My mother taught me to read in the summer of 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, when I was turning three. Time lay on her hands: my father, a major in the Territorials, was away in Palestine, battling Irgun and the Stern Gang in the latter days of the British Mandate, and wasn’t due to be demobilised from the army until the end of the year; and I was a pushover for her deck of home-made flash cards and a game I found more fun than our previous sessions of Animal Snap. In the cluttered, narrow-windowed living-room of our house in the village of Hempton Green in Norfolk, my mother and I progressed from letters to words to sentences, stopping the game at intervals to listen to the BBC news crackling from the wireless, its fretwork grill sawn to represent an inappropriately Japanese-style rising sun. By the time we reached sentences, and the cards had given way to headlines from the day’s Times, Japan had surrendered to the Allies, and the wireless was reporting that our troops in the Far East were fighting ‘pockets of gorillas’ – an idea that excited me much more than anything in my father’s letters home from Transjordan. Gorilla warfare was something that any three-year-old could warm to in his imagination: I sought out coloured pictures of gorillas to feed my understanding of the conflict, and it was years before I realised that I was the victim of a deceiving homophone – an early case of the linguistic misunderstanding to which I’ve been prone all my life.
I squandered my mother’s gift to me of so much time and patience. I was proud of my new skill, which I showed off to anyone who’d listen: my grandmother, an indulgent aunt, an illiterate woman called Mrs Atherton who was my mother’s ‘daily’, and, most unwisely, to my few contemporaries in the village, who beat me up for my intolerable conceit. But the capacity to read brought with it no corresponding advance in intellectual curiosity. I rested lazily on my laurels, taking as long as anyone else of my age to venture beyond the conventional diet of Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and the Famous Five. By the early 1950s, I was tearing at speed through the middlebrow bestsellers of the time: John Creasey, Nevil Shute, the wartime adventures of British officers who’d escaped, or tried to escape, from German POW camps, like The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story, along with a stream of books about fishing. The nearest I came to reading ‘literature’ for pleasure, aside from an early passion for Huckleberry Finn, was my discovery, at 11 or 12, of H.E. Bates, whose Fair Stood the Wind for France, The Jacaranda Tree and Love for Lydia seemed to me unsurpassably fine in their emotional eloquence and the transporting power of their natural descriptions. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine the existence of a greater novelist than Bates.
In adolescence, my reading predictably widened in its range, but it hardly deepened. Joyce, Hardy, Dickens, Camus, George Eliot, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, D.H. Lawrence, Scott Fitzgerald, Keats, Byron, Auden, Pound, T.S. Eliot … At 16 I was a chain-reader, on a steady three library books a day when not in school, but my style of reading remained much as it was in my Enid Blyton period. I sucked and sucked at books for the juice of vicarious experience they contained, and as soon as they were finished, I discarded them like squeezed-out grapefruit skins. In the course of 24 hours, I might be Nick Adams, Paul Morel, and sitting in one of the dives on 52nd Street, uncertain and afraid, as the clever hopes expired of a low dishonest decade; but these were less acts of serious reading than experiments in identity, made by somebody who very much feared that he lacked an identity of his own and hoped that he might find a suitable off-the-peg identity in a book.
As it turned out, I eventually found one on a bus – a green double-decker owned by the Hants and Dorset company. On my first summer vacation from university, in 1961, I got a temporary job as a conductor, ringing the bell and issuing tickets on various routes through the New Forest between Bournemouth and Southampton. I was kitted out with a serge uniform, to which age had given a bluebottle sheen, a heavy silver ticket machine to wear around my neck and a blackened leather satchel to hold small change: halfpennies, pennies, threepenny bits, sixpences, shillings and half-crowns.
Except in the early mornings and late afternoons, business was generally slow. Often, I was second in command of an empty bus, sprawled on the triple back seat, with ample time to read. My favourite run was the 2 p.m. back-country route from Lymington to Southampton, by way of East End, East Boldre, Beaulieu, Dibden Purlieu, Hythe, Marchwood, Eling and Millbrook, on which the only passengers might be two or three elderly women from Lymington and a couple of Gypsies from an encampment near Hatchet Gate. The jolting bus ambled along the B-roads, resting at intervals at deserted stops, and made a sleepy epic of the round trip, which was little more than 40 miles. I begrudged even the very few passengers we picked up on these slow trawls through the Hampshire countryside, because they interrupted my reading of Seven Types of Ambiguity, in its blue-barred Peregrine paperback edition, which lived for weeks inside the leather satchel, becoming steadily more grimy from the stash of greasily fingered old coins whose company it kept.
