Prose style – Christopher Ricks on William Empson

Yesterday I read Christopher Ricks’ 1985 essay, “It’s great to change your mind,” which briefly examines three major works by the critic and poet William Empson (London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 2, February 7,1985, pp.3-4 [subscription required], review of Using Biography, Seven Types of Ambiguity and Collected Poems). As I  ventured past the first paragraphs, I found myself enthralled by the art of the great prose stylists, Empson and Ricks, who command the page with such rare intelligence and sensitivity, doing so in such subtle and varied modulations of voice that cannot help but make an intimate connection with the reader.

I knew both men’s work from my studies of 16th and 17th century poetry and drama at Mansfield College, Oxford University. For my research on Paradise Lost, my tutor, John Creaser, assigned a number of books, first among which was Milton’s Grand Style, in which Ricks examined the linguistic infrastructure of Milton’s prosody and corrected the mortared and mossy misreading of the old scholars, not the least of which was F.R. Leavis. After almost fifty years since its publication, Milton’s Grand Style is still a foundational text for studying Milton. There was yet another connection I had with Ricks. When he taught at Oxford, Ricks had been the tutor of my college professor and advisor, Eugene Paul Nassar, a Rhodes scholar. Gene was nominated for the Rhodes scholarship by his mentor at Kenyon College, the great John Crowe Ransom. Through Ricks and Creaser, Gene made it possible for me to study at Oxford for a year, an act of kindness for which I am ever indebted to all gentlemen.

Creaser, a recognized authority on Ben Jonson and other poets and dramatists of the 16th and 17th centuries, also assigned Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and handed down the lore on Empson: Empson entered Cambridge to read mathematics and obtained a First on completion of his first year exams. Empson then decided to pursue a second degree in English literature, again earning a First. Soon after, Empson wrote Seven Types of Ambiguity (published in 1930 when Empson was 24), which became the most celebrated book of literary criticism of the 20th century and the cornerstone of the New Criticism. [A detailed biography of Empson’s early years can be found in John Haffenden’s William Empson, Vol. 1: Among the Mandarins, Oxford University Press 2005.]  Empson’s critical acumen was considered the finest of his era; his poetry was also ranked very highly, even if not the equal of Yeats, Pound, Eliot or Auden.

In his review, Ricks devotes most time to Empson’s posthumously published book, Using Biography, which is devoted to six authors: Marvell, Dryden, Fielding, Yeats, Eliot and Joyce. Ricks describes the book’s overall themes:

Three related principles unify the book, all argued for and all good-naturedly shocked at the pretty pass to which things have come. First, that the knowledge of what a writer had in mind may be of unique use in understanding the art. Second, that therefore ‘the intentional fallacy’ is itself a fallacy and moreover beckons critics, not into the ascetic desert of disattending to intentions, but into the oily swamp of imputing wrong intentions. Third, that in our time the most prevalent mis-imputation of an intention has been Christian.

Ricks’ beautifully phrased constructs (“all argued for and all good-naturedly shocked at the pretty pass to which things have come” and “beckons critics, not into the ascetic desert of disattending to intentions, but into the oily swamp of imputing wrong intentions”) instill emotional vitality and not just a little curiosity for Empson’s attack on the accepted cant.

In writing to these themes, Empson takes the air with his esteemed subjects. Here is Ricks discussing Empson’s treatment of Andrew Marvell’s untimely death:

Empson may have given up writing poems forty or so years ago, but such prose is at least as well written as good poetry. And so is the touching vision of how it may have been that Andrew Marvell succumbed to the ague or the medication; this whole last paragraph of the hundred-page section on Marvell is instinct with a sense of what it is to make an end, whether or not betimes, whether or not Marvell was robbed even of discovering that ‘Death’s to him a strange surprise’:

Marvell was a stocky fighting type, though a deskworker of course, and had been threatened with trouble on the tour to Russia for hitting out; but he genuinely wanted peace, and would prefer to walk away from a duel if the rules permitted. I suggest that he walked out from an evening party at a house in Hull, and used his eminence to walk out through a gate of the city, and walked for what remained of the night, indifferent to the fatal marshes; and returned at dawn to take the first coach back to London. As the coach jolted slowly on, and he got more and more feverish, he would reflect on how thoroughly tricky his situation had become, on every side. When he at last got home, irritated all over, and his doctor suggested a risky medicine, as the ‘tertiary’ returned, warning him that it would cause a long deep sleep, he accepted that eagerly. Nobody expected to die from the familiar ague, tiresome though it was; that was no problem. But from a real deep sleep he would expect to wake up, as often before, suddenly seeing a way out, knowing what to do.

