William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, not wishing to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity. Christopher Norris comes right out and calls Complex Words ‘a work of deconstruction’. His collection is meant to demonstrate that Empson can be accommodated in modern theory. It can now be shown that he was in many ways anticipating the interests and procedures of a newer criticism, though Norris in his Preface cautiously denies any intention to annex Empson’s criticism to any one prevailing trend: ‘it is a hopeful sign,’ he remarks, ‘that “theory” is coming of age when it manages to find room for a strong but problematical figure like Empson, a critic whose thinking goes so markedly against some of its basic precepts and principles.’
As a rhetorical concession this is prudent and ingenious, but it gives some measure of the size of the task. Norris knows very well what Empson thought of these precepts and principles. He once sent the great man some essays from the new French school, including Derrida’s famous lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, later treated as a manifesto by his American followers. Empson wrote back to say he found all these papers, including the one by Derrida, or ‘Nerrida’ as he preferred to name him, ‘very disgusting’. Norris, or Dorris, as Empson might have called him in his later career as a theorist, laments, not without reason, that his correspondent showed no signs of having understood what he had found disgusting. On the whole the current tendency is to compare and contrast him not with Derrida but with de Man – Norris spends time on this comparison, and Neil Hertz, in the collection reviewed here, has a whole essay about it. One can only imagine what Empson would have said about that, or what names he would have found for these in so many respects unlikely mates. True, Empson and de Man shared a certain hauteur, and a certain iconoclasm, but the political adhesions were different, and so were the critical dialects, one conscientiously bluff, the other rarefied and prone to gallicism.
That Complex Words is what Norris calls it, ‘Empson’s great theoretical summa’, is the view also of his contributors William Righter, Alan Durant and Colin MacCabe, and Jean Lecercle, whose lively piece includes a remark to the effect that the poem ‘Camping Out’ mentions a girlfriend cleaning her teeth into the lake. Empson, so keen on biography, would have liked him to know that this was no girlfriend but a sister.
Norris’s own essay takes up a good third of the whole book and best explains what is going on. There are, as he rightly remarks, more misunderstandings of Empson’s critical positions than is defensible. For example, Empson’s loose association with the American New Critics of long ago has given rise to the notion that he agreed with their anti-intentionalism, although for forty years he went on explaining with increasing force and irritation that the purpose of criticism was to follow the movement of the author’s mind. He saved some of his more brutal insults for W.K. Wimsatt, co-author of a famous article about ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. In the end, I think, this particular bogey distracted him from what he did best, and in Using Biography he seems to have given up movements of mind in favour of fancies and speculations he wouldn’t at earlier dates have thought relevant.
However, you would expect that this strain in his thought, alien not only to the old New Criticism but to the new New Criticism, might give Norris some trouble. He gets out of it by what I take to be a change in his own position, so that theory, now come of age, can henceforth permit some attention to what was intended. Again, it is a congenial consideration that Empson thought that the New Critics adapted his methods in a sneaky way to import Christianity into the argument: indeed, he believed that the decay of criticism was directly due to this intrusion of what Norris calls ‘surrogate or ersatz theology’. This accounts for his habit, sometimes baffling to the agnostic opponent, of condemning criticism he disagreed with as ‘neo-Christian’. The prefix suggests that indignant denials of Christian faith were merely evasive and would do you no good: you could be neo-Christian without being Christian. I think that historically this has something to do with a certain fashion for Christian criticism, and a more general worry about poetry and belief, at the time of Empson’s return from China; this fashion, led by such as C.S. Lewis and practised by such as Fr Martin Jarrett-Kerr, seemed interesting to others, who may thus have seemed, willy-nilly, to be crypto-Christians.
One point of importance in this, as usual good, but as usual digressive, essay concerns Empson’s refusal to distinguish between the truth of poetry and the truth of science. He rejected the ‘pseudo-statement’ theory of his mentor I.A. Richards, and as time went on had many tussles with the problem of figurative language, which often apparently says the thing that is not. He came to think of most contemporary literary criticism as a dreary professional attempt to avoid decisions about truth-statements made in poems. And of course he suspected a Christian plot. Norris is quite right to say that ‘what comes through most strongly is his deep-laid conviction that the best – indeed the only – way to make sense of complex or problematic novels or poems is to read them with a mind unburdened by the self-denying ordinances of modern critical dogma.’ But of course there are other forms of prejudice. Problems arising from arguments about truth and prejudice were to lead to noisy arguments about Donne.
