Selected Letters of William Empson

Selected Letters of William Empson

Selected Letters of William Empson

Selected Letters of William Empson


This edited collection of letters by William Empson (1906-1984), one of the foremost writers and literary critics of the twentieth century, ranges across the entirety of his career. Parts of the correspondence record the development of ideas that were to come to fruition in seminal textsincluding Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Structure of Complex Words, and Milton's God. The topics of other letters range from Shakespeare's Dark Lady to Marvell's marriage and Byron's bisexuality. Empson relished correspondence that was combative, if not downright aggressive. As a result, parts ofthis edition take the form of a serial disputation with other critics of the period, including Frank Kermode, Helen Gardner, Philip Hobsbaum, and I. A. Richards. Other notable correspondents include A. Alvarez, Bonamy Dobree, Leslie Fiedler, Graham Hough, C. K. Ogden, George Orwell, Kathleen Raine,John Crowe Ransom, Christopher Ricks, Laura Riding, A. L. Rowse, Stephen Spender, E. M. W. Tillyard, Rosemond Tuve, John Wain, and G. Wilson Knight.All readers of literary history and criticism will stand to benefit from this edition. Empson is universally credited as the man who 'invented' modern literary criticism, so that all of his writings make a signal addition to the canon of his works. This selection provides a context for theevaluation of Empson's total literary output; and in many letters Empson seeks to defend his ideas against both published and personal attacks. This volume not only fills in all the missing links, it adds up to a completely new volume of critical writings by Empson.


Private letters often seem most exquisitely adapted to their setting
when written most casually; it is exactly the extent to which their
language is careless, the proportion of carelessness they give to the dif
ferent matters in hand, which is so precise. Similarly in conversation
this more refined sort of implication is very highly developed.

Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 49

I have a fatal habit of irritating people when I write them letters (a
thing I do only by effort) …

Letter to I. A. Richards, ? September 1948

It is easy to feel (though admittedly it goes utterly against everyone’s experience) that all the letters in a collected or selected edition, tidily serried and all dressed up in scholarship, must have been composed in the best of all possible conditions: at an escritoire or equivalent, in study or library, and with calm of mind. William Empson’s letters were put together in markedly diverse and often stressful circumstances: they were written, and often re-written, in university digs, bed-and-breakfast establishments, squats, monasteries, hostels, huts, and basements; on mountains, on ships, in trains, in planes; in Cambridge, London, Tokyo, Peking; in Cambodia, Egypt, Ceylon, the USA, and Canada. Some sense of the not uncommon drama surrounding the business of his letter-writing can be gauged from this directive to a friend, posted from Japan in the summer of 1933: ‘Write via CANADA: when letters go by Siberia all one’s mind is clouded with a doubt, and after one letter is lost the correspondence is broken. But it is fine in a way to think of a real use being found for our letters, warming bandits.’

He died just before the advent of the universal e-mail, but his itinerant life required him to dash off an enormous number of letters, to mother and brothers, to wife and children, elders, mentors, mistress, friends, editors, peers and pupils. Hetta Empson, who made sure she lived life to the full, even during the turnover associated with the arrival of Communist forces in Peking, wrote to a friend an undated letter (probably in April

WE, letter to John Hayward.

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