Volume I: Among the Mandarins

By John Haffenden. Oxford Univ. 695 pp. $45 Magazine work, said the irascible Thomas Carlyle, ranks below street-cleaning as a trade. But I've always wondered if he wasn't really talking about what we would now call literary criticism. Certainly the mayfly buzz accompanying book reviews and articles of cultural interest and every sort of theoretical polemic is astonishingly short-lived. Even the least of novelists has a better chance of being read after he is dead than the best of critics. And by the best I mean William Empson.

John Haffenden's biography of the greatest English literary critic of the 20th century provides the capstone to more than two decades of steady, patient labor. It follows upon several volumes in which this industrious scholar not only gathered Empson's uncollected writings (e.g., essays in Argufying, imaginative work in The Royal Beasts) but also brought out a sumptuously annotated edition of his complete poems. All serious students of literature must feel themselves in Haffenden's debt.

Nonetheless, when I've mentioned William Empson (1906-1984) to numerous undergraduates and casual readers, virtually no one under the age of 40 has recognized his name. Occasionally, his first and most famous book still faintly registers in older memories: Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). But I suspect that some people know this classic, which revolutionized the way we read poetry, only from a memorable Shirley Jackson story or a recent novel, both of which borrow its title. Empson's later critical works -- as casually brilliant, wayward and commonsensical as the man himself -- are even less often recalled: Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), The Structure of Complex Words (1951) and Milton's God (1961). Yet each of these can be legitimately claimed as his masterpiece.

But Seven Types remains the starting point. Written in a white heat when the young Empson, a math whiz turned English major, was still a Cambridge University undergraduate, it revealed that the words and lines of poems were often richer, more compacted, more susceptible to multiple interpretations than anyone had ever realized. Empson looked hard at Donne's imagery and Shakespeare's language and simply told you, in a style that was sturdily colloquial and down-to-earth, just what he saw. Life, Empson believed, was largely a matter of living with contradictions, and much of our greatest poetry was consequently energized by ambivalence, mixed emotions, polarities, unacknowledged impulses.

Even a deeply Christian poet such as George Herbert (see Empson's controversial interpretation of "The Sacrifice"), let alone the more obviously conflicted Gerard Manley Hopkins, might reveal a riven heart or inner torment: Does the climactic, almost shrieked word "buckle" in Hopkins's "The Windhover" mean "collapse" or "bring together"? Or somehow both simultaneously? Consider, too, the following simple, almost obvious example, in which this young critic points out that a negative, when "too much insisted upon," suggests powerful interior struggle:

"Thus in the Keats Ode to Melancholy 'No, no; go not to Lethe; neither twist' tells you that somebody, or some force in the poet's mind, must have wanted to go to Lethe very much, if it took four negatives in the first line to stop them."

In later essays, Empson would probe deeply into the multiple connotations of, say, "fool" in King Lear, "sense" in "Measure for Measure" and even "quite" in common English discourse. Throughout his long life, Empson possessed an intellectual nimbleness that made everything he said or wrote seem almost playful, and he was persistently faulted as being too clever by half. And yet he never went in for snide academic put-downs and honestly loathed the argot of modern theory. Even his eye-opening essay on Alice in Wonderland (in Some Versions of Pastoral) sounds his typical no-nonsense tone:

"The books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms; it seems only the proper exegesis of a classic even where it would be a shock to the author. . . . To make the dream-story from which Wonderland was elaborated seem Freudian one has only to tell it. A fall through a deep hole into the secrets of Mother Earth produces a new enclosed soul wondering who it is, what will be its position in the world, and how it can get out."

Such rangy, rambling prose can admittedly grow a little vague or abstract at times, almost as if Empson were taking up matters so obvious that he needn't explain everything in tedious detail. Just so, his slender, almost anorectic body of poetry -- an important influence on the young Robert Lowell (most clearly in Lord Weary's Castle) and greatly admired by Auden, Larkin and many others -- has long been notorious for its gnarled syntax, multilayered allusions to modern science and haunting verbal melodies: "Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,/ Not but they die. . . ." Still, his major poems, for all their difficulty, are suffused with real melancholy and heartache, as well as a stoic determination "to learn a style from a despair." His most anthologized work, the villanelle "Missing Dates," wearily reflects on the growing sense of loss and desolation in anyone's life. It opens this way:

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.

