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The Queen and I

William Empson and John Haffenden, 26 November 1987

... On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English Literature a ‘general idea’ – to celebrate the Queen’s visit by reviving the masques with which Elizabeth I was greeted at Cambridge in 1564 and at Oxford in 1566 and 1592 ...

Diary

Ian Hamilton: It's a size thing, 19 September 1985

... A relief, then, to turn from all this deranged big-talk to some sturdy English self-effacement. John Haffenden is steadily becoming the closest we have to a domestic version of the Mansos and Grobels. He has already published a book of earnest conversations with a dozen or so poets and this month he gives it a companion: Novelists in Interview.2 ...

John and Henry

Christopher Reid, 2 December 1982

The Life of John Berryman 
by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 451 pp., £15, September 1982, 0 7100 9216 4
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Poets in their Youth: A Memoir 
by Eileen Simpson.
Faber, 272 pp., £10.95, September 1982, 0 571 11925 5
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... When John Berryman’s first full-length collection of poems, The Dispossessed, was published in 1948, Yvor Winters wrote a notice of it for the Hudson Review. Here Winters drew attention to Berryman’s ‘disinclination to understand and discipline his emotions’, and went on to suggest: ‘Most of his poems appear to deal with a single all-inclusive topic: the desperate chaos, social, religious, philosophical and psychological, of modern life, and the corresponding chaos and desperation of John Berryman ...

The heart of standing is you cannot fly

Frank Kermode: Empson and Obscurity, 22 June 2000

The Complete Poems of William Empson 
edited by John Haffenden.
Allen Lane, 410 pp., £30, April 2000, 0 7139 9287 5
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... these 16 years, and although his voice was often recorded it now seems difficult to describe it. John Haffenden says he had one voice for poetry and another for prose. Empson himself thought ‘the reader should throw himself into the verse, and not do it with “reserved” English good taste.’ The best idea was to ham it ‘like a provincial ...

The Savage Life

Frank Kermode: The Adventures of William Empson, 19 May 2005

William Empson: Vol. I: Among the Mandarins 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 695 pp., £30, April 2005, 0 19 927659 5
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... John Haffenden opens the proceedings with a long extract from one of Empson’s letters and goes on to provide a leisurely commentary on it, so, even if you hadn’t noticed the bulk of the book, you’d sense right away that you were in for the long haul. At the end of this first instalment the poet is still only 33 years old and has another 44 years to go; no doubt they will be less action-packed, more sedate – containable, one hopes, in only one more volume ...

Glittering Fiend

Ian Hamilton: John Berryman, 9 December 1999

Berryman's Shakespeare 
edited by John Haffenden.
Farrar, Straus, 396 pp., $35, February 1999, 0 374 11205 3
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John Berryman’s Personal Library: A Catalogue 
by Richard Kelly.
Lang, 433 pp., £39, March 1999, 0 8204 3998 3
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... In one of John Berryman’s more lucid dream songs (No. 364), there is amusing reference to the reading habits of Henry, the song sequence’s screwed up protagonist: O Henry in his youth read many things he gutted the Columbia – the Cambridge libraries – Widener – Princeton – the British Museum – the Library of Congress but mostly he bought books to have as his own cunningly, like extra wings ...

Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst, 20 August 1981

Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden 
Faber, 189 pp., £7.50, June 1981, 0 571 11689 2Show More
A Free Translation 
by Craig Raine.
Salamander, 29 pp., £4.50, June 1981, 0 907540 02 3
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A German Requiem 
by James Fenton.
Salamander, 9 pp., £1.50, January 1981, 0 907540 00 7
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Caviare at the Funeral 
by Louis Simpson.
Oxford, 89 pp., £4.50, April 1981, 0 19 211943 5
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... to put over a position with no time, at the time, to think. One does not know to what extent Haffenden has edited out the false starts and inelegances of ordinary speech to produce this published text of his interviews (different texts of several of which have appeared previously), but certainly a sense of accustomedness to answering questions is felt to ...

