Magazine article The Spectator

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE Bare Ruined Choirs

Magazine article The Spectator

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE Bare Ruined Choirs

Article excerpt

I am shocked to find that William Empson, famous for his technique of close reading, was no good at reading at all. A paragraph of his in Seven Types of Ambiguity, concerning one line in Sonnet 73 by Shakespeare, is called a great example of literary criticism.

In the London Review of Books, Jonathan Raban wrote recently about how Empson's book made him 'learn to read all over again' in 1961. As for this paragraph, he had been 'ravished by its intelligence and simplicity'.

The line is 'Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang'. 'Of course!' the young Raban exclaimed after reading Empson's remarks.

'After all, Shakespeare was born in 1564, barely 20 years after Henry V III's dissolution of the monasteries, whose fresh ruins were scattered around the landscape, as raw and brutal as the bombsites of my own childhood. The totalitarian vandalism of the mad king, as he tried to erase Catholicism from the land, was in plain view, and echoes of the sweet birds' singing the spectator still remained in the ears of the elderly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnet. …

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