He is sometimes praised as the greatest English literary critic after Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt, and widely influential for his practice of closely reading literary works, fundamental to the New Critics. Jonathan Bate has claimed that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are, respectively, Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest".
Empson has been styled a "critic of genius" by Sir Frank Kermode, who qualified his praise by identifying willfully perverse readings of certain authors; and Harold Bloom has stated that Empson is among a handful of critics who matter most to him, because of their force and eccentricity. Empson's bluntness led to controversy both during his life and after his death, and a reputation in part also as a "licensed buffoon" (Empson's own phrase).
Empson first discovered his great skill and interest in mathematics at his preparatory school. He won an entrance scholarship to Winchester College, where he excelled as a student and received what he later described as "a ripping education" in spite of the rather rough and abusive milieu of the school: a long standing tradition of physical force, especially among the students, figured prominently in life at such schools.
In 1925, Empson won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge and achieved a double first in Mathematics and English in 1929. His supervisor in Mathematics, the father of the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey, expressed regret at Empson's decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, since it was a discipline for which Empson showed great talent. I.A. Richards, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson's first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:
At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of 'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.' Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by 'You could do that with any poetry, couldn't you?' This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, 'You'd better go off and do it, hadn't you?'
Despite Empson's great precocity and skill in both English and Mathematics, he was asked to leave Cambridge due to infractions against propriety - a servant discovered prophylactics in his room - a fitting symbol of Empson's cheerful disregard for prevailing moral norms.
He returned to England in the mid-1930s only to depart again upon receiving a three-year contract to teach at Peking University, where, upon his arrival, he discovered that due to the Japanese invasion of China, he no longer had available a post. Empson joined the exodus, with little more than a typewriter and suitcase, of professors at Peking University in continual evasion of the invading force, teaching whole courses on English poetry without texts or other aids, and would not arrive in England until January 1939.
In 1953 he was professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London for a year. He later became head of the English department at the University of Sheffield until his retirement in 1972.
Empson's technique of teasing a rich variety of interpretations from poetic literature does not, however, exhaustively characterize his critical practice. He is much interested in the human or experiential reality to be discovered in great works of literature as is manifest, for instance, in his discussion of the fortunes of the notion of Proletarian literature in Some Versions of Pastoral. Indeed, it is this commitment to unravelling or articulating the experiential truth or reality in literature that aligns Empson so perfectly with Dr. Johnson and that permits him unusual avenues to explore sociopolitical ideas in literature in a vein very different from contemporary Marxist critics (e.g., Fredric Jameson) or scholars of New Historicism (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt). Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that:
Gray's Elegy is an odd case of poetry with latent political ideas:
- Full many a gem of purest ray serene
- The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
- Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
- And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. ... By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. ... The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death.
Empson goes on to deliver his political verdict with a psychological suggestion:
Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the 'bourgeois' themselves do not like literature to have too much 'bourgeois ideology.'
Should one be in doubt of Empson's estimation and understanding of Gray's achievement, in the face of a tradition of canonization and study of the poem, Empson routs all political quibbles and ideological concerns with some remarks reminiscent of Dr. Johnson in their pained insistence:
And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; 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. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way 'bourgeois', like this one; they suggest to readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree.
Despite the complexity of Empson's critical methods and attitude, his work, in particular, Seven Types of Ambiguity, had a significant impact on the New Criticism, a school of criticism which directed particular attention to close reading of texts, among whose adherents may be numbered F.R. Leavis, although, as has been noted, Empson could scarcely be described as an adherent or exponent of such a school or, indeed, of any critical school at all. Indeed, Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy formulated by William K. Wimsatt, an influential New Critic. Indeed, Empson's distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in a distinctively dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism (which he ironically labels "the new rigour") as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, pg. 122). Similarly, both the title and the content of one of Empson's volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the Death of the Author, despite the fact that some scholars regard Empson as a progenitor of certain of these currents of criticism, which vexed Empson enough to comment:
Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre - Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction. The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting"... (Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon)
...the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton's God (1965), p13)
Empson claims that it is precisely Milton's great sensitivity and faithfulness to the Scriptures, in spite of their apparent madness, that generates such a controversial picture of God: thus Empson reckons that it requires a mind of astonishing integrity to, in the words of Blake, be of the Devil's party without knowing it.
[Milton] is struggling to make his God appear less wicked, as he tells us he will at the start (l. 25), and does succeed in making him noticeably less wicked than the traditional Christian one; though, after all, owing to his loyalty to the sacred text and the penetration with which he make its story real to us, his modern critics still feel, in a puzzled way, that there is something badly wrong about it all. That this searching goes on in Paradise Lost, I submit, is the chief source of its fascination and poignancy... (Milton's God (1965), pg. 11)
The tendency in surveys of Empson's achievement in Milton's God is, depending on one's politics, to marvel or bristle at the audacious perversity of his central thesis - though something of the same perversity was tidied up and reinterpreted in Stanley Fish's much lauded work on Milton (see, e.g., Surprised by Sin); this eclipses some of Empson's insights and his intelligence, humanity and humour in reading the poem, and ignores the significance of the work as one of the few efforts to immunize the aesthetic achievements of the poem from its theological or more widely religious achievements (see also the work of Balachandra Rajan).
