David Bromwich

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On Emp­son by Michael Wood

On Emp­son by Michael Wood. Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 212 pp., $22.95

Am­bi­gu­ity has been an ar­rest­ing fea­ture of lan­guage ever since peo­ple learned to care about words for rea­sons un­con­nected with util­ity. An instruction man­ual on fix­ing a wheel shouldn’t leave you un­cer­tain whether a wood or a metal spoke is pre­ferred. But diplo­macy can al­low for “strate­gic am­bi­gu­ity,” well un­der­stood by all par­ties, where too much spec­i­fi­ca­tion would ham­per an agree­ment.

Am­bi­gu­ity in lit­er­a­ture is a more elu­sive thing—not a mat­ter of tacit mean­ings sup­pressed to se­cure a par­tic­u­lar end. An am­bigu­ous mo­ment in a poem may in­di­cate a sus­pen­sion be­tween two states of mind, in a sit­u­a­tion where some­one con­fined to ei­ther state could not know the re­al­ity of the other. It com­monly turns on a hid­den com­plex­ity that the reader is prompted to no­tice in a sin­gle word—for ex­am­ple, the word “hon­est” in Othello, as ap­plied to the char­ac­ter of Iago. Or it may emerge from the cun­ning de­ploy­ment of a genre like pas­toral, which in­duces read­ers to re­flect on them­selves while look­ing at some­thing ap­par­ently un­like them­selves.

None of this would have seemed im­plau­si­ble or un­fa­mil­iar to John­son, Co­leridge, or Ha­zlitt, the great crit­ics of the eigh­teenth and the nine­teenth cen­tury. Yet the wide­spread prac­tice of “close read­ing” was only set­tled in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tury; and its orig­i­nal ge­nius and great­est prac­ti­tioner was Wil­liam Emp­son. His first three books, Seven Types of Am­bi­gu­ity (1930), Some Ver­sions of Pas­toral (1935), and The Struc­ture of Com­plex Words (1951), all deal with mo­tives and doubts of a sort that don’t de­clare them­selves on the face of a work.

How re­con­dite is this con­cern? Michael Wood in On Emp­son picks out a re­mark­able sen­tence from Seven Types to show the con­nec­tion be­tween am­bi­gu­ity in ac­tion and in writ­ing:

Peo­ple, of­ten, can­not have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way pre­pared to have done ei­ther; which­ever they did, they will have still lin­ger­ing in their minds the way they would have pre­served their self-re­spect if they had acted dif­fer­ently; they are only to be un­der­stood by bear­ing both pos­si­bil­i­ties in mind.

The pas­sage sug­gests a broader truth. Emp­son’s crit­i­cism is full of sym­pa­thy for hu­man weak­ness and blind­ness, but this need not co­in­cide with a high es­ti­ma­tion of hu­man­ity. He thinks we are crea­tures who can’t fully know our­selves: there is a strong par­al­lel here be­tween Emp­son on am­bi­gu­ity and Freud on the un­con­scious. Our rea­sons are never iden­ti­cal with our mo­tives; the con­di­tion seems in­cur­able. Still, we are right to want to un­der­stand its na­ture and man­i­fes­ta­tions.

Emp­son had a con­sis­tent aim as an ed­u­ca­tor. “The main pur­pose of read­ing imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture,” he wrote in the Festschrift for his teacher I.A. Richards, “is to grasp a wide va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ence, imag­in­ing peo­ple with codes and cus­toms very un­like our own.” He said it an­other way in a gen­er­al­iz­ing pas­sage of his only work of full-length commentary, Mil­ton’s God (1961):

The cen­tral func­tion of imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture is to make you re­al­ize that other peo­ple act on moral con­vic­tions dif­fer­ent from your own .... What is more, it has been thought from Aeschy­lus to Ib­sen that a lit­er­ary work may present a cur­rent moral prob­lem, and to some ex­tent al­ter the judge­ment of those who ap­pre­ci­ate it by mak­ing them see the case as a whole.

To make the reader see the case as a whole, the author must have seen all around the sub­ject. So if a work cel­e­brates a heroic ac­tion, the judg­ment of those who ap­pre­ci­ate it must be made to rec­og­nize the cost to the hero and his cause—es­pe­cially the part of the cost they fail to un­der­stand. The Iliad does this for the mar­tial valor and van­ity that pro­tract the suf­fer­ings of the Tro­jan War; so does Paradise Lost when it in­structs read­ers in the am­bigu­ous gift of a free­dom achieved through trans­gres­sion of God’s law.