The book was a revelation to me. It made me learn to read all over again. Looking at the book now still brings back the old-bus smell of cigarettes, fish and chips, sweat, Polo mints and ineffectual disinfectant, and the excitement with which I first heard Empson’s voice speaking from the page. It was a voice utterly unlike that of any of the literary critics whom I’d begun to read in my first year as an English undergraduate (F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights, A.C. Bradley, E.M.W. Tillyard): plain-spoken, peppery, disputatious; now talking in cheerful, offhand slang, now rising to lyrical and unforgettable descriptions of the passages he most admired. In almost every paragraph, there was a joke or an arresting surprise.
Briskly disposing of the woolly idea of poetry as the beauty of Pure Sound, Empson made me giggle when he quoted Virgil’s line in the sixth book of the Aeneid, ‘Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore,’ as ‘the stock line to try on the dog’, but went on to make a subtle analysis of its sound, before dismissing the general theory as bunkum.The line, he wrote,
is beautiful because ulterioris, the word of their banishment, is long, and so shows that they have been waiting a long time; and because the repeated vowel-sound (itself the moan of helpless sorrow) in oris amore connects the two words as if of their own natures, and makes desire belong necessarily to the unattainable. This I think quite true, but it is no use deducing from it Tennyson’s simple and laborious cult of onomatopoeia.
In territory more familiar to me than Latin poetry, Empson brought his inspired common sense to bear on poems that I knew by heart, yet had never properly read. Keats’s ‘No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist …’ took on a startling new life when Empson gruffly pointed out that it ‘tells you that somebody, or some force in the poet’s mind, must have wanted to go to Lethe very much, if it took four negatives in the first line to stop them’. Of course! It was obvious – but it took Empson to bring the obvious to light.
In what has become the single most famous passage in Seven Types of Ambiguity, he anatomised the fourth line of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet, which begins:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Of the comparison between the lover in the autumn of his life and those bare ruined choirs, Empson wrote that ‘There is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling.’
Because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choirboys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the Protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of Puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.
The temporary bus conductor read this paragraph over and over again, ravished by its intelligence and simplicity. Of course! again. After all, Shakespeare was born in 1564, barely 20 years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, whose fresh ruins were scattered around the landscape, as raw and brutal as the bombsites of my own childhood. The totalitarian vandalism of the mad king, as he tried to erase Catholicism from the land, was in plain view, and echoes of the sweet birds’ singing still remained in the ears of the elderly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnet. The jostle of meanings that Empson exposed in the line made me giddy with a sense of extraordinary discovery: not only of the deeper implications of Sonnet 73, but of what reading, real reading, might be if one could only learn how. If a new passenger got on the bus then, I doubt that I gave her a chance to pay for her ticket.
The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.
The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.
Beneath the clean line of type on the page lay the muddy depths of the living and changing language, a world of stubborn historic associations, swarming puns, suggestive likenesses and connections (as between trees and carved choir stalls), meanings that were in a continuous process of evolution and decay, sometimes enriching the word in print, but as often subverting it. (Spare a thought for Coleridge when he wrote the line ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing’. In 1797, he wasn’t to know that shortly after his death pants would become an abbreviated version of pantaloons, and by 1880 a word for men’s drawers.)
Empson’s preternaturally sensitive ear and eye for the deepwater workings of the language enabled him to share with his readers a myriad subtleties, shades of meaning, richnesses, in lines they might otherwise have skated over. He was equally alert to the way in which language so often betrays the writer, revealing what is really at the back of the writer’s mind when he tries to assert its opposite. (In Some Versions of Pastoral, he unmasked the complacent and reactionary political conservatism that lies just beneath the surface of Gray’s ‘Elegy’, and in Milton’s God he demonstrated how, in the course of writing Paradise Lost, Milton came to detest the God whose ways he was devoutly trying to justify to Man.)
Seven Types made it clear that my supposed skill at reading had never progressed much beyond primary school level. Embarrassment mixed with wonder when I faced up to the fact that Empson’s astounding book had been written when he was 22, and had begun as an undergraduate essay, written for his Cambridge supervisor, I.A. Richards.
