William Empson

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Sir William Empson (27 September 190615 April 1984) was an influential English literary critic and poet.

Sourced[edit]

Seven Types of Ambiguity[edit]

  • Title of book (1930)
  • An ambiguity,in ordinary speech,means something very pronounced,and as a rule witty or decetful....any verbal nuance,however slight,which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language. (From the Preface)


The Complete Poems[edit]

  • Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet
    Revere; do not presume to think her wasted.
    Project her no projectile, plan nor man it;
    Gods cool in turn, by the sun long outlasted.
    • "To an Old Lady" (1928), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 24.


  • It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.
    Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
    Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.
    • "Villanelle" (1928), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 33.


  • Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves;
    Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems;
    Earth's vast hot iron, cold space's empty waves.
    • "Arachne" (1928), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 34.


  • Law makes long spokes of the short stakes of men.
    • "Legal Fiction" (1928), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 37.


  • Your rights reach down where all owners meet, in Hell's
    Pointed exclusive conclave, at earth’s centre
    (Your spun farm's root still on that axis dwells);
    And up, through galaxies, a growing sector.
    • "Legal Fiction", line 9; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 37.
  • Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis.
    • "Bacchus" (1935), note; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 290.


  • Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
    My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
    Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
    Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
    It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
    • "Aubade" (1937), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 69.


  • But as to risings, I can tell you why.
    It is on contradiction that they grow.
    It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
    Up was the heartening and the strong reply
    The heart of standing is we cannot fly.
    • "Aubade", line 38; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 70.


  • Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
    It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
    • "Missing Dates" (1937), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 79.


  • Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
    • "Missing Dates", line 12; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 79.


  • Shall I make it clear, boys, for all to apprehend,
    Those that will not hear, boys, waiting for the end,
    Knowing it is near, boys, trying to pretend,
    Sitting in cold fear, boys, waiting for the end?
    • "Just a Smack at Auden" (1937), line 15; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 81.


  • Buddhists and Christians contrive to agree about death
    Making death their ideal basis for different ideals.
    The Communists however disapprove of death
    Except when practical.
    • "Ignorance of Death" (1940), line 3; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 78.


  • Liberal hopefulness
    Regards death as a mere border to an improving picture.
    • "Ignorance of Death", line 11; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 78.


  • It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
    The more things happen to you the more you can't
    Tell or remember even what they were.

    The contradictions cover such a range.
    The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
    You don't want madhouse and the whole thing there.
    • "Let It Go" (1949), line 1; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 99.
  • Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
    And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
    Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
    (People are continually asking one the way out),
    Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
    • "Homage to the British Museum" (1932), line 8; cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 55.

Other[edit]

  • The waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity.
    • Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1935) p. 5


  • To produce pure proletarian art the artist must be at one with the worker; this is impossible, not for political reasons, but because the artist never is at one with any public.
    • Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1935) p. 15
  • The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.
    • Milton's God (1961; repr. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965) p. 261

This Last Pain[edit]

Quotations from "This Last Pain" (1932) are cited from John Haffenden (ed.) The Complete Poems (London: Allen Lane, 2000) p. 52.


  • Man, as the prying housemaid of the soul.
    • Line 5


  • All those large dreams by which men long live well
    Are magic-lanterned on the smoke of hell.
    • Line 21


  • Feign then what's by a decent tact believed
    And act that state is only so conceived,
    And build an edifice of form
    For house where phantoms may keep warm.
    • Line 29

Criticism[edit]

  • The man writes with such genuine passion for the books he's discussing. With so many critics you feel they're writing so people will say they're good critics.
    • W. H. Auden, recorded in Alan Ansen (ed. Nicholas Jenkins) The Table Talk of W. H. Auden (London: Faber, 1991) p. 44.


  • The plain fact is that many of the reputations which today occupy the poetic limelight are such as would crumble immediately if poetry such as Empson's, with its passion, logic, and formal beauty, were to become widely known.
    • John Wain "Ambiguous Gifts", in The Penguin New Writing no. 40 (1950); cited from John Lehmann and Roy Fuller (eds.) The Penguin New Writing 1940-1950: An Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) p. 492.



External links[edit]

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