Be­fore he wrote his crit­i­cal books, Emp­son had ac­quired a sep­a­rate fame as an avant-garde poet—gain­ing ad­mir­ers in later years from his ap­pear­ance in a great many an­tholo­gies around mid­cen­tury—and though he stopped writ­ing po­ems at thirty-four, his work in verse has an orig­i­nal­ity as pro­nounced as that of his crit­i­cism. Wood ded­i­cates a chap­ter to in­ter­pret­ing po­ems in Emp­son’s early meta­phys­i­cal man­ner; but even in his first book of po­ems, one may no­tice a con­gru­ence with the eth­i­cal aims of his crit­i­cism. “Homage to the Bri­tish Mu­seum” ad­dresses—from a per­spec­tive of an­thro­po­log­i­cal tol­er­ance—the mul­ti­plic­ity of re­li­gious be­liefs. The ap­proach is gen­er­ous and serenely skep­ti­cal; the gods ap­pear, in this set­ting, as hu­man cre­ations, not lined up to pick out a sin­gle truth, but strug­gling dif­fer­ently and wrongly to sat­isfy all-too-hu­man crav­ings:

There is a Supreme God in the eth­no­log­i­cal sec­tion;

A hol­low toad shape, faced with a blank shield.

He needs his belly to in­clude the Pan­theon,

Which is in­serted through a hole be­hind.

At the navel, at the points for­mally stressed, at the or­gans of sense,

Lice glue them­selves, dolls, lo­cal deities,

His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

At­tend­ing there let us ab­sorb the cul­tures of na­tions

And dis­solve into our judge­ment all their codes.

Then, be­ing clogged with a nat­u­ral hes­i­ta­tion

(Peo­ple are con­tin­u­ally ask­ing one the way out),

Let us stand here and ad­mit that we have no road.

Be­ing ev­ery­thing, let us ad­mit that is to be some­thing,

Or give our­selves the ben­e­fit of the doubt;

Let us of­fer our pinch of dust all to this God,

And grant his reign over the en­tire build­ing.

“The world is ev­ery­thing that is the case,” wrote Wittgen­stein, in an apho­rism that Emp­son ad­mired and var­i­ously echoed. This poem says that the knowl­edge of “all their codes” im­parted by sci­ence is all we can claim to un­der­stand about the world. The gods are va­pors emit­ted by our day­dreams of or­der and om­nipo­tence. In that sense, a “Supreme God” is eth­no­log­i­cally in­ter­est­ing; sat­is­fac­tory for those who be­lieve, and harm­less to those who don’t. Emp­son re­gards with a de­tach­ment bor­der­ing on con­tempt the part of hu­man na­ture that would grant moral au­thor­ity to a god; the poem, mean­while, con­cedes the pic­turesque­ness of the­ol­ogy, so long as it doesn’t get out of hand. But we are also be­ing warned against the pos­ture of su­pe­ri­or­ity that an en­light­ened on­looker is apt to as­sume: “we have no road,” ei­ther, and our job as spec­ta­tor-par­tic­i­pants is sim­ply to “at­tend”—as if re­li­gion were a the­atri­cal per­for­mance or a med­i­cal op­er­a­tion. Ac­cord­ingly we must of­fer “our pinch of dust,” the homage of our own un­be­lief, to this in­ad­e­quate sym­bol of hu­man as­pi­ra­tion that “creeps with all the creeds of the world.” Two of Emp­son’s later po­ems, “Son­net” and “Man­chouli,” are car­ri­ers of the same sen­ti­ment.