Although perhaps not as influential in academic circles as, for example, Fish's work, Milton's God remains of great significance to any critically-minded reader of Paradise Lost as a presentation of some reasons for the centrality of the work in the English literary canon. Empson portrays the work as the product of a poet of astonishingly powerful and imaginative sensibilities and great intellect who had invested much of himself in the poem. Despite its lack of influence, certain critics view Milton's God as by far the best (that is to say, the most valuable) sustained work of criticism on the poem by a 20th century critic. Harold Bloom includes it as one of the few critical works worthy of canonical status in his The Western Canon (and the only critical work focusing solely on a single piece of literature).
From "Proletarian Literature" in Some Versions of Pastoral:
As for propaganda, some very good work has been that; most authors want their point of view to be convincing. Pope said that even the Aeneid was a 'political puff'; its dreamy, impersonal, universal melancholy was a calculated support for Augustus .
Of course to decide on an author's purpose, conscious or unconscious, is very difficult. Good writing is not done unless there are serious forces at work; and it is not permanent unless it works for readers with opinions different from the author's. On the other hand, the reason an English audience can enjoy Russian propagandist films is that the propaganda is too remote to be annoying; a Tory audience subjected to Tory propaganda of the same intensity would be extremely bored.
From "They That Have Power" in Some Versions of Pastoral:
(regarding Sonnet 94): If this was Shakespeare's only surviving work, it would still be clear, supposing one knew about the other Elizabethans, that it involves somehow their feelings about the Machiavellian, the wicked plotter who is exciting and civilized and somehow right about life; which seems an important though rather secret element in the romance that Shakespeare extracted from his patron.
...poets, who tend to make in their lives a situation they have already written about.
...that curious trick of pastoral which for extreme courtly flattery - perhaps to give self-respect to both poet and patron, to show that the poet is not ignorantly easy to impress, nor the patron to flatter - writes about the poorest people; and those jazz songs which give an intense effect of luxury and silk underwear by pretending to be about slaves naked in the fields.
The feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit, and yet that a good life must avoid saying so, is naturally at home with most versions of pastoral; in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power. Conversely any expression of the idea that all life is limited may be regarded as only a trick of pastoral, perhaps chiefly intended to hold all our attention and sympathy for some limited life, though again this is not necessary to it either on grounds of truth or beauty; in fact the suggestion of pastoral may be only a protection for the idea which must at last be taken alone (c.f. Aeron Kopriva's emails, 2006-2007). The business of interpretation is obviously very complicated. Literary uses of the problem of free-will and necessity, for example, may be noticed to give curiously bad arguments and I should think get their strength from keeping you in doubt between the two methods. Thus Hardy is fond of showing us an unusually stupid person subjected to very unusually bad luck, and then a moral is drawn, not merely by inference but by solemn assertion, that we are all in the same boat as this person who story is striking precisely because it is unusual. The effect may be very grand, but to make an otherwise logical reader accept the process must depend on giving him obscure reasons for wishing it so. It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, so reliable a bass note in the arts, needs to be counted as a possible territory of the pastoral.
Surely Bentley was right to be surprised at finding Faunus haunting the bower [Paradise Lost ll. 705 - 707], a ghost crying in the cold of Paradise, and the lusts of Pan sacred even in comparison to Eden. There is a Vergilian quality in the lines, haunting indeed, a pathos not mentioned because it is the whole of the story. I suppose that in Satan determining to destroy the innocent happiness of Eden, for the highest political motives, without hatred, not without tears, we may find some echo of the Elizabethan fulness of life that Milton as a poet abandoned, and as a Puritan helped to destroy.
Voyage au Bout de la Nuit...is not to be placed quickly either as pastoral or proletarian; it is partly the 'underdog' theme and partly social criticism. The two main characters have no voice or trust in their society and no sympathy with those who have; it is this, not cowardice or poverty or low class, which the war drives home to them, and from then on they have a straightforward inferiority complex; the theme becomes their struggle with it as private individuals. ... Life may be black and mad in the second half but Bardamu is not, and he gets to the real end of the night as critic and spectator. This change is masked by unity of style and by a humility which will not allow that one can claim to be sane while living as part of such a world, but it is in the second half that we get Bardamu speaking as Celine in criticism of it. What is attacked may perhaps be summed up as the death-wishes generated by the herds of a machine society, and he is not speaking as 'spokesman of the proletariat' or with any sympathy for a communist one. ...before claiming the book as proletarian literature you have to separate off the author (in the phrase that Radek used) as a man ripe for fascism. (Note this was written 2 years before Celine's first anti-semitic pamphlet and 9 years before he fled to Germany.)
From "The Variants for the Byzantium Poems" in Using Biography:
...she appears to end her penultimate chapter 'Was Yeats a Christian?' with the sentiment that he must have been pretty Christian if he could stay friends with Ezra Pound.
When I was young, literary critics often rejoiced that the hypocrisy of the Victorians had been discredited, or expressed confidence that the operation would soon be complete. So far from that, it has returned in a peculiarly stifling form to take possession of critics of Eng. Lit.; Mr. Pecksniff has become the patron saint of many of my colleagues. As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good. The study of English authors of the past is now centred in the universities, and yet there must be no censorship - no work of admitted literary merit may be hidden from the learners. Somehow we must save poor Teacher's face, and protect him from the indignant or jeering students, local authorities or parents. It thus came to be tactily agreed that a dead author usually hated what he described, hated it as much as we do, even, and wanted his book to shame everybody out of being so nasty ever again. The is often called fearless or unflinching criticism, and one of its ill effects is to make the young people regard all literature as a terrific nag or scold. Independently of this, a strong drive has been going on to recover the children for orthodox or traditional religious beliefs; ... and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion. The concordat was reached over his dead body.