Critic Who Jousted with Opponents in His Letters

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Critic Who Jousted with Opponents in His Letters


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 "torture-worship.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Critic Who Jousted with Opponents in His Letters
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.