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William Empson

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 William Empson, who almost single-handedly smuggled the villanelle into serious twentieth-century poetry, seems from the beginning to have regarded the form purely in the abstract. He looked on its beauty bare of post-Romantic associations; for him, the villanelle was A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A” rather than “Wouldst thou not be content to die.” Born in 1906, Empson did not belong to a generation that personally remembered the late-nineteenth-century apex of the French forms; it is most likely that he learned of the form from the perfunctory outline of a poetry handbook. As Philip and Averil Gardner note, Empson’s three villanelles seem highly original, entirely new; they do not seem to have any relationship, even a negative one, to the post-romantic villanelles:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Empson is more associated with the villanelle (and for that matter the terza rima) than is any other twentieth-century poet; significantly, it is in this form that any parodies of him have been composed […]. What prompted Empson to adopt this early French verse-form is not clear, though its technical rigour–its alternating refrains and its two rhyme-sounds stretched over nineteen lines–was no doubt a challenge. As is made clear by comparison with nineteenth-century practitioners of the villanelle, Austin Dobson, Wilde and Dowson, Empson’s specimen is very much his own. (90)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Empson’s first villanelle was published in 1928 in the Cambridge Review, while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. Just afterward, in 1929, Empson wrote the landmark critical work Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity shows no sign that Empson had been reading vers de société–nor Portrait of the Artist, for that matter–though certainly the work reveals that his reading was wide and varied. With as much aplomb as he discusses the works of Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Johnson, Pope, Keats, Hopkins, and other canonical figures, Empson discusses Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson and “a poem about strawberries in Punch a year or two ago, which I caught myself liking because of a subdued pun” (176-7, 64-5). Empson also discusses Sidney’s double sestina “Ye Goat-Herd Gods” in Seven Types of Ambiguity with some interest in its then-unusual form, “so curiously foreign to the normal modes or later developments of the language” (34). But Empson never seems to have mentioned in print what he found to interest him in the villanelle; a projected biography by John Haffenden, if it appears, may help answer the question.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Empson had studied mathematics before turning to English literature under the tutelage of I. A. Richards, and his training in (or natural attraction to) equations and permutations colored both his poetry and his criticism. Empson’s embrace of the villanelle must be attributed, for lack of other evidence, to this mathematical-scientific element in his makeup. Other poets have been tempted by the “challenge” of the villanelle’s “technical rigour,” but surely no poet has expressed fascination with the logic of contradiction (an issue pertinent to the bisected refrain of the villanelle) quite in the way Empson does:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Grammatical machinery may be assumed which would make the contradiction into two statements; thus ‘p and -p‘ may mean: ‘If a=a1, then p; if a=a2, then -p. […] If ‘p and -p‘ could only be resolved in one way into: ‘If a=a1, then p; if a=a2, then p,’ it would at least put two statements into one. In many cases the subsidiary uses of language limit very sharply the possible interpretations, and the ambiguity is only of this sensible sort. But it is evident that any degree of complexity of meaning can be extracted by ‘interpreting’ a contradiction; any xa1 and xa2 may be selected, that can be attached to some xa arising out of p; and any such pair may then be read the other way round, as ‘If xa1=xa2, then p; if xa=xa1, then -p.’ The original contradiction has thus been resolved into an indefinite number of contradictions: ‘If a=xay, then p and -p,’ to each of which the same process may again be applied. (196-7)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 While this passage is hardly representative of Empson’s usual vigorous and casual critical voice, it does reflect an irrepressible devotion to abstract constructions.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Empson’s early poetry, like his criticism, startled some critics into admiration and others into ridicule with its occasional or sustained referential obscurity. “Villanelle” (“It is the pain, it is the pain, endures”), like Empson’s other early poetry, emphasizes effects of rhythm, sound, and suggestively specialized vocabulary (“chemic,” “toxin”) rather than semantic transparency:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The infection slept (custom or change inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain, endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours. (Collected 22)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “Villanelle,” like Empson’s other villanelles, is iambic pentameter, indicating either that Empson was making a conscious attempt to increase the gravity of the villanelle or that he was simply not familiar with the nineteenth-century tetrameter examples and therefore adopted the most usual sonnet meter. “Villanelle” was included in Empson’s first volume of verse, published in 1935; his second volume, The Gathering Storm, appeared five years later, in 1940, and included two more villanelles: “Missing Dates” and “Reflection from Anita Loos.” These two volumes would constitute most of the poetry Empson would write in his lifetime; John Willis points out that “his reputation as a poet now rests on a body of work largely completed by 1940” (5).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 That Empson titled his first villanelle “Villanelle” probably indicates that the form would not have been immediately recognizable even to his Oxbridge peers–though of course a large percentage of nineteenth-century villanelles had also identified themselves in this way, and many do still, though the practice has declined with the increasing celebrity of the form. Definitions of the villanelle did continue to appear in poetry handbooks throughout the period, but these token entries could easily have remained unremarked even by those most active in contemporary poetry–and the villanelle had never been the best-known of the French forms. As late as 1940, one haughty Scrutiny reviewer of Empson’s The Gathering Storm seemed not to have heard of the villanelle at all, recognizing “Reflection from Anita Loos” only as something “triolet-like” and apparently not realizing that the spare rhyme scheme of “Missing Dates” (whether well-done or not) was a pre-established requirement of the fixed form:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The degeneration is perhaps more obvious in Mr. Empson’s habit of giving his verses an appearance of coherence and concentration by the device of a triolet-like repetition of lines (cf. Aubade, Success, Reflection from Anita Loos). […] Similarly, in Missing Dates, the single rhyme, often unconvincingly forced, is presumably intended to represent the insidiousness and the tediousness of ‘the waste that kills.’ (Constable 110)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Most other contemporary reviews of Empson’s books of poetry ignored Empson’s three villanelles, commenting neither on their substance nor on their form. An exception was a review in the journal Accent by Richard Eberhart; Eberhart briefly noted that Empson “dignified the villanelle form with serious import” (Constable 152). 1 In general, however, contemporary reviews focused on his contribution (or crime) as a poet of puzzling obscurity and scientific imagery rather than as a advocate of any particular brand of poetic form. 2