Any­one’s ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing po­etry as dif­fi­cult as Shake­speare’s or Mil­ton’s or Hart Crane’s will show how in­tri­cate it can be to work out a ba­sic sense of the words. An anx­ious shy­ness or frus­tra­tion in the reader, or the aca­demic wish for a “truth” that will sat­isfy the sci­en­tists, has some­times led to the sug­ges­tion that this dif­fi­culty can be solved by re­fer­ring to the author’s in­ten­tion. Doesn’t the writer know best what his work re­ally means? And can’t we find out what he wanted us to know? A the­o­ret­i­cal re­buke to any such so­lu­tion came from the ar­gu­ment of the New Crit­ics of the 1940s and 1950s against “the in­ten­tional fal­lacy”: the work had a life of its own, they said, not de­pen­dent on the author, and nei­ther a writer’s own tes­ti­mony nor any amount of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence could claim au­to­matic au­thor­ity or ex­haust the pos­si­bil­i­ties of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Emp­son agreed about the dif­fi­culty and in­ex­haustibil­ity of great writ­ing, but he thought that com­men­ta­tors who omit­ted all talk of in­ten­tion had gone too far. They were ex­clud­ing on prin­ci­ple a kind of knowl­edge their own ex­pe­ri­ence and af­fec­tions could have supplied.

Wood ad­mires—from too care­ful a dis­tance I think—the spec­u­la­tive free­dom that Emp­son al­lowed him­self in writ­ing about the in­ten­tions of Shake­speare, Ge­orge Her­bert, and many other poets. The ad­ven­tur­ous qual­ity that sets him apart from other com­men­ta­tors seems hard to re­gret; if it

makes him rash or un­con­sciously funny (as Wood now and then sus­pects), so much the worse for se­ri­ous­ness. Thus, in his late es­say on Ham­let, Emp­son sup­ports and elab­o­rates the the­ory that Shake­speare was work­ing from an “urHam­let” with a stale re­venge-plot he had some­how to breathe life into. Emp­son here takes his full swing:

He thought: “The only way to shut this hole is to make it big. I shall make Ham­let walk up to the au­di­ence and tell them, again and again, ‘I don’t know why I’m de­lay­ing any more than you do; the mo­ti­va­tion of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can’t help it.’ What is more, I shall make it im­pos­si­ble for them to blame him. And then they daren’t laugh.”

There has never been a quicker in­sight into the con­ven­tional genre Shake­speare in­her­ited and the tremen­dous change he wrought.

In Emp­son’s read­ing of Ham­let, as al­ways in his crit­i­cism, a gen­er­ous view of the en­tire work is built up from par­tic­u­lars. Con­sider Ho­ra­tio’s un­easy com­ment when, in the fifth act, Ham­let re­veals that he has pro­cured the deaths of Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern: “So Guilden­stern and Rosen­crantz go to’t.” Emp­son re­marks that “on this mild hint Ham­let be­comes bois­ter­ously self­jus­ti­fy­ing”—Ham­let says, in fact, that these deaths “are not near my con­science,” and Ho­ra­tio com­ments fur­ther, “Why, what a King is this!”

Now, ex­actly what work is that last line do­ing? In his re­ply to Ho­ra­tio, Ham­let says:

Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon—

He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,

Popped in be­tween th’elec­tion and my hopes,

Thrown out his an­gle for my proper life,

And with such coz’nage!—is’t not per­fect con­science

To quit him with this arm?

Emp­son writes:

The rep­e­ti­tion of “con­science,” I think, shows the gleam­ing eye of Shake­speare. Crit­ics, so far as I have no­ticed, take Ho­ra­tio’s re­mark to mean that Claudius is wicked to try to kill Ham­let, and this is per­haps what Ham­let thinks he meant; but I had al­ways as­sumed, and still do, that he meant “what a King you have be­come.”

Ham­let, in short, has be­come a king in­deed and a nasty one, quite com­pa­ra­ble to Claudius.

Try this read­ing by the prac­ti­cal test—how would it play?—and Emp­son’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion comes off markedly su­pe­rior to the al­ter­na­tive; for Ho­ra­tio’s tone here is sub­dued and ironic, whereas a read­ing that blamed Claudius would be re­dun­dantly re­as­sur­ing to Ham­let—a piece of flat­tery out of key with Ho­ra­tio’s tem­per­a­ment. Near the end of the es­say, Emp­son de­cides that “the even­tual ques­tion is whether you can put up with...Ham­let, a per­son who fre­quently ap­pears in the mod­ern world”; and he con­cludes, “I would al­ways sym­pa­thize with any­one who says . . . that he can’t put up with Ham­let at all. But I am afraid it is within hail of the more painful ques­tion whether you can put up with your­self and the race of man.”

