Among the Mandarins
Among the Mandarins
Among the Mandarins – the first of two volumes that chart the fascinating life and work of the great eccentric poet-critic and the inventor of modern literary criticism in English – runs to just over 550 pages, 700 if you include the appendices and the helpfully arranged notes and partial index. This weighty volume takes us from Empson’s birth in 1906 to 1940 (immediately following his return from war-torn China where he had spent two years teaching, and to where he was to return in 1947, witnessing civil war and the six-week siege of Peking in 1948, which culminated in Mao’s triumphal entry into that city). The second volume promises – after the Communist take-over of China and the inauguration of the People’s Republic – an account of perhaps slightly quieter times, when the remainder of Empson’s teaching career was spent mostly at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed to a Chair in English Literature, with occasional sabbaticals at American and Canadian universities.
Born into an upper class landed family in Yorkshire, descended from clergymen and wealthy mud-farmers – and if it is to be believed, from a fabled villain who was hanged in the time of Henry VIII – Empson’s first fascination was with mathematics. From his preparatory school in Folkstone he won an entrance scholarship to Winchester where he immersed himself in mathematics. He won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and read for a degree in the subject in 1925. At Winchester, ‘Empers’ won the English Literature prize, though in an English essay prize he was to come second to the future Labour MP Richard Crossman, now mostly remembered for his Diaries. Empers recalled his time at Winchester as largely enjoyable, though he lamented that he ‘was beaten rather too often.’ While mathematics was his forte, it was at Winchester in 1919 that he wrote his first known poem, ‘Mother, saying Anne good night’, which ‘strikingly adumbrates his mature aversion to the Christian religion’. ‘Not known to entertain huge creative urges at school, it was thought by his contemporaries that Empson would have ‘a talented but by no means distinguished career… he would do really quite well in the way of the stereotypical Wykehamist, the Civil Servant.’
Early in his undergraduate career at Cambridge, Empson discovered Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, which he read in the English translation, and The Foundations of Aesthetics by C K Ogden, I A Richards and James Wood. (I A Richards was to become Empson’s Director of Studies when he switched to English in 1928.) For Empson, at this time, there was, he believed, no gulf between the two cultures, although John Haffenden does write, ‘his earnest desire to reconcile the disciplines almost certainly goes to show how hard he was trying to resolve a tension he had discovered in himself.’ Such tensions and paradoxes were part of Empson’s professional life (and his private life too, in which, during his Cambridge years in particular, he experienced many ‘pashes’, crushes and infatuations.) Haffenden adds, ‘before he discovered his true métier, Empson felt in himself a tremendous amount of strain and instability, of contradictory attractions, as he pursued at one and the same time the perfection of mathematics, the logical propositions of Wittgenstein, and the theory of ‘the systematisation of impulses’ propounded by Richards in his Principles of Literary Criticism.’
At Cambridge, Empson distinguished himself in many ways and took part in the more cerebral aspects of student life there. He became a member of The Heretics, a society formed ‘to promote discussion on problems of religion, philosophy and art’, and which had an ‘amazing record for attracting eminent speakers.’ Honorary members included G Lowes Dickinson, J M Keynes and Bertrand Russell, who once advised a meeting of the society that the Ten Commandments were like the customary rubric for a ten-question examination paper: ‘only six need be attempted.’ During his time at Cambridge, Empson heard papers given to The Heretics by such writers as Wyndham Lewis, Herbert Read, and Leonard Woolf, and he was to become President of The Heretics himself, inviting, among others, T S Eliot as a speaker. Arguably Empson gained much from the discussion papers presented at this society’s meetings. Even when he switched to English, he did not as a rule attend lectures. This was in deference to I A Richards’ view that lectures ‘were a curious survival from pre-Caxton days and students should go to very few.’ And ‘on the sole and sufficient ground, as he thought, that in his undergraduate days he attended no lectures’, Empson was to ‘miss’ T S Eliot’s 1926 Clark Lectures on The Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century. But Empson did take part in the debates of the Cambridge Union and devoted himself to literature and student journalism. Involving himself in theatre – after writing, directing and acting in one play of his own, he turned to review theatre and the ‘immature art’ of cinema for both The Granta and the Cambridge Review, while contributing book reviews, and all the time studying mathematics.