I believe firmly that Empson was a great critic, but have to regard as wasteful his advocacy, over many years, of an eccentric view of Donne. To understand that view, here documented in full and supported by John Haffenden’s conscientious and adulatory commentary, one point at least is essential. Empson found it all but impossible to believe that any intelligent and honest person could be a Christian. A lot of his work is devoted to showing that even writers who would have been amazed to hear it nevertheless did at some level of sensibility or intellect see through the horrors of the Christian religion; Milton is the most obvious example (Milton’s God, 1961), but the very devout Herbert is another.
Donne he had early taken as his model, regarding him, he says, with awe and love, and trying to write poems like his. That Donne became a famous parson was not too grave a problem, since he took orders against his will, because no other way of making a living was open to him; he wrote most of his poetry, and all of his erotic poetry, before he did so. (Empson doesn’t show much interest in the sermons and devotional writings.) He cannot have accepted such absurd doctrines as the Trinity, and such horrible notions as Atonement, or believed in a religion that permitted you to torture your theological adversaries and burn them alive.
A minor instance of Empson’s reflex of disgust at Christian thinking comes up in Norris’s introduction, worth mentioning only because it shows how that reflex could block understanding. I had remarked, in a book he reviewed, that in Mark 4.11-12, a famous crux, Jesus is plainly reported as saying that he uses parables to ensure that the people will miss his point: in order that ‘hearing they may hear, and not understand’. Empson professed to think that I, in his peculiar view a palpable neo-Christian, was reverently offering this as a piece of divine wisdom; as Norris puts it, he ‘was quick to discern the hints of a quasi-theological dimension’. My supposed misrepresentation was dismissed by Empson in the interests of ‘a forthright appeal to common sense’. Norris applauds Empson for what in any lesser figure would be dismissed as a mere failure of attention.
Critics who disagreed with Empson about Donne got specially harsh treatment. The poet came from a devout Catholic family which was all too familiar with the penalties of recusancy; and it cannot be denied that he was very well read in theology, which Empson regarded as double-talk, a means of hiding from good men the insane wickedness of the God they were obliged, under state penalties, to worship. So no one will say that Donne was indifferent to religion. However, it can be maintained that he saw through Christianity and made up a religion of his own, the tenets of which can be reconstructed from some clues in the poems, and involve the idea of woman as a rival and superior Logos. This religion of love transcended Christianity, and was very modern in that it (more or less secretly) accepted the doctrine of plurality of worlds and the possibility of life on other planets: so it depended heavily on the New Philosophy of the time. Empson believed that Donne imagined lovers rejoicing in a liberty unknown under the political circumstances of the time, but available in America, and conceivably on some inhabitable planet in the newly opened-up universe.
Though nobody had taken quite this line before, Donne and the New Philosophy has long been a stock literary-history problem. Empson went carefully into the question of Elizabethan Copernicanism. In 1576 Thomas Digges published a book by his father with an addition accepting Copernicus; it was often reprinted, though without alteration or further addition. Since Digges went on doing advanced astronomy, Empson took this continual reprinting of an unchanged text as evidence of censorship. This is possible, though merely conjecture. But in any case it is probable that a well-connected young man, with an immoderate thirst for learning, would know quite a bit about Digges, and about the novae which, after 1572, upset the traditional idea of the incorruptible heavens. Moreover, Giordano Bruno, the main proponent of the idea that there were other inhabited planets (which gave rise to awkward theological problems, especially concerning Incarnation and Redemption), had made a stir in England. He was well known, for example to Sidney, and doubtless to London groups of freethinkers, like those around Ralegh and the ‘wizard’ Earl of Northumberland.