Some of Emp­son’s most in­spired think­ing went into his crit­i­cism of Shake­speare; and the es­says on King Lear and Othello in The Struc­ture of Com­plex Words show how thor­oughly he fa­vored read­ing over per­for­mance. But if the words are good enough, they want to be said in a cer­tain way:

The thing most needed in Shake­speare pro­duc­tions . . . is that the ac­tors should be­lieve in their words suf­fi­ciently to say them; firmly and rather coolly, with rhythm and not much “po­etry,” not bury­ing them un­der the “act­ing,” not shuf­fling them off in the course of a walk round the stage with an air of hav­ing to take a swim through but­ter be­fore the play can pro­ceed.

And yet, some way in back of our read­ing we must dis­cern an in­ten­tion, a mo­tive, a story un­der the story, or what an ac­tor would call a sub­text. In this sense, Emp­son’s crit­i­cism puts him for­ward as the most con­vinc­ing imag­in­able in­ter­preter of lines that the poet has supplied—whether the po­etry is dra­matic, epic, or lyric. If you are not say­ing it this way, he is telling his read­ers, you are get­ting the wrong feel­ing out of it, a weaker and thin­ner feel­ing, and some­how closer to cliché.

An ex­tra­or­di­nary episode in Emp­son’s long ca­reer would emerge from his claim of just such un­con­di­tional au­thor­ity. In the late 1940s, when he was teach­ing in China, he pub­lished a re­view of Rose­mond Tuve’s El­iz­a­bethan and Meta­phys­i­cal Im­agery, a book he re­ports par­en­thet­i­cally hav­ing read along­side two books on Shake­speare’s rhetoric—“com­fort­ing things to have in bed with one while the guns fired over Pek­ing.” Tuve ar­gued that Emp­son had over­rated the pres­ence of am­bi­gu­ity in Donne and other meta­phys­i­cal poets; and in a later ar­ti­cle, she supplied an ortho­dox read­ing of Her­bert’s poem “The Sac­ri­fice” to re­fute Emp­son’s idea that an im­age of Christ on the cross as a boy climb­ing a tree was a scan­dal for the Chris­tian be­liever, a painful proof of the cru­elty at the heart of the faith. The con­tro­versy went on for many years in public and pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence and reached a cli­max with Emp­son’s as­ser­tion:

I claim to know not only the tra­di­tional back­ground of Her­bert’s poem (roughly but well enough) but also what was go­ing on in Her­bert’s mind while he wrote it, with­out his knowl­edge and against his in­ten­tion; and if [Tuve] says that I can­not know such things, I an­swer that that is what crit­ics do, and that she too ought to have “la clef de cette pa­rade sauvage.”

He was hardly more con­ces­sive in his dis­agree­ments with F.R. Leavis, Ray­mond Wil­liams, C. S. Lewis, Frank Ker­mode, and He­len Gard­ner.

His in­ter­est in the prob­a­ble mo­tives of a writer—the “story” to be dis­cerned be­hind the most con­densed and im­per­sonal of po­ems—led Emp­son into a uniquely per­cep­tive train of thought on the anti-Semitic lines in the pub­lished

draft of The Waste Land. “The young Eliot,” says Emp­son,

had a good deal of sim­ple old St. Louis brash­ness; half the time, when the im­pres­sion­able English were say­ing how won­der­fully coura­geous and orig­i­nal he was to come out with some crash­ingly re­ac­tionary re­mark, he was just say­ing what any de­cent man would say back home in St. Louis—if he was well heeled and had a bit of cul­ture . . . . [In The Waste Land] Eliot wanted to grouse about his fa­ther, and lam­basted some imag­i­nary Jews in­stead.

Emp­son goes on to say that Eliot’s grand­fa­ther “went to St. Louis as a mis­sion­ary preach­ing Uni­tar­i­an­ism”; that “Uni­tar­i­ans de­scribe them­selves as Chris­tians but deny that Je­sus was God”; and so the in­fer­ence be­comes clear:

Now if you are hat­ing a purse­proud busi­ness man who de­nies that Je­sus is God, into what stereo­type does he best fit? He is a Jew, of course; and yet this would be a ter­ri­ble blas­phemy against his fam­ily and its racial pride, so much so that I doubt whether Eliot ever al­lowed him­self to re­alise what he was do­ing. But he knows, in the poem, that ev­ery­thing has gone wrong with the eerie world to which the son is con­demned.

