking thoroughness. This involves frequent inclusion of passages from letters and other writings by correspondents who provoked Empson into responding, usually at length and often repeatedly.
No collection of letters by any writer I'm aware of comes even close to matching these 50 years worth of continuing argument about literature, the criticism and teaching of which made up Empson's life. His criticism is to be found in such works as "Seven Types of Ambiguity" and "The Structure of Complex Words"; his teaching was done in Japan, in China, for many years at the University of Sheffield in England, and after retirement in brief stints at American universities.
This is not to say that the results are always edifying to the hard-working reader; maddening, is rather the word that more than once comes to mind. Sometimes the exchanges are about topics and matters that have ceased to hold interest for us, such as questions of "feeling" and "sense" he discusses with his mentor, I.A. Richards.
The result is impenetrable stuff like the following: "A feeble attempt at putting (x) for 'feeling (= sense not in focus of consciousness of x' and X?" it begins and continues just as mysteriously.
Or we find him, more than once, going on at length about Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy," a play that only English graduate students have read and probably only once:
"The play is morally disgusting unless you recognise that it is based on indignation about these appallingly tricky royal marriages, their immense irrelevance to the political results they entail (such as the Spanish rule over the Netherlands, always a sore), the nastiness of having to force the girls into accepting them (or even seeing the poor debauched frog having to pretend he would be able to poke the terrifying old Elizabeth)."
What? Haffenden prints some sentences from Christopher Ricks' response to this letter, in which, after praising Empson's "splendid interpretation," Mr. Ricks admits he has no interest in the play "wh. just rests in my memory as bric-a-brac."
An English reviewer of the letters noted the prevalence of pugilistic metaphors in what Empson liked to call his "argufying" mode. One of his best-known poems is titled "Just a Smack at Auden," and there's no denying he actively sought out rough-and-tumble verbal encounters with other critics.
In his introduction, Mr. Haffenden points out Empson's fondness for "joke-phrases," odd, slangy turns of speech that impart to the argufying a colloquial, informal and sometimes puzzling tone. One doesn't and surely Empson's correspondents must often have felt this know just how to take an obvious insult that is not quite obvious in its delivery.
How, for example, did the American scholar Rosamund Tuve, a specialist in Renaissance and 17th-century literature, take the following compliment: "I think that your style has greatly improved in your last book but is still very bad, simply from failure of communication."
Simply? He goes on to suggest that if Tuve would try to write more clearly she would find "your ideas are a great deal more muddled than you suppose."
One Penelope Doob, who sent Empson an article she'd written on a Jacobean play, Thomas Middleton's "The Changeling," is first thanked, then dismembered over five pages in which she is treated as another of those critics who have bought into the hated "Christian revival." (Empson regularly and obsessively referred to Christianity as …