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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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... Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing ‘modern’ poetry, William Empson recommended ‘verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it . . . it might be a good thing to try to show the clash of different philosophies, and social comedy, and quote lines of poetry by people quite different from you that you have thought especially good ...

Empson’s Buddha

Michael Wood, 4 May 2017

... There is​ something very Far Eastern about this,’ William Empson says in Some Versions of Pastoral, meaning the manner of Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’. The remark is mildly intriguing but pretty loose, and even if we think of Empson as having the thought while he lectured to his Japanese students before he wrote it down, the Orient still seems stereotyped and far away ...

The Savage Life

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

William EmpsonVol. 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 ...

What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl, 26 November 1987

Faustus and the Censor 
by William Empson, edited by John Henry Jones.
Blackwell, 226 pp., £17.50, September 1987, 0 631 15675 5
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... was an early version of Hamlet, possibly by Kyd; a prototype Henry V, starring Dick Tarlton and William Knell. And, a little later, there were the first ventures of Ben Jonson – Hot Anger Soon Cooled, written with Thomas Dekker and Henry Porter, and Robert II, with Henry Chettle – now just bodiless titles in an old theatrical ledger. The case of Marlowe ...

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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... Empson has been dead 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 ...

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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... spot him as a winner?’ Naomi Mitchison asked in one of the earliest reviews. A few months later William Empson wrote at some length about ‘Paid on Both Sides’. He was impressed by Auden’s ability to make ‘psychoanalysis, surrealism, and all that’, all the irrationalist tendencies ‘which are so essential a part of the machinery of ...

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 ...

Diary

John Henry Jones: At Home with the Empsons, 17 August 1989

... One Saturday morning as I lay in bed, dying of flu, William Empson burst into my room, very sprightly, saying: ‘Now come along Jones, you must get up and come to Stonehenge.’ I croaked an apology and claimed an imminent, prior appointment with the Lord God Almighty. ‘Oh dear. I am sorry,’ he said. ‘But you would do much better to come to Stonehenge ...

Cheesespreadology

Ian Sansom, 7 March 1996

Garbage 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 121 pp., £7.50, February 1995, 0 393 31203 8
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Tape for the Turn of the Year 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, 205 pp., £8.95, February 1995, 0 393 31204 6
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Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow 
by August Kleinzahler.
Faber, 93 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17431 0
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The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs 
by Charles Simic.
Michigan, 127 pp., £30, January 1996, 0 472 06569 6
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Frightening Toys 
by Charles Simic.
Faber, 101 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17399 3
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The Ghost of Eden 
by Chase Twichell.
Faber, 78 pp., £6.99, April 1995, 0 571 17434 5
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... In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had ‘Just a Smack at Auden’: What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend? No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end. Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend, Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end ...

The Partisan Coffee House

Nicholas Faith, 1 June 2017

... Calder, Doris Lessing, Michael Redgrave and Wolf Mankowitz, but also such distinguished figures as William Empson. ‘Events’ were held in the basement where various tendencies including ‘skiffle, trad jazz, performance art and radical politics collided, blending spontaneous giggling with poetry, banjo and washboard’. The sheer scale of the ...

An Outline of Outlines

Graham Hough, 7 May 1981

... maps, full of trends and lines of force but most of the actual place-names missed out. I remember William Empson devising an Outline of Outlines, reduced in the end to a single sentence: ‘Everything is pretty all right because of science.’ Where are they now? Sunk back into the vast ocean of superannuated enlightenment. If we are to find the origins ...

I am a Cretan

Patrick Parrinder, 21 April 1988

On Modern Authority: The Theory and Condition of Writing, 1500 to the Present Day 
by Thomas Docherty.
Harvester, 310 pp., £25, May 1987, 0 7108 1017 2
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The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert 
by Christopher Prendergast.
Cambridge, 288 pp., £27.50, March 1986, 0 521 23789 0
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... The story goes that, on the day when William Empson moved into Magdalene College, Cambridge, to take up a fellowship, his suitcases (as was the custom in those days) were unpacked by one of the college servants. The gyp was so shocked by the contents of Empson’s bags that he decided to report him to the college authorities ...

Kermode and Theory

Hayden White, 11 October 1990

An Appetite for Poetry: Essays in Literary Interpretation 
by Frank Kermode.
Collins, 242 pp., £15, November 1989, 0 00 215388 2
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... Frank Kermode belongs to no sect of literary criticism, and he has founded no school. Like William Empson, whom he praises as a ‘genius’ of criticism, Kermode has always been more interested in a poetic than in a theoretic approach to the study of literature. He thinks that literature itself – rather than theories about it – is our best guide to how to read critically, and he has devoted the better part of a long career to this conviction ...

‘Disgusting’

Frank Kermode: Remembering William Empson, 16 November 2006

William EmpsonVol. II: Against the Christians 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 797 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 19 927660 9
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... In 1940 Empson was back in England, having spent much of the previous decade in Japan and China. His arrival in China had coincided with the Japanese invasion and the resulting southward migration of the National Peking University. He went along, rather enjoyed the hardships of the trek, relying on his excellent memory to teach English with little aid from books ...

Going on the air

Philip French, 2 May 1985

Orwell: The War Broadcasts 
edited by W.J. West.
Duckworth/BBC, 304 pp., £12.95, March 1985, 0 7156 1916 0
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... and BBC contemporaries included Alan Bullock (recipient of a self-righteous Orwell memo), William Empson and John Morris (both of whom wrote elegant memoirs of Orwell at the BBC); he employed Nye Bevan, Richard Acland, J.B.S. Haldane, T.S. Eliot, Quintin Hogg, Bernard Shaw; he led a BBC party, that included Guy Burgess, to a special de-briefing ...

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