An in­no­cent reader might talk of what “the author is telling me”; an aes­thete, pu­ri­fied of the author’s in­ten­tions, would per­haps want to say “the poem knows”; and the dif­fer­ence in Emp­son’s way of putting it is in­struc­tive. The poet, he says, “knows, in the poem.”

Emp­son’s three sep­a­rate in­ter­vals of teach­ing in the Far East oc­curred from ne­ces­sity as well as choice. Near the end of an un­der­grad­u­ate ca­reer with dis­tinc­tion in math­e­mat­ics and English, he had been thrown out of Cam­bridge when con­doms (“love en­gines”) were dis­cov­ered in his rooms. Con­ven­tional em­ploy­ment closer to home be­came as un­likely as it was un­de­sired. At the same time, his na­ture was con­ge­nial to life at the frontiers, where he could wit­ness close-up a “heart­en­ing fact” about cul­tures re­mote from the English, namely “their ap­palling stub­born­ness.” From 1931 to 1934 he held po­si­tions at Tokyo Univer­sity of Lit­er­a­ture and Sci­ence and Tokyo Im­pe­rial Univer­sity; from 1937 to 1939 in the makeshift uni­ver­si­ties of China un­der siege; and af­ter re­turn­ing to Eng­land dur­ing the war years, from 1947 to 1952 at Pek­ing Na­tional Univer­sity. In Lon­don dur­ing the 1940s, he broad­cast along­side his friend Ge­orge Or­well for the BBC Over­seas Ser­vice. “My sec­ond vol­ume of verse The Gath­er­ing Storm,” he wrote in a let­ter, “means by the ti­tle just what Win­ston Churchill did when he stole it, the grad­ual sin­is­ter con­fus­ing ap­proach to the Sec­ond World War.” And again in an­other let­ter: “I gave up writ­ing for ten years be­cause I re­ally thought al­lied pro­pa­ganda im­por­tant.” When his col­leagues and stu­dents in China had to adapt quickly to the mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal changes, Emp­son lent a hand where he could, and in a way that no one else could have done. As a wit­ness of that pe­riod tes­ti­fied, what they chiefly re­quired was books, and “Emp­son, with­out say­ing any­thing, typed out Shake­speare’s Othello from mem­ory.” It was in these years, too, that he com­posed the study of the Bud­dha’s faces, the man­u­script of which was re­cov­ered af­ter his death and has re­cently been pub­lished.* It is a work of com­par­a­tive eth­nol­ogy that is al­to­gether com­pat­i­ble, as Wood takes care to no­tice, with Emp­son’s con­cern that we see two sides of a ques­tion or a com­plex state of mind in a speaker. The com­plex state, in this ac­count, of­ten ap­pears in the two sides of the face of the Bud­dha. “It will be agreed,” Emp­son wrote in a draft di­gest of his the­ory, “that a good deal of the star­tling and com­pelling qual­ity of these faces comes from their com­bin­ing things that seem in­com­pat­i­ble, es­pe­cially a com­plete re­pose with an ac­tive power to help the wor­ship­per.” The strength of On Emp­son is to demon­strate by well-cho­sen quo­ta­tions and commentary “the verve and provo­ca­tion of Emp­son’s writ­ing”; crit­i­cism and po­etry are dealt with in sep­a­rate sec­tions, but Wood makes us aware that the mind at work is the same in both id­ioms; and his treat­ment of Emp­son’s es­say “Hon­est in Othello” has a marvelous im­me­di­acy. Emp­son, says Wood, is writ­ing here “about mean­ings that are very close to a word,” and Wood him­self brings life to the strangest of imag­i­na­tive con­jec­tures, namely that a dubious word may “take the stage” and dis­place a char­ac­ter who has less re­al­ity than the stray and shift­ing words spo­ken by and about him.