Cats may look at kings. It was certainly possible to learn from Empson (‘Kill Your Speed,’ as the traffic signs say). But it would be fatal to make any attempt to mimic his precocious scholarship, his eccentric brilliance, or his quirky and quick-witted, table-talking prose style. After my Empson summer on the buses, my reading measurably improved, with my own fortnightly essays no longer coming back with the Betas, plus and minus, that had been standard in my first year. Had I been at all religious, I might have lit candles in Empson’s honour (something that would have greatly annoyed him, for he was a militant atheist). Since then, I’ve made a living out of reading, one way or another. For reading, of the kind that Empson preached and practised, doesn’t stop at books, but makes the larger world legible.
Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it – and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever. Later over-writing has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer of scribble is already being partially effaced by fresh ink. From the embanked, bullet-path road through the valley, relic of Roman occupation, to the new 50-turbine windfarm on the hill, every feature of the landscape belongs to an identifiable phase of sensibility, politics and language.
We’re somewhere in southern England, on the same hill as the windfarm. In the far distance is the grey smudge of a cathedral city whose housing developments have spread untidily beyond its 1960s ring-road, and whose office parks contain dozens of small companies in the ‘knowledge-based industries’. The course of a narrow, crooked river, marked by a double line of trees, diagonally connects the city to the village at the foot of the hill. This village lost its post office in the 1990s, and its only surviving commercial enterprise, beside the pub and the shop selling ‘gifts and country antiques’, is a Shell station mini-supermarket. Old farm workers’ cottages, built from the nearest and cheapest materials to hand – rocks, pieces of old timber, plaster made from mud – and roofed with bundles of wheatstraw or reeds from the local swamp, have long been prized as weekenders’ second homes. The weekenders, who dearly love ancient brick windmills with skeletal sails, but not their modern descendants, mounted the Stop the Turbines campaign of 2001, and continue to grouse vengefully over their defeat. Sixty or so permanent residents live on ‘the estate’ of semi-detached council houses, which is itself semi-detached from the village, on the main road. The 15th-century church gets half a page to itself in Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, but has been locked against vandals for years, though a communion service, spoken, not sung, is held there on the fourth Sunday of every month, and it’s still used for weddings and funerals (after which the corpses are transported by undertaker-led motorcades to the crematorium on the city’s edge).
Between the village and the city are fields, vastly enlarged since mechanised farming came in after the Second World War, mostly arable (wheat, barley, oilseed rape), with one big dairy farm, a member of an organic milk co-operative that is under contract to Dairy Crest PLC. The redundant farmhouses, stripped of all their surrounding land except pony-sized paddocks, are owned by commuters. The tree-shrouded Georgian hall in the middle distance is now a combined hotel, restaurant, golf club and health spa. Twin lines of pylons, erected in the 1930s, carry high-voltage cables across the landscape, and were a flight hazard when the wartime airfield, used by the US Army Air Forces, was working. After the airfield was decommissioned, its runway drainage systems left it too barren for agriculture; following a brief period as a refugee camp, it became a motor-racing circuit, then a road-haulage vehicle maintenance centre, and is now in the early stages of deciduous broadleaf afforestation.
These are just a few of the changes to the landscape on which the ink is still drying, on the uppermost layer of the palimpsest. Beneath them, the ink colour alters slowly from blue or black to sepia, and the handwriting to copperplate, then italic, then Gothic black-letter, as it registers how use and ownership of this stretch of land has been continuously contested. The windfarm dispute, in which the quarrel spread to include the district council, a multinational power company, a farm corporation, the Ministry of Defence, English Nature, the National Farmers’ Union and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, echoed, in a minor key, the great battles of the past: from the hopeless fight put up by landless peasant farmers against landowners at the time of the enclosure acts, to the long war between the church, the crown, the landed aristocracy and the wool merchants. In our collective rural nostalgia, we like to think of the countryside as settled and placid, not as the scene of perpetual conflict involving class, power and money, but there’s hardly a feature of any real landscape that doesn’t stand for somebody’s triumph, concession or defeat.
Landscape historians can read the palimpsest more skilfully than me, but to begin to see it like this is to go some way towards rescuing oneself from the brain-curdling effects of degraded late Romanticism, which still shapes the way most of us instinctively think about landscape and place. In Britain, it’s led to the cult of the antique-picturesque, in the United States to the parallel cult of ‘pristine’ wilderness. Devotees of both practise a highly selective, self-induced blindness, cancelling from their view, and all claims to their sympathy, everything that intrudes on their preconceived pictures of how landscape ought to be. This sort of mental bulldozing tends to bring real bulldozing in its wake, in fits of Cromwellian zeal to erase from the land whatever offends the eye and taste of the temporary beholder. Better by far to learn to value the landscape, as a reader, for its long accumulation of contradictions and ambiguities – an accumulation to which we’re constantly adding by our presence here.