That poem was first published in 1937, and is further proof of Empson's youthful, prodigy-like brilliance. Indeed, a common view is that he produced all his most valuable creative work in his twenties and early thirties, the period covered by Among the Mandarins, the first installment of Haffenden's two-volume life. Empson himself was to strenuously defend the importance of the second half of his career, when he funneled his energies into teaching at Sheffield University and attacking literary "neo-Christianity" in the name of reason and Enlightenment humanism (see Milton's God). How, after all, could any sensitive, thinking person worship a God who monstrously tortured his son to death? The only religion Empson could ever stomach was Buddhism, about which he wrote a book-length study. To his dismay, "The Face of Buddha" was lost when a friend left the only manuscript in a taxi.

As admiring as one must be of Haffenden's exhaustive labors, this critical biography will appeal mainly to the Empson devotee. The writing is clear, the documentation impeccable and the knowledge of Empsoniana beyond question. But there is simply so much here. Haffenden quite properly felt that nobody was ever going to do the job again, and so he explored every discoverable aspect of his subject's milieu and career, from family history to the vexed politics of Japan and China in the 1930s. In this sense, he has produced not just a biography but an almost Victorian life, times and thought of William Empson. It's even slightly worshipful.

Despite this rather churlish wish for a somewhat more sprightly volume, there is plenty in Among the Mandarins to keep the sympathetic or curious reader turning the pages. I had thought I knew a lot about Empson, having written my college honors thesis on his poetry and later spent a long day in 1970 talking with him at his home in Hampstead, but I still found surprises. His family stood rather high up in the ranks of the squirearchy, and their Yorkshire family seat looks quite the imposing pile. Empson possessed something of the eccentricity characteristic of the English upper classes, though none of its insufferable snootiness. He was absent-minded, oblivious to domestic squalor, a superb skier, leftish in politics, indifferent to food and definitely overfond of drink. Possessions meant almost nothing to him, and he never seems to have owned many books or changes of clothes. More surprising, perhaps, young "Bill" was romantically attracted to men as often as he was to women.

Which brings us to the single most decisive event of this volume, the very stuff of high-table gossip. In 1929, the young Empson had received a starred first-class degree in English, was awaiting the publication of Seven Types of Ambiguity and had just been appointed -- partly under the auspices of his distinguished mentor, I.A. Richards -- to a fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge. But while his belongings were being moved into new quarters, college servants turned up "birth control mechanisms," i.e., condoms. In short order, Magdalene's senior officials met in conclave, a landlady admitted that Empson had been seen in a highly compromising situation with a young woman, and a vote was taken before Richards could return from abroad to defend his greatest student. Seven weeks after the unfortunate discovery, the name William Empson was wiped clean from the account books of Magdalene. It was as though he had never been -- until, 50 years later, the college awarded the distinguished Professor Sir William Empson an honorary doctorate.

The young Empson was devastated, as well as suddenly without prospects. He freelanced in London, where he met or renewed his acquaintance with many of the luminaries of the day, including Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. Eventually, though, Richards helped him find a job teaching in Japan for three years, later followed by another period of freelancing in London (which included some serious pub-crawling with Dylan Thomas). Shortly thereafter began Empson's long involvement with the universities of China, partly as a professor of literature and partly as an advocate of Basic English, a system of language study based on an essential vocabulary of 850 words. Arriving at National Peking University just as the Japanese invaded in 1937, Empson lived for the next two and more years the same itinerant, hand-to-mouth existence as his Chinese colleagues did. Without books, he taught courses by typing up from memory page after page of English poetry. In due time, his students (then and later, for in 1947 he returned for five more years) rose to become the academic leaders of modern China, and Empson's name is revered there to this day.

Among the Mandarins concludes with Empson returning to Britain as World War II is about to break out. For most of its duration, he will be the Chinese editor for the Home Service of the BBC, working for two years alongside George Orwell. He will marry and father two sons. When the war in Europe finally ends, William Empson will still be in his thirties. Nonetheless, the work of his youth will have made him famous, and in America the so-called New Criticism will soon turn him into a living legend. For the reality of his last 40-odd years, we will need to wait for the conclusion to John Haffenden's comprehensive, irreplaceable biography. *

William Empson in 1940