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  • 'The Structure of Complex Words' and Related Writings by William Empson
  • David Greenham
'The Structure of Complex Words' and Related Writings. By William Empson. Ed. by Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini. (The Critical Works of William Empson) Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2020. lii+614 pp. £95. ISBN 978–0–19–871343–2.

All literary scholars should welcome Oxford University Press's critical editions of the works of William Empson, that most subtle arbiter of linguistic and literary ambiguity. Of all the volumes in the series, perhaps the most likely to remain unread, though first to be released, is his 1951 work The Structure of Complex Words. This probable neglect is for a very good reason: Empson's so-called 'little bits of machinery' (p. 25). Indeed, '3b+=1a—.1£1' was hardly likely to catch on as a way of expressing a particular nuance of the eighteenth-century term 'wit' as applied to persons. That said, Empson really could, in his prose, capture that elusive shade of meaning in Pope: 'As a true poet myself, I regard the critics as types; they have an itching to deride and judge by fashion' (p. 87). The machinery, it thankfully appears, is more superstructural than essential—it may have helped Empson believe in his interpretations, but it does not offer the same level of help to his reader. Empson almost admits as much when he tells us that many of the readings he provides were [End Page 496] put together before the theoretical work was undertaken. Furthermore, in one of the supplementary letters appended to this edition, Empson refers to his own method as 'malignantly stiff' (p. 417). For this reason, the author himself advised the less thorough reader to skip the first two long chapters, and the last half-dozen shorter ones, and focus on the middle section, in which the plainer literary criticism lies and the malignant machinery plays second fiddle to the extended analysis of the selected complex words (p. 14). These complex words are few, and their order in The Structure of Complex Words runs as follows: wit, all, fool, dog, honest, sense, sensible, and sensibility.

What Empson means by a 'complex word' is extremely valuable. A complex word is one that contains a 'compacted doctrine', that is, one that encompasses 'a general background of ideas' (p. 142) from any given period. To interpret that word is to interpret an entire social and political context; to establish a particular usage is to determine a relationship between author and reader. Indeed, Empson heartily rejects the New Critical focus on the text to the exclusion of the author's intention, which for him is a key part of any word's complexity. There is also a mistrustful political side to this view of language in The Structure of Complex Words. In his 1977 'Preface', Empson recalls working on propaganda in the Second World War (he worked alongside Orwell at the BBC). Empson's readings, then, are fundamentally socio-historical and a way of enlivening a critical perception of the complexity (duplicity even) of language and rhetoric. Empson's idea of history in The Structure of Complex Words derives in large part from his use of The Oxford English Dictionary, still called the New English Dictionary in the 1930s when he was drawing on it for the earliest of the essays. In his typical adversarial and occasionally crotchety style, Empson critiques the OED/NED while acknowledging that his book could not have been written without it. In the literary-critical terms of the middle sections of the book, the purpose of a complex word is that it acts as a 'keyword' that unlocks a text. The many different meanings (or 'equations', to return to the machinery) of any given complex word as it recurs across a text illuminate its key themes. The most sustained examples in The Structure of Complex Words are 'fool' in King Lear, 'honest' in Othello, and 'sense' in Austen and Wordsworth (while Empson focuses on Renaissance and Restoration texts, he does make it as far as the Romantics). At the back of Empson's book is an argument with his...