I moved from London to Seattle on impulse, for casual and disreputable reasons. I met someone … the usual story. A writer’s working life is dangerously easy to transport from one place to another, and in 1990 I thought that possession of a fax machine would be enough to bridge the inconvenient distance between the two cities. As for anxiety about displacement and culture shock, I had none: I cockily thought America was my oyster. I’d taught its literature at two British universities, and was about to begin the last chapter of my second book of American travels. I confidently began to make myself at home in my new surroundings in the only way I knew how, by reading them. More than a year went by before it began to dawn on me that I was floundering out of my depth.
The first time I went sailing on Puget Sound, with a copy of Vancouver’s account of his 1792 voyage through these parts open, face-down, on the cockpit seat, I was taking in the landscape of low, built-over hills, rising fir forest and mountains white with glacial ice and snow in June, when I glanced at the electronic depth sounder. It showed a steady 11 feet of water, though we were more than a mile from the shore and I’d seen no shallows when I’d checked our course against the chart. I immediately brought the boat’s head through the wind, sails clattering, and started to sail back in the direction from which we’d come. From 11 feet, the digital read-out on the depth sounder went to 10, 9.6, and abruptly down to 6 – giving us just 18 inches of clearance between the keel and the sea floor. Starting to panic, I grabbed the chart and guessed at our most likely position, a patch of white paper (a reassuring sign, since shallows are coloured blue or tan) marked with three-figure numbers: 114, 125, 103 … Fathoms, not feet. The water beneath the boat was as deep as it is at the abrupt cliff-edge of the Continental Shelf.
The depth sounder was lost. Programmed to read accurately down to 50 fathoms, or 300 feet, it was hunting for the bottom, and, finding none, was seizing on false echoes and familiarities – drifting kelp fronds? shoaling salmon? plankton? – in a vain effort to regain its footing in the world and make itself at home again.
Its owner was doing the same. On one level, my new city and its hinterland felt deceptively homely. Their similar latitude gave them the angular light and lingering evenings I was used to. Their damp marine weather, blowing in from the south-west, came from the right direction. When the mountains are hidden under a low sky, one might almost imagine oneself to be in Britain.
At first glance, too, the palimpsest appeared to be a lot more easily legible, with many fewer layers of script running at cross-purposes to one another. The first white settlers had arrived here in 1851, and were of the same generation as my great-great-grandfather. Between Henry Yesler, who showed up in 1852 and saw the fortune to be made from cutting down the stands of gigantic Douglas firs on the neighbouring hills and feeding them to his steam mill, and the founders of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon, lay a stretch of time little longer than one old person’s range of memory. There must have been people around in 1960 who could remember Yesler (d. 1892) from their teens and had bounced the infant Bill Gates (b. 1955) on their arthritic knees. After living here for 20 years, I’ve already experienced at first hand one eighth of Seattle’s history since the whites drove the Indians from their tribal land and forced them into a reservation on the far side of Puget Sound.
What I saw on arrival was a disorderly free-for-all: tract housing and industrial parks swarming over farmland, farms established on logged-over forest, loggers shaving mountainsides bare of trees, dead and dying mill towns, environmental organisations litigating to save what was left of nature and, everywhere, barbed-wire fences marking out the fronts between the contending armies. The mounting acrimony between the city and its rural hinterland was coming to the boil, as urban-based conservation groups like the Sierra Club and liberal city and county governments confronted the newly formed Wise Use coalition of free-marketeers, property owners, timber and mining interests, farmers and the construction industries.
I’m still a trespasser on this battlefield of old resentments and fresh indignations, whose inequities glare more obviously than they do from any landscape I can think of in Western Europe. It’s a hard place in which to feel at home. From its designated ‘wilderness areas’ (themselves the result of much human ingenuity, conflict, legislation and policing, and so not wilderness at all, but cultural artefacts) to the latest crop of shopping malls and condo blocks, newly sprouting from behind screens of trees, it feels provisional and volatile, as if its entire character might drastically alter with the next shift in the political or economic wind.
