Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

William Empson: The Tolerant Literary Critic

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

William Empson: The Tolerant Literary Critic

Article excerpt

THE LITERARY CRITICISM of William Empson embeds a deeply humane understanding of human fallibility inside a tortuously complex set of arguments about linguistic structure and poetic meaning. This strained combination of tolerance with congested reasoning has been a major obstacle to the wider reception of Empsons work within the fields of literary criticism and literary histoiy. Formalist schools of criticism deemphasize the biographical studies of authors in favor of a greater attention to the artistic merits of complex rhetorical structures and generic features. Despite his great interest in poetic structures, genres like the pastoral, or complex words, Empsons constant efforts to situate authors in their biographical, social setting, puts him at odds with schools of criticism that seek to rescue the distinctive qualities of literary expression. By the same token, his focus on authors like Joyce, Gay, Marvell, Crashaw, or Marlowe--bold experimentalists in form and style--is rarely, if ever, about the qualities of their style and generic innovations admired by literary critics. Instead, Empson sees these writers as brave polemicists, def ending an ethical stance of tolerance against the narrow prejudices of their contemporaries. On top of all this, the veiy institution of academic literary criticism, according to Empson, is hidebound in conservatism, priestly self-election to interpretative authority, and fascinated with authors who appear to relish cruelty (Milton), snobbery (T. S. Eliot), even fascism (Wyndam Lewis, Ezra Pound).

To his credit, Empson from start to finish remains committed to the actual task of close reading and formal analysis of literary structure, no matter how strong the polemical spirit that drives his broader humane concerns. At the end of the day, the complicated readings of authors that he offers in all of his major works of criticism must be reconciled with an authors specific use of language. Literary language is a medium for tolerance and better human understanding--if only the current schools of literary criticism would get out of the way. Empsons polemical attitude toward the entire literary critical establishment is at the center of major considerations of his work. Christopher Norris writes, "What comes across most strongly is [Empsons] deep-laid humanist conviction that the best--indeed the only--way to make sense of complex or problematic novels and poems is to read them with a mind unburdened by the self-denying ordinances of modern critical dogma, and willing to entertain the widest possible range of human experiences, motives, and desires" (9). By "widest possible" Norris also acknowledges the debt that Empson pays to his mentor and colleague, I. A. Richards, who set the tone for Empson's project in his own early polemics, such as Principles of Literary Criticism (1926), an effort to dismantle the "nonsense" of many aesthetic principles of literary appreciation in favor of a utilitarian method of maximizing the human response to poetry-all part of Richards s larger effort to broaden the resilience and strength of the human nervous system.

In this essay, I would like to focus these broad questions about the literary criticism of William Empson on his essay on Fielding's Tom Jones. The essay brings together the set of issues that I have just outlined as core to an appreciation and understanding of Empsons entire project as a literary critic, but it also provides the opportunity to examine much more specifically the connection between linguistic analysis, utilitarian psychology, and the spirit of humane tolerance that drives Empson's interest in specific authors. With the exception of some passing comments by Christopher Norris, in the introduction to a volume of essays on Empson, the essay on Fielding has been overlooked by Empson's students and critics. The interest in Fielding fits very well with a school of criticism founded on tolerance. Norris sums up this point nicely, "For if there is one significant fact about Fielding that justifies the critic in 'using biography' it is the knowledge we possess of his record as a magistrate, a man well practiced in weighing up cases on their merits and making due allowance for the sheer variety of human motives and intentions" (19). …

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