This is great prose in its chastened apprehensions and its hush. ‘To walk away’, ‘walked out’, ‘to walk out’, ‘walked for’: this has its incipient feverishness, as the closing ‘real deep sleep’, for all its touching hopefulness, has something of the strange depth of the poem ‘Let it go’ (‘It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange’) and of the craving for the deepest sleep in ‘Aubade’ (‘I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie’). Empson would be vexed at the thought that such poignancies in his posthumous collection might now be taken as premonitions. But admonitions are another matter. ‘Ignorance of Death’ he knew about, and valued: but he was not ignorant of dying, and was as wise about it as about living.

Ricks sees  Empson’s perception grounded in his “magnanimity,” i.e., his complete grasp of the sensibility bearing upon literary expression and the real-world circumstances to which it is addressed. So, when Empson examines the select authors in Using Biography, noticing that critical appreciation had focused on their misplaced link to Christianity, Empson finds fertile ground by attacking the question from another side, showing that this lens was in fact a way to misapprehend their work. So here is Ricks on Empson on Joyce:

Empson sketches the drives at work: ‘and when you understand all that, you may just be able to understand how they manage to present James Joyce as a man devoted to the God who was satisfied by the crucifixion.’ Whereupon he at once vaults into a new paragraph which yet keeps the previous one alive: ‘The concordat was reached over his dead body.’ It is one of his most searching jokes: ‘The concordat (over His dead body) was reached over his dead body.’ Yet even here Empson’s magnanimity extends itself, for of this bad state of affairs in literary studies he says: ‘As so often, the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good.’

That last quoted line (“the deformity is the result of severe pressure between forces in themselves good”) might serve as an epitome for the entire human condition. Even as he could joke about critical misreading, often with the driest British wit (Empson was not a sentimentalist by any stretch), Empson’s prime aim was always to instruct. It is not coincidence for Ricks to have reviewed Empson in this light, for he is precisely the kind of critic Ricks aspired to be and in fact became. Yet Empson, like Ricks (one hearkens to his essay on Harold Bloom), was not reserved in the art of chastisement where a usually unassailable target was rendered defenseless.

Empson’s magnanimity reserves the right to be censorious, and indeed there would be no claim to magnanimity if the right were waived. But magnanimous is what he is. This may be a matter of a u-turn of a phrase. He repents of a phrase well turned against Dryden’s Hind: I said that Dryden was showing his famous clumsiness here, as he presumably expected reverence for “this simpering herbivore”; but my sarcasm was stupid, almost like Leavis.’ For sarcasm is inferior to irony, which must be more magnanimous because, as Empson himself put the principle, an irony to be worth anything must be true to some degree in both senses. Even if he also or mostly means dispraise or reservation, when Empson praises someone he means it. Even Kenner. The first of the Joyce essays makes no secret of its anger or its reckoning, but the praise part is pained irony, not self-pleasing sarcasm: But no one else has presented it in such a lively, resourceful and energetic manner, so the best name one can find for it is the Kenner Smear. The second Joyce essay opens with a sentence which is exactly weighed and timed: It is wonderful how Professor Kenner can keep on about Ulysses, always interesting and relevant and hardly repeating himself at all.’ This precipitates not Ooh but Ah.

Not Ooh but Ah, indeed. This is writing rarely equaled for wit, sensitivity and good taste. How, in so few words, does Empson eviscerate Kenner’s pedantry and how Ricks, in even less, encapsulates a serious reader’s response to Empson’s corrective. Ricks aptly demonstrates that Empson’s genius was, at its heart, his ability to bring great understanding and sensitivity to all he read. “Empson’s own magnanimity is his element.” Ricks concludes with these words:

Empson shows in these essays, as ever, a degree of magnanimity positively capacitating for a literary critic. Of course he is immeasurably more capacious than the rest of us. Those of us who revere him and delight in him, then and now, are not the ones who need to be told how far short we fall of his genius and goodness. He has a touching parenthesis: ‘(As for myself here, I agree with Fielding and wish I was as good.)’”

On this side of the pond, it’s not “Ah,” but “Wow.”

Categories: Literary Criticism

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2 replies

  1. A lovely tribute to the great Ricks and the great Empson.

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