For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. The word nature, for instance, means something different here – so do community, class, friend, tradition, home (think of the implications beneath the surface of the peculiarly American phrase ‘He makes his home in …’). These I’ve learned to recognise, but the longer I stay here the more conscious I am of nuances to which I must still remain deaf. The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French, but in this case the words are identical in form and so the difference is largely lost to sight.
Reading an American novel, I can usually persuade myself that I’m a native speaker of the language in which it’s written. But reading a western landscape, or an American political campaign, I hanker for a dictionary that would explain the difference between nature and nature, home and home, and chart their separate paths of evolution from their common roots. Talking with Americans, I still battle with the static interference, as on a bad long-distance line, caused by the build-up of slight differences of definition and assumption between our two national vocabularies. My grasp of American is a thousand times better than my lousy French, but there are moments over dinner in Seattle that remind me of trying to follow street directions offered by a voluble stranger in a Calais bar-tabac.
Still, it’s always the business of the patient reader to learn to live in a language not – or not quite – his own. Empson made himself extraordinarily fluent in 17th-century English by immersing himself in controversies – social, political and theological – that had long been lost to view, and by digging deep into the private lives of writers who excited him, like Donne, Marvell and Milton. His visits to England in the 1600s were made not in the spirit of conventional historical or literary scholarship but as a fierce partisan. He took sides. He relished battles. In a tribute to I.A. Richards, he wrote that ‘the main purpose of reading imaginative literature is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own.’ He treated the writing of the past as a foreign country – as foreign in its way as Japan or China, where he taught in the 1930s and 1940s. He established himself as a model traveller, acquiring the local dialect, adapting himself to the local codes and customs, and returned with fresh and invigorating news of a world three hundred years distant from his own (as in ‘Donne the Space Man’, his great 1957 essay on Donne, Renaissance cosmology, Giordano Bruno, spheres, life on distant planets, Anglican theology and much else).
In 1971, ten years after first reading Seven Types, I met Empson in London. He’d recently retired from his chair at the University of Sheffield and was living with his wife, Hetta, at Studio House, Hampstead Hill Gardens – in a set-up described by Robert Lowell as a ‘household [that] had a weird, sordid nobility that made other Englishmen seem like a veneer’. Empson’s idea of making lunch was to place an assortment of unpunctured cans of Chinese vegetables on the gas cooker, where they tended to explode. Ancient rashers of fried bacon served as bookmarks in his disintegrating copy of Marvell’s Collected Poems. He stirred his tea with the sole remaining earpiece of his glasses. After an alarming lunch, he and I would set off in my car to raid the Wallace Collection, the Sir John Soane Museum, or some unsuspecting country house in Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire, where he had found out that a family portrait of an ancestor, distantly connected with Marvell, hung on the walls. Doorstepping a secluded mansion, deep in its landscaped park, at the end of a long and gated drive, Empson displayed an imperious persistence, refused to take no for an answer, and forced his way inside past nonplussed butlers and feebly protesting dowagers. I delighted in the disquiet that he gave such people. During the time I knew him, his silver moustache varied in cut from Fu Manchu to Colonel Blimp; he was, always, legendarily scruffy, but his commanding, high-pitched voice announced his lapsed membership of the landowning classes, and the dowager and butler were clearly uncertain as to whether they were confronting Lord Emsworth in his cups, or an unusually determined Kleeneze brush salesman.
At this time, he was engaged in a campaign to prove that, late in his life, Marvell had married his London landlady, Mary Palmer. This was a question that has interested nobody very much, before or since. But it greatly concerned Empson, who needed to know the full character of the author of ‘The Garden’ and ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’: not knowing would be to leave Marvell’s moral identity in a state of ambiguous incompletion, and Empson meant to get to the bottom of the matter. Delving into the knotted tangle of Marvell’s legal, sexual and financial affairs in the 1670s – and freely speculating and imagining whenever documentary evidence was lacking – Empson was simply continuing his reading of the poems into a larger reading of the man, the times and the language in which Marvell lived and spoke. He was the best close reader of literature alive, but his definition of ‘reading’ was infinitely more generous and catholic than that of the New Critics who were his immediate contemporaries.
Twenty-five years after his death, he remains a touchstone figure, whose example taunts and teases. Faced with an unfamiliar stretch of countryside, or the language of a political campaign, as with a painting, a movie, or a book for review, I still wonder ‘How would Empson have read this?’ and try to guess – admittedly to no great effect – at how much he might have uncovered in it.