Empson did not abandon mathematics, though after taking his degree in that subject, he then officially switched to English in 1928, and on doing so co-founded a new literary magazine, Experiment, devoted to modernist experimentation. Although other like-minded undergraduates brought the magazine into being, the bulk of the editorial work fell to Empson and Jacob Bronowski, another mathematician, and both in effect became joint editors. Like Empson, Bronowski believed that ‘doing science was as natural as breathing or writing poetry.’ Empson however was later to say that Bronowski did the right thing ‘to have stuck to his sums,’ while Bronowski was to say of Empson, ‘he was not quite as good a mathematician as I, but a better poet.’ Experiment published poetry of all sorts, critical essays, fiction, portraits and photography, as well as articles ranging from scientific subjects to art and theatre design. According to one of its contributors, T H White, who was later to have fame as author of The Once and Future King, the magazine Experiment ‘contained large numbers of lamentably clever young gentlemen talking clap-trap more obviously than any congeries of the nineties.’ However, this did not prevent both T S Eliot and James Joyce from congratulating Bronowski on his work as editor, who in his cocksuredness had even rejected a proposal that Ezra Pound had submitted! A slightly more welcome contributor to the magazine was Kathleen Raine, only the second woman ‘to earn that giddy privilege’, though Raine was to say that the editors of Experiment never took her seriously as a poet. While it was indisputably a magazine of the avant-garde, it did have some competition in The Venture, edited by Michael Redgrave and Robin Fedden, with the help of the witty and sophisticated Anthony Blunt, which subscribed more or less to the prevailing Bloomsbury ideology, though Redgrave was ultimately to concede that Experiment was genuinely experimental and his own The Venture a farrago of juvenile trifles.’ While some of Empson’s poems did appear in Experiment, it is not true to say that he used the magazine as a vehicle solely for his own poetry; rather his growing reputation as a poet was confirmed and promoted in Cambridge Poetry 1929, which was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. This publication contained work by 23 Cambridge poets and included six poems by Empson. In May 1929, he achieved his first solo appearance as a poet in Letter IV, published by a Cambridge publisher as the first in a series of booklets – ‘single, hitherto unpublished poems by Cambridge poets of established reputation.’ This publication marked the beginning in earnest of the career of Empson the poet and caused F R Leavis to write in the Cambridge Review, ‘he is an original poet who has studied the right poems (the right ones for him) in the right way. His poems have a tough intellectual content… and they evince an intense preoccupation with technique. These characteristics result sometimes in what seems to me an unprofitable obscurity, in faults like those common to the Metaphysicals… But Mr Empson commands respect.’ F R Leavis was, of course, to say other things later about Empson’s work in poetry.
By this time Empson had won a Magdalene College Prize for English and had been elected to a Fellowship, though the brilliant and original Empson also distinguished himself in other ways, and one of these was by getting himself ‘sent-down’, deprived of his Fellowship seven weeks after it was awarded, having ‘his name removed from the College Books’ and his tutorial file destroyed, and being banished from residing within the town bounds of Cambridge. All this following the discovery of a packet of condoms in his rooms! (How times and mores have changed. Today, it might be more understandable if a Cambridge undergraduate were sent down for not having condoms in their rooms!) The Governing Body of Magdalene College had exacted on Empson the greatest penalty it could for the crime of sexual misconduct. Tutors and friends were stunned into silence by the severity of this penalty, and it was later reported that not since Shelley had been sent down in 1811 – for producing an atheistical tract – had so outrageous a penalty been exacted by the university authorities. But for Empson, even though he was permitted to address the board of the Governing Body in person, his rehearsed little speech had no effect on the board. Besides Empson was at pains to conceal the identity of his female lover and ensure her name never came out at the time. Haffenden writes, ‘unfortunately there is no detailed record of what he found to say – though it is nice to imagine that he had enough of the Yorkshireman’s brass neck to say, as legend has it, ‘Would you prefer me to go in for buggery?” Had the great I A Richards still been in Cambridge, perhaps he would have been able to bring good sense to the deliberations of the Governing Body of Magdalene, but he had already left to spend a sabbatical year at Peking National University, and although ‘the national literary grapevine crackled with outrage’ at the news of Empson’s fate, he was, in effect, on his own.
