Rupert Christiansen

A master of ambiguities

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William Empson: Volume I: Among the Mandarins

John Haffenden

OUP, pp. 692, £

School reports can be remarkably prescient. William Empson’s headmaster noted, ‘He has a good deal of originality and enterprise: I hope he is learning also to discipline his vagaries.’ It’s a judgment which could serve as an epigraph for this massive first volume of John Haffenden’s long-awaited, long-meditated biography, in which the great literary critic and poet indeed shows ‘a good deal of originality and enterprise’, but rather heroically fails ‘to discipline his vagaries’.

I remember Empson only as an old man, when he came to Cambridge to deliver the Clark Lectures in 1974. They were not considered a success, though at the opening he made everyone laugh by slyly announcing that ‘the cloud cast over literature by T. S. Eliot has finally begun to pass’, and then running his eyes across the roof of the hall as though this enlightening event was actually visible to him. But much of what he said about spirits of Middle Earth seemed incoherent verging on bonkers, giving credibility to the gossip about his heavy consumption of other sorts of spirits.

This was Empson as a parody of himself: Haffenden is happily concerned with the real thing. Born in 1906 into the Yorkshire gentry, Empson enjoyed a pleasant if emotionally disengaged childhood, marred only by the death of an elder brother in the first world war. After establishing himself as an incorrigible eccentric at Winchester, he went on to read mathematics at Magdalene College, Cambridge, later changing to the fashionable new study of English and mixing with a brilliant generation of undergraduates, including Jacob Bronowski, Alistair Cooke and Humphrey Jennings. By the time he was 21, he had clearly developed into a genius.

But not one who was easy to place or handle. In 1930, having been sacked from his fellowship at Magdalene when birth-control mechanisms were found by a nosy bedmaker in his room, he published Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book which put flesh on the theories of his mentor I. A. Richards and showed a suppleness and subtlety in the interpretation of poetry that could be said to have revolutionised the infant practice of literary criticism.

For the rest of the low dishonest decade, he alternated between a messy, boozy Bohemian existence in Fitzrovia and stints in the Far East teaching both Basic English and literature. Japan he came to loathe for its brutal imperialism and cultural conformism, not least because he was forced to leave the country after making a drunken pass at a taxi driver. The nationalist Chinese, however, he held in passionate admiration and his years there during the Japanese occupation, sharing in their privations, brought out a trait of insouciant courage in his diffident yet steely personality.

The product of undemonstrative, good-humoured upper-middle-class stock, Empson was affable yet shy, severely myopic and wary of intimacy. A homosexual streak seems to have been unresolved, and the jibe that ‘he treated a girl like a lavatory’ may have had some justification — he certainly turned away from women abruptly. The constant heavy drinking (though Haffenden doesn’t label him an alcoholic) must have numbed his emotional confusions.

Three themes focus his work. He envisaged the purpose of criticism, as of imaginative writing, to be the assertion of a distance from prevalent codes of thought and power. Being ‘morally independent of one’s formative society’, he thought, was ‘the grandest theme of all literature’. Yet he had none of F. R. Leavis’s Puritan certainty of ethical compass. As he shows in both Seven Types of Ambiguity and its equally brilliant successor Some Versions of Pastoral, he could be playful, even flippant in his exploration of contradictions and complexities. Language was to some extent his favourite intellectual game, albeit one with very high stakes.

The science of physics absorbed him deeply too, and his poetry is rich in attempts to realise the imaginative implications of the emergent theories of matter and motion. Given this rationalist bent, he deplored Christian soteriology as ‘a casuistical contract’, a form of blackmail and torture-worship which sadistically proposed suffering as redemptive. The serene impersonality and now-ness of Buddhism appealed to him more, but his deepest roots were in the 19th-century liberal tradition. He was a sceptic, not a mystic.

This first volume of biography closes as Empson returns to England at the outbreak of the second world war: his life would last another 45 years, but his major intellectual advances were made before he was 30, and one senses that the second volume will be largely a story of decline. Haffenden is the most genial of scholarly chroniclers, adopting a leisurely and discursive pace and tone that are appropriately Empsonian in warmth and wit, as well as suggestive explications de texte. This is a very long and detailed book, in the door-stopper category but never for a minute a dull one.