A Master of Ambiguities

By Christiansen, Rupert | The Spectator, April 30, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Master of Ambiguities


Christiansen, Rupert, The Spectator


A master of ambiguities WILLIAM EMPSON: VOLUME I: AMONG THE MANDARINS by John Haffenden OUP, £30, pp. 692, ISBN 01992766595 £30 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

School reports can be remarkably prescient. William Empson's headmaster noted, 'He has a good deal of originality and enterprise: I hope he is learning also to discipline his vagaries.' It's a judgment which could serve as an epigraph for this massive first volume of John Haffenden's long-awaited, long-meditated biography, in which the great literary critic and poet indeed shows 'a good deal of originality and enterprise', but rather heroically fails 'to discipline his vagaries'.

I remember Empson only as an old man, when he came to Cambridge to deliver the Clark Lectures in 1974. They were not considered a success, though at the opening he made everyone laugh by slyly announcing that 'the cloud cast over literature by T. S. Eliot has finally begun to pass', and then running his eyes across the roof of the hall as though this enlightening event was actually visible to him. But much of what he said about spirits of Middle Earth seemed incoherent verging on bonkers, giving credibility to the gossip about his heavy consumption of other sorts of spirits.

This was Empson as a parody of himself: Haffenden is happily concerned with the real thing. Born in 1906 into the Yorkshire gentry, Empson enjoyed a pleasant if emotionally disengaged childhood, marred only by the death of an elder brother in the first world war. After establishing himself as an incorrigible eccentric at Winchester, he went on to read mathematics at Magdalene College, Cambridge, later changing to the fashionable new study of English and mixing with a brilliant generation of undergraduates, including Jacob Bronowski, Alistair Cooke and Humphrey Jennings. By the time he was 21, he had clearly developed into a genius.

But not one who was easy to place or handle. In 1930, having been sacked from his fellowship at Magdalene when birth-control mechanisms were found by a nosy bedmaker in his room, he published Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book which put flesh on the theories of his mentor I. A. Richards and showed a suppleness and subtlety in the interpretation of poetry that could be said to have revolutionised the infant practice of literary criticism.

For the rest of the low dishonest decade, he alternated between a messy, boozy Bohemian existence in Fitzrovia and stints in the Far East teaching both Basic English and literature. Japan he came to loathe for its brutal imperialism and cultural conformism, not least because he was forced to leave the country after making a drunken pass at a taxi driver. …

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