It has been sup­posed by schol­ars who set a high value on clev­er­ness that Emp­son cher­ished am­bi­gu­ity and com­plex words for their own sake. The truth is that the strug­gle with words, for him, had a psy­cho­log­i­cal di­men­sion that went be­yond any in­tel­lec­tual sat­is­fac­tion. “The poem,” he said once in an in­ter­view, “is a kind of clin­i­cal ob­ject, done to pre­vent [the poet] from go­ing mad”; and he said the same, in other words, in two of his best known po­ems, “Miss­ing Dates” and “Let It Go.” One can imag­ine him agree­ing with the last sen­tences of R.G. Colling­wood’s Prin­ci­ples of Art, which speak of art as an al­most med­i­cal rem­edy against “the cor­rup­tion of con­scious­ness.” Emp­son’s own po­ems seek a rest­ing place they know to be tem­po­rary, and they are writ­ten un­der im­mense pres­sure. “All losses haunt us,” he says in one poem: “It was a re­prieve/Made Dos­to­evsky talk out queer and clear.” And his great po­ems all seem to be about loss. The most dryly in­ti­mate and com­mand­ing from start to fin­ish are “Vil­lanelle” and “Aubade”; but when Emp­son wrote about pain, “queer and clear,” it was of­ten in an ab­stract id­iom that held back al­most every con­nec­tive clue to per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The Teasers” seems to share the ex­is­ten­tial­ist mood of the time, as Emp­son later ad­mit­ted some­what rue­fully, and its cen­tral ar­gu­ment and mo­tive are plain enough. Our acts are gov­erned, as if from a place be­yond us, by a pat­tern or fate we can only dimly

*Wil­liam Emp­son, The Face of the Bud­dha, edited by Ru­pert Ar­row­smith (Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 2016). make out, and with which none­the­less we can­not fail to co­op­er­ate:

Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,

Not but they die, and tell the care­ful flood To give them what they clam­our for and why.

You could not fancy where they rip to blood

You could not fancy nor that mud I have heard speak that will not cake or dry.

Our claims to act ap­pear so small to these

Our claims to act colder lu­na­cies That cheat the love, the mo­ment, the small fact.

Make no es­cape be­cause they flash and die,

Make no es­cape build up your love, Leave what you die for and be safe to die.

The end­ing is sto­ical: it is never “safe” to die, of course, and the flat­ness of the irony there is chill­ing. When once you have sep­a­rated your­self from every cause, how­ever, and given up the idea of es­cape, you are alone with what­ever love you have built up and there is a kind of re­prieve in that soli­tude. It is as true as Sartre’s apho­rism “we are left alone, with­out ex­cuse”—and per­haps less tinged by melo­drama. The tenor of the poem is des­o­late, but the feel­ing is of an achieved equi­lib­rium: noth­ing more needs to be said. And it may have been this un­der­tone of his po­etry that com­mended it to the Move­ment poets of the 1950s: Thom Gunn, Kings­ley Amis, D. J. En­right. Philip Larkin’s clinch­ing line in a char­ac­ter­is­tic poem, “Noth­ing, like some­thing, hap­pens any­where,” could be a re­peated line in a vil­lanelle by Emp­son.

When I started read­ing him in 1968, Emp­son had writ­ten most of what he was go­ing to write but had cho­sen to pub­lish only four books of crit­i­cism and his Col­lected Po­ems. Thanks to the schol­arly labors of his bi­og­ra­pher John Haf­fenden, and the crit­i­cal in­ter­est in­cited by Christo­pher Ricks, Paul Fry, Christo­pher Nor­ris, and oth­ers, we now have four­teen books by my count—not in­clud­ing Haf­fenden’s edi­tion of Se­lected Let­ters, Jim McCue’s chap­book of the brilliant un­der­grad­u­ate re­views he con­trib­uted to the Cam­bridge mag­a­zine Granta, and the finely made se­lec­tion Co­leridge’s Verse, edited by Emp­son and David Pirie, for which he wrote a ma­jor in­tro­duc­tory es­say.

If you want to know what crit­i­cal writ­ing in English can be, these make a large pro­por­tion of the short list of books you will want to have; and Wood’s On Emp­son of­fers the most flu­ent guid­ance imag­in­able to the ge­nius and the in­ge­nu­ity of the man. Can­dor in ar­gu­ment and a ner­vous sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to shades of mean­ing are among the traits one en­coun­ters ev­ery­where in his writ­ing, but there is an­other qual­ity he con­veys with­out try­ing. One of the feel­ings you have when you read his crit­i­cism is ela­tion. This is not a mat­ter of a par­tic­u­lar in­sight, ob­ser­va­tion, or epi­gram. It can last for pages.

Wil­liam Emp­son, circa late 1940s

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