After Cambridge, Empson moved to London and was to have no direct dealings with Magdalene until 1979, when the college authorities put Empson’s youthful indiscretions to one side, along with their own foolish actions of fifty years earlier, and elected Professor Sir William Empson to an Honorary Fellowship.
On his move to London, Empson was greatly assisted by I A Richards, who wrote from Peking on Empson’s behalf to T S Eliot, editor of Criterion: ‘I’ve just heard from the best man I’ve ever had at Cambridge, William Empson, that Magdalene after giving him a Fellowship largely under pressure from me have taken it away on the ground of some indiscretion with a feminine direction… I think he is quite an extraordinarily good poet. Cambridge Poetry 1929 will allow you to judge of this. He is a very ready hand with a pen and can produce new and valuable ideas about books within a very short time… So he could be made real use of in reviewing.’ Empson walked into a job as a reviewer for Eliot’s magazine.
The ending of Empson’s career at Cambridge was neither a disaster nor a tragedy. One could argue that it was a liberation. Although f
êted within Cambridge as a brilliant poet, whose reputation was enhanced by the publication of Cambridge Poets 1929, Empson was now at large, and with a potentially much greater and wider audience, had greater achievements to make. Of much greater significance to intellectual life and to the history of literary criticism than his early Cambridge poems was his Seven Types of Ambiguity, whose genesis had begun while Empson was an undergraduate. ‘Any account of Empson’s critical work’, writes Haffenden, ‘must begin and end with Richards, for his career constitutes in many ways a fifty-year debate, and sometimes a dispute, with his mentor. Commentators sometimes assume that the lines of influence all run in one direction, from Richards to Empson, but it should be said that in many of his writings after 1930 Richards is responding to Empson’s published and private views, and attempting to adjust this position by definition against Empson’s.’ Heralded by Leavis in 1931 as ‘the most important critical book of the year… one of the most important… in the language; written by a first-class mind’ and as a book he ‘should like to be in company with,’ Richards, as Empson’s Director of Studies, recalled the background to his tutee’s subsequent publication as follows: ‘Empson… seemed to have read more English Literature than I had, and to have read it more recently and better, so our roles were soon in danger of becoming reversed. At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves were playing 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?’ A week later he said he was still slapping away at it on his typewriter… I can’t think of any literary criticism written since which seems likely to have as persistent and as distinctive an influence.’ Empson’s memory of the genesis of his Seven Types is recorded in a prefatory note to the first edition with the words, ‘Mr I A Richards, then my supervisor… told me to write this essay, and various things to put in it; my indebtedness to him is as great as such a thing ever should be.’ This book was to instruct generations of students of English Literature in the study of literary analysis. The rest is literary critical history.
To conclude, Among the Mandarins is a remarkable achievement, it is something of a triumph, it is much more than a devoted exercise in biography or a meticulously researched study of the life – or half-life – of its eccentric and brilliant subject. It is both a sympathetic and not un-critical study of the man and an important and highly readable contribution to the development of modern literary criticism, and sets Empson’s work in a navigable and recognisable social and historical context. Amply annotated in the helpfully arranged notes that accompany the main text, it would have been interesting to have had a list of the works that Empson reviewed for Eliot’s Criterion in the 1930s. Volume Two will appear in the Autumn of 2006.
John Haffenden William Empson, Volume I: Among the Mandarins Oxford University Press ISBN 0199276595 £30 HBK. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is available from Pimlico (ISBN 0712645578 £12.50 PBK).
© Michael Lister 2005
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