Haffenden talks about the ‘School of Night’, dominated by such figures as Thomas Harriot, magician and atheist. The School of Night is conjectured to have been an organisation devoted to this kind of modern study; here it is offered as undoubted historical fact. The term derives from a dubious reading in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and good authorities treat it sceptically. Haffenden says nothing of this in his text, consigning evidence against it to the backnotes. But even if there was no group called the School of Night there were certainly people who behaved as its members are thought by some to have done. Harriot had a special reputation as the original thinker; not much is known about his thought, but one has a rough idea of the kind of thing he would go in for. At that time the patterns of learning were not as they later became, and an interest in scientific cosmology was perfectly consistent with astrology, alchemy, skrying and magic in general. Marlowe, it was reported, thought Harriot a better magician than Moses.
Empson, wanting to make Donne as like himself as possible, argues that he would have been very interested indeed in the work of these groups, though he seems to take little account of their interests other than in the new astronomy. The great mage John Dee, a central figure, was a scholar and had one of the great libraries of the age; he was famous not only for editing Euclid but for extraordinary feats of magic, alchemy and fortune-telling. So one ought not to think of these people simply as intellectual revolutionaries dedicated to the advancement of modern science in its early phase. And Donne’s poetry uses far more alchemy, angelology and scholastic philosophy then it does up-to-date astronomy. He would be aware that there were exciting new ideas around, but that would not be a reason to give up all the old and more familiar ones, and on any unembattled view he was far from doing so.
In this respect Donne’s position is indeed somewhat like the young Empson’s. The study of Donne in the Twenties was conditioned by the mistaken idea that he strongly resembled the Symbolist poets, an idea given up when, with the help of Grierson’s edition, people perceived that the poems, although difficult because of their extraordinary intellectual ingenuity, normally had perfectly clear arguments one could follow if one could come to terms with the unfamiliar allusions. These, as I say, were more often to scholastic philosophy, angelology and indeed the old Ptolemaic cosmology than to Copernicus. When Donne talks about spheres he is quite naturally thinking of the Ptolemaic ones, one to each planet including the moon, with the earth at the centre; round these spheres an angel or intelligence drove the planet, rather, as the contemptuous Scaliger was later to remark, like horses in a pound. This sense of ‘sphere’ was not altogether suitable for Empson’s argument, so he had to insist that Donne also habitually used it to mean ‘planet’.
Empson badly wanted to keep hold of the belief of his youth – that the ideas of the New Philosophy were central to Donne’s poetry – and this book contains repeated affirmations of that belief. I have to say that, however ingenious and entertaining the arguments, nothing here persuades me to alter the opinion tersely expressed and supported by citation in 1951 by J.C. Maxwell, a scholar whose name is absent from the index of Haffenden’s collection: namely, that the impact on Donne of New Philosophy has been much exaggerated. At a time of worrying cultural crisis, Donne was needed to represent an earlier worrying cultural crisis – the earth was no longer at the centre of the creation, there was a general ferment of religious and philosophical ideas, and so on. The truth seems to be that Donne was interested in Copernican theory exactly as he was interested in other forms of learning: exciting as they may have been, there were considerations that limited their force. In ‘The Second Anniversary’ he gives a list of baffling intellectual problems and closes it with a dismissive couplet:
In heaven thou straight know’st all concerning it,
And what concerns it not shall straight forget.
Empson abhorred the notion that somebody could be quite passionately interested in learning, yet at the same time remain somehow uncommitted to it. And well he might be, for it is an old Christian idea, and Donne had a severe Christian education. The sin of curiositas was a desire for human learning strong enough to impair performance of the higher duty of saving one’s soul. It was possible for very learned men such as Augustine and Milton to condemn it; and it was sometimes stated in very repressive forms, as indeed it is in Paradise Regained. That Donne should have such an opinion even in a mild form was unacceptable to Empson because he would feel contempt for anybody who held it. So he fights throughout for a Donne who was not only profoundly interested in all this new science, but gave it his real assent and even used it as the foundation of a new religion to supplant disgusting Christianity.
