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William Empson

(1906—1984) poet and literary critic

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Britishliterary critic, often regarded as one of the greatest of his generation, and poet. A keen and intuitive exponent of ‘close reading’, Empson is often associated with New Criticism and Practical Criticism, but despite certain family resemblances his work differs from those schools in important ways. Perhaps most importantly, Empson always emphasized the importance of both the author's biography and historical context in understanding literature, two things the New Critics and Practical Critics assiduously avoided.

He was born in Yorkshire into a family of well-off intellectuals. At the age of 7 he won a scholarship to Winchester College, where he excelled in spite of the school's famous emphasis on sports and rugged discipline. From there he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship to Magdalene College at Cambridge, where he took a double first in Mathematics and English, graduating in 1929. His director of studies in English was I. A. Richards, who recognized his genius and encouraged him to pursue his studies in that field. Legend has it that Empson wrote his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) as undergraduate essays for Richards. It was an immediate and substantial success; it not only sold well, it was received warmly by the doyens of literary criticism is the UK and US, T. S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom respectively, and quickly became required reading for university students.

In spite of his success, Empson's career faltered at this point. Condoms were found in his rooms by a servant and worse still so was a young woman. The University's reaction was swift and harsh. Empson was not only excluded from the university, he was forbidden to live in Cambridge. This prevented him from obtaining either an MA or PhD there. He moved to London, briefly, making a living with freelance writing and editing, then took a three-year post teaching English in Tokyo. There he acquired an interest in Noh theatre, becoming expert enough to write a book on it, which sadly was lost on his return to London in 1934. He remained in London for three years, in which time he completed his second major book, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) as well as a major collection of poetry.

In 1937 he accepted a job at the National Peking University, but by the time he arrived in China the Japanese had invaded and there was in fact no job for him. He remained in China for two years, eking out a living teaching at various universities in exile there, constantly on the run from the Japanese forces. Relying on a prodigious memory and precious few books he was able to continue working, and started on his magnum opus The Structure of Complex Words (1951). He returned to China after the war, for another brief stint. In the early 1950s he accepted a Professorship at the University of Sheffield and worked there until his retirement. Empson wrote vehemently against theory, and saw in structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction a profound betrayal of good writing. Empson was a singular writer and though his work is widely admired it is difficult to emulate so it has not given rise to a school, or a large following.


Subjects: Literature

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Works by William Empson