Ambiguities, Complexities, Puzzles: A Late Encounter with William Empson

By Park, Clara Claiborne | The Hudson Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Ambiguities, Complexities, Puzzles: A Late Encounter with William Empson


Park, Clara Claiborne, The Hudson Review


I was barely seventeen when I first heard of ambiguity. It was 1940, and I had just arrived at Radcliffe College. Ambiguity was not yet a Word of Power-not at Harvard, at any rate, where Radcliffe students were vouchsafed a Harvard education, provided a Harvard professor was willing to walk across the Yard and repeat his lectures in our modest, all-girl buildings.

The Harvard English department proffered old-fashioned literary history-packed surveys with reading lists much too long to permit of close reading for ambiguity or anything else. But somehow I met Howard Nemerov, Harvard '41, and somehow he decided to educate this promising female teenager.

What an honor! Not only was Howard a senior, not only did he write poetry (not so many college students did that then); two years before, still a sophomore, he'd written a prize-winning essay on Lotte in Weimar that drew the attention of Thomas Mann himself.

Howard didn't think much of his English courses. He had better things to do than listen to lectures; he'd set himself to write 3000 words a night-fiction, criticism (poetry was extra). He was the kind of undergraduate (Empson must have been such another) who feels entitled to condescend to his professors. I don't recall his mentioning Seven Types of Ambiguity; though it had been out ten years, it wouldn't be published in the United States till 1947. Clearly, though, he knew about it. He talked about ambiguities and levels of meaning; he wrote them too. I couldn't understand his poetry, or his prose either, but I was impressed.

Howard went off to war in 1941. By 1947 I'd had my Harvard education, gotten married, and was at the University of Michigan taking seminars. I took one on criticism; it was historical and didn't mention Empson. But one was on pastoral, starting with Theocritus to climax with Lycidas and Comus. Some Versions of Pastoral had been published in 1935, and by this time I knew the title. The book was in the library, and naturally I went to take it out. Only it wasn't there; though listed in the catalogue, it wasn't available. Somebody had it out, and it stayed out for the duration of our seminar.

Why? I didn't know, and trained at Radcliffe in academic passivity, it didn't occur to me to ask. I don't know now, but I've just read Versions of Pastoral, and here's what I think. I think Professor Arthos had it out and kept it out-because he thought we'd be confused enough, after Theocritus, Vergil, Homer (for Circe) Sanazarro, Spenser, The Winter's Tale, various marchen, and Cassirer on Myth, without muddling us up further with The Beggar's Opera and Lewis Carroll's Alice as Swain.

I've been reading Pastoral-finally-because of John Haffenden's extraordinary new biography, William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins.1 Its 695 pages contain more quotations than anyone could keep in her head, but this particular one brought up memories. Somebody had called Empson's Versions "the most important and least helpful" discussion of the pastoral mode. That confirmed my speculation about Professor Arthos, and it seems to me both comforting and just.

Haffenden has assembled a whole anthology of opinions about Empson. John Wain's is the most succinct: "the finest literary critic the English-speaking world has had in our century," who, says Haffenden, "succeeded in permanently changing the mode and function of literary criticism in English." Acknowledging that "reviewers and readers felt galvanized or disgruntled by turns," Haffenden concludes that "never again could any serious critic merely 'appreciate' a poem without offering a sustained verbal analysis." Fair enough. But it's E. M. W. Tillyard's descriptions of young Empson's effect on his examiners at Magdalene College in Cambridge that crystallize things for me; among all the many judgments recorded in this very long book, this one-or these, albeit filtered through Tillyard-I find indispensable to the understanding of Empson's mind, work, and life. …

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