Haffenden backs him up loyally whenever he can, saying, for instance, that Donne might have known Kepler’s Somnium long before it was published in Prague, because Kepler corresponded with Harriot and Donne may have known Harriot; the possibility is admittedly slight, especially since nobody outside Prague, according to Kepler himself, saw the Somnium until 1611, a year after Donne’s skit Ignatius his Conclave, which could otherwise have been indebted to it ... Oh well, says Haffenden, ‘it is not unimaginable that Kepler got the date wrong.’ This is a way of introducing supporting evidence even when you know it to be false, a practice now common in our courts of justice but still not admirable. There is more of this kind of ‘not impossible’ argument. It is even suggested that when Donne wrote the Conclave he might well have included an allusion to Bruno’s De Immenso; as it isn’t there now he must have discreetly crossed it out later.
The real point is not, I think, affected by arguments as to whether Donne knew or read this author or that. It is to decide how, if he knew quite a bit about these matters, which is plausible, he responded to them. One answer is that they mostly got into his poems as witty and conceited arguments or illustrations, demonstrating the same degree of commitment as his repeated allusions to the conduct of angels and alchemists. Haffenden, taking his tone from the master, would condemn this position as an instance of ‘superficialism’ – or worse, as implying that Donne was a liar. This is a curious objection. Empson, in his poetry, was often himself given to conceits and to a wide range of allusions which are not to be taken as simple statements of truth (‘All those large dreams by which men long live well/Are magic-lanterned on the smoke of hell’).
This difficulty about belief and figuration in poetry is central to the problems posed in this book; it is as if Empson, with Haffenden in attendance, had devised a special philosophy of rhetoric for this poet, the favourite of his youth. To make it clearer how this arrangement affects the reading of the poems I had better give a sample or two, explaining first that Empson, who hated what Helen Gardner made of the texts, and often attacked her with asperity and justice, also wanted readings that suited his view of the matter best, just as he rightly says she did. The quarrel extends to many poems, but I must select, and the best place to begin is probably the Elegy ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’, disagreement about which caused Empson to be remarkably nasty to not one but two Merton Professors, Helen Gardner and John Carey.
The poem is an impatiently erotic series of exhortations to a woman to hurry up and undress:
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing ...
License my roving hands and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land ...
The textual difficulty comes near the end, when he is talking about the last garment:
cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
Such is the version in the belated first printing of the poem in 1669; the poem had been omitted in the edition of 1633, presumably on moral grounds. There is manuscript authority for a different reading: ‘There is no penance due to innocence.’
Empson wants this to be the true version; the poem is saying that there is no guilt in sex, that the woman represents freedom, like America; he also compares her to an angel, and a good angel; bad ones ‘set our hairs, but these the flesh upright’. Moreover he says, in a theological figure, that women are the source of grace to the elect. In short, he could not have written a line saying the woman wasn’t innocent. Empson supposed it had been altered, at first carelessly, by somebody who substituted ‘much less’ for ‘due to’, whereupon somebody else changed ‘Here’ to ‘There’, to make sense. The reading given by Helen Gardner he can’t accept, since it is out of key with the rest, which can be fitted into Empson’s general view that the young Donne was serious about sex; in any case it would be a blunder for the lover in these circumstances to tell the girl she wasn’t innocent, while on the whole claiming that in going to bed with him she would indeed be behaving very correctly. Critics who favour the Gardner reading, he thought, are likely to be the sort that deplore young people doing such things.
In short, Empson needs the manuscript version. He could be right, though it is not very likely. This is, for all its undoubted erotic force, an odd poem; as Barbara Everett once pointed out, it might be thought a record of failure, since the only participant who is undressed at the end of the poem is the man (‘To teach thee I am naked first’). What Empsom seems to have left out of consideration is that there is quite a lot of Donne that takes a Juanish view of women; for instance, the question of what women are to be loved for is taken up in a witty, macho way in the next elegy’, ‘Love’s Progress’. Since virtue is specifically named among the qualities for which we are told they should not be loved, we can be sure innocence was not, in the warmth of pursuit, thought essential or relevant. ‘Innocence’ might well be read as an ironic citation from the lexicon of conventional attitudes to sex; as in ‘The Dream’, ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ are said to have no place in the play of love.
My point is simple. One could reasonably prefer the reading Empson hates without having any of the reasons for doing so that he always angrily alleges. But he really needed his enemies, and enjoyed working hard to catch them out. One consequence is much textual quibbling, for instance, in his studies of ‘A Valediction: of weeping’. All will agree that it is a superb poem:
Let me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
And by this mintage they are something worth,
For thus they be
Pregnant of thee;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.
