Tom Paulin's Masterclass the Art of Criticism: 2 Ambiguity

Article excerpt

EMPSON's response - a quick critical aside - to Sonnet 73 is probably the most famous moment in modern literary criticism. Seven Types of Ambiguity was drafted in two weeks when Empson was an undergraduate at Cambridge and published in 1930. It i s at once the rock and the shifting sand on which a mass of critical commentary is founded.

An ambiguity, Empson states, means something "very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful". He uses the term in an extended sense and concentrates on any verbal nuance, however slight, which "gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language".

The joy of ambiguity as a critical concept is that it allows the reader to find subtleties in the text which open out like a secret laby-rinth below the printed words. To adapt Eliot's lines on the Treaty of Versailles, poems are revealed to have "many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues". Tracing what Empson terms "the machinations of ambiguity", we enter the intricate, devious world of the imagination with its multiple ironies, its trembling light and fluid playfulness. Here w e find "thevery roots of poetry".

Many of the critics Empson influenced took this concept to mean that what counted above all was "close reading" or "practical criticism" - the minute, painstaking analysis and dissection of image and phrase. Empson's teacher, I A Richards, published a famous and influential critical handbook called Practical Criticism in 1929, and for several generations critics minutely dissected poems and plays, sometimes even novels. Marvell's lovely, witty, estranging couplet in "The Garden" - "Annihilating all that's made/To a Green thought in a green shade" - drew armies of intricate analysts to discover whole universes in its grain of sand. Hostile to biography, historical experience and ideology, this critical practice eventually became so imploded and self-serving that it collapsed. Texts ceased to be richly ambiguous and were now deconstructed into abysses of contradictions where nothing added up. Everything was decentred, ideologically produced, somehow routinely manufactured and dead or random and botched.Literature became a scrap-heap of cultural artefacts, authors became "producers", and the world turned into a series of discourses shaped by innumerable concerted conspiracies. Everywhere voices were raised against the "hegemony of canonical texts" and against those critics who still persisted in trying to tease out their hidden meanings.

Yet in Empson's application of the concept of ambiguity and his brilliant, helter- skelter interpretation of Shakespeare's line, the parenthesis "(the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism)" compresses a powerful historical sense. Until he threw in that reference to Henry VIII's destruction of the monasteries, how many readers understood the specifically Catholic sense of desecration that the line carries? This is an image of the crucifixion which expresses a tragic sense of loss, abandonment and violent destruction. His flesh hangs on his skeleton like dead leaves or like Christ's body on the cross - how perfectly Shakespeare fuses the images of body/tree, body/cross, body/church. And how strangely the agony of being hopelessly in love becomes a cry out of the English Catholic experience of martyrdom and persecution. Shakespeare is writing in code because the state is Protestant: this hard historical fact, Empson is suggesting, is the reason why his language and imagery are so multilayered, Ovidian, shifting, and involve so many complex machinations. …