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Reviewed by:
  • On Empson by Michael Wood
  • Andrew Motion (bio)
Michael Wood, On Empson (Princeton University Press, 2017), 184pp.

Near the beginning of this excellent short study of the criticism and poetry of William Empson, Michael Wood takes a leaf from his subject’s late book Using Biography; he reminisces about hearing Empson give the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge, England, in 1974—“waving about a piece of paper on which he had some notes, not lecturing so much as commenting on what had come up in the office hours he had held the week before in Magdalen College.” Encouraged by Wood’s example, I’ll begin in the same way. I first heard Empson’s name in the spring of 1970, when I was seventeen years old, and my high school English teacher asked us to read and talk about the poem “To an Old Lady.” This tribute to his mother, which is haunted by other writings (King Lear at the opening: “Ripeness is all…,” Paradise Lost at the close: “. . . in darkness is she visible”), and dense with riddling ingenuities (“Bees sting their need, the keeper’s queen invader”), was immediately very attractive to me. I might fairly say that I fell half in love with its un-easeful life and energy. When I won the school poetry competition a few months later, I chose Empson’s Collected Poems as my prize. And although I was very often baffled by lines I then began to linger over, I never lost my deep liking and admiration for them. They seemed astoundingly witty—and they still do today. I still feel flattered as well as entertained by the intellectual demands they make on me, and I still feel enchanted by their music: elaborately formal but also direct and no-nonsense. Tough, as well as tricky.

A couple of years after leaving school, when I was a student at Oxford, Empson came to give a reading, and of course I went to listen. It was [End Page 477] disappointing. Although I still remember the thrill of actually seeing him (that owlish face, that sweeping moustache, that extraordinary beard sprouting beneath the chin but not around the mouth), I couldn’t hear most of what he said. He delivered his poems in a quick-fire mumble. Five years later, when I was teaching English at the University of Hull, I went to listen again. This time he was introduced by Philip Larkin (whom I was sitting directly behind: I saw Larkin turn up—or possibly turn off—his hearing aid as proceedings got under way), and there was amplification. But it was another disappointment. Empson swayed in front of the microphone to such an extent that his words were continually bent out of shape, in a poetic version of the Doppler effect.

But never mind. As far as I was concerned, having by now read the great critical works, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (193), The Structure of Complex Words (1951), and Milton’s God (1961) as well as the poems—which Empson had stopped writing in the mid-1940s —I was still watching one of the twentieth century’s giants. Which meant, when I went to work as poetry editor for his publisher Chatto and Windus in 1982, and discovered that no one from the firm had been in touch with him for a long time, I made it my business to see whether he had anything new that he wanted to publish. The (also recently-arrived) managing director Carmen Callil and I were duly invited for a drink at Empson’s house in Hampstead, north London.

I was thirty years old and frankly a bit awe-struck. Empson, who often spoke (not that I knew it at the time) in his letters about the value of drink as a social lubricant, noticed this and perhaps took pity on me—or perhaps simply carried on as usual. Herding together four tall glasses on a kitchen work-surface (his wife Hetta was also there) he shook an open bottle of vodka roughly in the air above them all, until they were about half full, then did the same with...


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pp. 477-480
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