On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All,
So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mixed with mine do overflow
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
Weep me not dead in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea what it may do too soon;
Let not the wind
To do me more harm than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
Who e’er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other’s death.*
The opening seems straightforward, but the first edition says ‘falst’ instead of ‘falls’. Grierson preferred ‘falst’ and so does Empson, who says the variant ‘raises large issues’. If the correct version is ‘falls’ the line means ‘that image of you that is on the tear falls with it’. In the last couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, you make a bad mistake it you take ‘she’ to be the subject of ‘belied’ rather than a word for ‘woman’:
And yet by heaven I swear my love is fair
As any she belied with false compare.
In rather a similar way it might be thought that some copyist mistakenly wrote ‘falst’ because he thought ‘thou’ was a pronoun subject, not a noun. Empson will have none of this, regarding ‘falls’ as dull, perverse and pedantic: ‘She’ – Gardner – ‘is doing what Theobald did to Shakespeare, altering the text to make a duller and simpler kind of poetry’. ‘Falst’ has the backing of Grierson in the original Oxford edition, though his gloss seems to me rather to fit ‘falls’: ‘as your image perishes in each tear that falls’. However, Empson argues that ‘falst’ is essential to the idea that the lady has a ‘real presence’ in her reflection. I cannot see why you couldn’t believe that while reading ‘falls’, thus avoiding not pedantry or harshness but nonsense. Empson sometimes gets himself into cantankerous fights without necessity; here his argument is as obscure as it is contemptuous.
One final instance: ‘The Dream’. Here the poet is dreaming about his mistress when she arrives and wakes him. She joins him in bed and later, to his regret, leaves, presumably out of caution. He consoles himself with the thought that she will return. Empson scolds Gardner for printing
Thou art so true, that thoughts of thee suffice
To make dreams truth ...
when the first edition has ‘thou art so truth ... to make dreams truths’, and Empson wants this. Here I agree entirely: the reading has good authority and is much more striking. John Carey and Gardner, I also agree, got this poem as a whole wrong, and are chid for it, but so does Haffenden, when he says the lover chides himself as ‘weak’; what he says is that ‘love is weak’ if it takes any notice of fear, shame or honour.
Empson is right about ‘so truth’, and about two other disputed readings in this beautiful text; but he feels obliged to argue that getting them and the poem right depends on our understanding that the lady is really God or rather better than God. At first the man thought his visitor was an angel, but then realised she couldn’t be, for she has read his mind and angels, unlike God, are not empowered to do that. So
I do confess I could not choose but be
Profane, to think thee anything but thee.
So, concludes Empson, she must be God, or his superior. But this hardly seems a necessary conclusion: the lover is saying that it would be profane to think her God, so he must settle for her being just her. An alternative reading is: ‘I do confess, it could not choose but be/Profaneness to think thee anything but thee.’ Rather remarkably, Empson likes this; and here, having been right about the drift of the poem, he is wrong on a detail because he wants support for his theory about a new religion. He thinks Donne changed the original reading because he ‘got cold feet’, and says that on purely textual grounds ‘it ... profaneness’ has more authority. The textual argument is very involved, and Empson went into it pretty thoroughly when attacking Gardner’s edition; but he could not have claimed that his textual choices were not, like hers, influenced by their coming to the poems with a set of prior assumptions about them and their author.
The battle is fought through these pages, and in very fine detail, but the conclusion has, I think, to be that following one’s nose – a practice Empson recommends for critics – can occasionally cheat one into following false scents. It remains impressive that one true poet should so wish to identify with a predecessor, should wish to credit him with the attitudes the newcomer finds most admirable, and wherever possible to clear him of all moral and intellectual blame, even if it means that less important commentators will sometimes be traduced. All Empson’s writings about Donne are labours of love, and have their own inwardness. Not many professional critics nowadays love poets in this manner. Empson’s new admirers do not love him for loving a poet, only for having had the prescience or luck to anticipate some of their theories. For on the whole it is for the theoretical elements of Complex Words, rather than the individual and devoted study of complex words in poems, that they seek, according to their lights and without necessity, to rescue Empson from critical oblivion.