Golden Boy

Denis Donoghue, 22 December 1983

W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage 
edited by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 535 pp., £19.95, September 1983, 0 7100 9350 0
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Auden: A Carnival of Intellect 
by Edward Callan.
Oxford, 299 pp., £12.50, August 1983, 0 19 503168 7
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Drawn from the Life: A Memoir 
by Robert Medley.
Faber, 251 pp., £12.50, November 1983, 0 571 13043 7
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... of that year, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Geoffrey Grigson, Michael Roberts, Bonamy Dobrée, John Hayward and Graham Greene had nominated Auden as the new voice. The six odes and the epilogue of The Orators, Greene said, justified Auden’s ‘being named in the same breath as Lawrence’. But Greene had some misgivings. ‘The subject of the book,’ he ...

Two Americas and a Scotland

Nicholas Everett, 27 September 1990

Collected Poems, 1937-1971 
by John Berryman, edited by Charles Thornbury.
Faber, 348 pp., £17.50, February 1990, 0 571 14317 2
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The Dream Songs 
by John Berryman.
Faber, 427 pp., £17.50, February 1990, 0 571 14318 0
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Poems 1959-1979 
by Frederick Seidel.
Knopf, 112 pp., $19.95, November 1989, 0 394 58021 4
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These Days 
by Frederick Seidel.
Knopf, 50 pp., $18.95, October 1989, 0 394 58022 2
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A Scottish Assembly 
by Robert Crawford.
Chatto, 64 pp., £5.99, April 1990, 0 7011 3595 6
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... in the subject itself. A poet’s earliest efforts are usually marred by self-consciousness and John Berryman’s are no exception to the rule. For most poets, however, finding a distinct and convincing voice is, at least in part, a process of shedding unwanted affectations and exaggerated self-importance. For Berryman the process was reversed. He learnt to ...

Empson’s Buddha

Michael Wood, 4 May 2017

... his poems, though, that while in the East he chased up images of Buddha with what his biographer John Haffenden calls ‘a learned amateur interest amounting to an obsession’. The offhand phrase about Marvell is a bit of English disguise: camouflaged passion rather than easy generality. Empson taught literature in Japan from 1931 to 1934, and in China ...

‘Disgusting’

Frank Kermode: Remembering William Empson, 16 November 2006

William Empson. Vol. II: Against the Christians 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 797 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 19 927660 9
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... the BBC, first in the Monitoring Service, later in the Chinese section of the Overseas Service. Haffenden’s huge second volume begins there, and it is clear at once that his industry and love of Empson and Empsoniana have not diminished. He gives an interestingly detailed account of the BBC at war. Like many of his colleagues, Empson was a drinker, a ...

As a returning lord

John Lanchester, 7 May 1987

Einstein’s Monsters 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 127 pp., £5.95, April 1987, 0 224 02435 3
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... them. Amis’s most obvious assets as a writer are his ear (‘When you’re writing,’ he told John Haffenden, in an exchange published in Novelists in Interview, ‘you run it through your mind until your tuning-fork is still’) and his energy. In the quoted paragraph, both are as they always were; the lines are also characteristic in the ...

Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt, 20 October 1994

Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. II 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Cambridge, 292 pp., £35, May 1994, 0 521 44044 0
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... Spirits’. Empson’s fullest exploration of this subject remained unfinished. The editor, John Haffenden, has stitched together the various drafts that he left behind and has given the somewhat unwieldy result the title ‘The Spirits of the Dream’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck meets a fairy in the Athenian wood and asks her where she ...

No reason for not asking

Adam Phillips: Empson’s War on God, 3 August 2006

Selected Letters of William Empson 
edited by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 729 pp., £40, March 2006, 0 19 928684 1
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... Indeed, the thing Empson seems to have been most at odds with himself about was conflict. So when John Wain praises Empson’s poetry in his book Professing Poetry, Empson replies: ‘I feel it is very discerning praise, so it is at least sympathetic; and the best I can do by way of thanks is to say where I think it is wrong.’ Empson believed that ...

Buffers

David Trotter, 4 February 1988

Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Chatto, 657 pp., £25, October 1987, 0 7011 3083 0
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... I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English Literature, which it is my business to know about, and try to examine the fundamentals, the basic tools.’ As he turns to literature, he shelves the old-buffer prejudices and begins to display instead the rationalism which spoke habitually of the ‘basic tools’ of imagination, and the sensitivity to language which enabled him to examine and test those tools ...

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