William Empson: Volume I: Among the Mandarins

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William Empson (1906-1984) was the foremost English literary critic of the twentieth century. He was a man of huge energy and curiosity, and a genuine eccentric who remained imperturbable in the face of all the extraordinary circumstances in which he found himself. The discovery of contraceptives in his possession by a bedmaker at Cambridge University led to his being robbed of a promised Fellowship. Yet Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), drafted while he was still an undergraduate, promptly brought him world-wide fame.

Empson invented modern literary criticism in English. He acted too as a cultural fifth-columnist, challenging received doctrine in life and literature. "It is a very good thing for a poet...to be saying something which is considered very shocking at the time," he maintained. "To become morally independent of one's formative society...is the grandest theme of all literature, because it is the only means of moral progress."

His public life took him through many of the major political events of the modern world—the rise of imperialism in Japan, the Sino-Japanese war in China, wartime propaganda for the BBC, and the Chinese civil war and Communist takeover of Peking in 1949. His friends and critical sparring partners included I. A. Richards, Kathleen Raine, J. B. S. Haldane, Humphrey Jennings, George Orwell, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Eliot.

"It is of great importance now that writers should try to keep a certain world-mindedness," he insisted. "Without the literatures you cannot have a sense of history, and history is like the balancing-pole of the tightrope-walker...; and nowadays we very much need the longer balancing-pole of not national but world history." His passionate world-mindedness, and his humanism, combativeness, and wit, are fully in evidence in this, the first of two volumes exploring his remarkable life and work.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Haffenden takes a completist approach to his idiosyncratic subject and his groundbreaking critical works, including Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson (1906-1984) hailed from Yorkshire squirearchy whose unexceptional history interests Haffenden perhaps more than it should. Empson distinguished himself as a public school student with his mild unconventionality. At Cambridge on scholarship, he gained notoriety for his technically striking poetry. But his academic career, fostered by I.A. Richards, was derailed by scandal after a housekeeper's discovery of prophylactics in his possession clinched suspicions that Empson had a female visitor in his rooms (Haffenden identifies her, though the gentlemanly Empson did not). He published Seven Types of Ambiguity to immediate acclaim and accepted teaching positions abroad, which took him to Japan and then China during the Japanese invasion. In between, he returned to London, rubbing shoulders with Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. Haffenden, a professor of English literature at the University of Sheffield (where Empson eventually taught) and editor of Empson's Complete Poems, is a competent biographer, but for such a fascinating character and such an eventful life, he delves into the details without bringing off Empson in his singular brilliance. 16 b&w photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199276592
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/2/2005
  • Series: William Empson Ser.
  • Pages: 720
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Currently Head of Department at the University of Sheffield, John Haffenden was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford University, and began his teaching career at H. M. Prison, Oxford. He has received awards from the Authors' Foundation of the Society of Authors and the British Academy, and has been a British Academy Research Reader and a Leverhulme Research Fellow. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an elected founding Fellow of the English Association.

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Table of Contents

Table of Dates
1. Introduction
2. In the Blood: Sir Richard Empson, Professor William, and John Henry
3. 'A horrid little boy, airing my views'
4. 'Owl Empson'
5. 'Did I, I wonder, talk too much?'
6. 'Mr Empson gave a very competent performance'
7. 'His presence spellbound us all': The Experiment Group
8. The Making of Seven Types of Ambiguity: Influence and Integrity
9. 'Those Particular Vices': Crisis, Expulsion, and Aftermath
10. Seven Types of Ambiguity: The Critical Reception
11. The Trials of Tokyo
12. Poems 1935
13. Scapegoat and Sacrifice: Some Versions of Pastoral
14. 'Waiting for the end, boys': Politics, Poets, and Mass-Observation
15. Camping Out: China 1937-38
16. 'The savage life and the fleas and the bombs': China 1938-39
17. Postscript Appendix: Further Famous Forebears

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