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Empson, indeed, never claimed to sponsor any intellectual or poetic movement. Seven Types of Ambiguity was widely credited with launching the New Criticism, yet Empson never identified himself with the school and often ignored it or mildly disparaged it. As a critic-poet, Empson was the diametrical opposite of Gosse in that he never used his criticism to outline a manifesto of what poetry should be and never used his own poetry to exemplify his criticism. His poetry and his criticism seemed to exist in parallel. Empson’s critical method was to seek out and exhaustively explicate ambiguity and complexity in others’ poetry–but, as he famously said to I. A. Richards, “You could do that with any poetry, couldn’t you?” (qtd. in Gill 5). His own poetry, certainly, was ambiguous and complex, but Empson never “called for” any particular kind of contemporary poetry, let alone a kind that would resemble his own.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Still, those who knew him almost inevitably remark on the enormous influence he exerted, seemingly almost involuntarily. He apparently attracted imitators not by advertising for disciples and converts, but by pursuing his own course without reference to predecessors or posterity. Kathleen Raine, who knew him at Cambridge, memorably describes this sui generis aspect of his personality:

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 I remember the impression he made upon me–as upon all of us–of contained mental energy, as of a flame whose outline remains constant while its substance is undergoing continual metamorphosis at a temperature at which only intellectual salamanders could hope to live. This impression of perpetual self-consuming self-generating mental intensity produced a kind of shock; through no intention or will to impress; for William was simply himself at all times. […] Never I think had he any wish to excel, lead, dominate, involve, or otherwise assert power; he was at all times, on the contrary, mild, impersonal, indifferent to the impression he made to the point of absent-mindedness. Nevertheless his presence spellbound us all. (Gill 15)

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Empson never trumpeted the virtues of the villanelle in print, nor even explained his interest in the form, not even in the garrulous footnotes he included in the 1949 edition of his Collected Poems. His returns to it, then, bore at first only the character of a personal oddity.


22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Notes:

  1. 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0
  2. Eberhart, who had been at Cambridge with Empson, would himself would publish a villanelle seventeen years later: “Christ is walking in your head today,” Spectrum (1957 Winter).
  3. See the following reviews reprinted in John Constable, ed., Critical Essays on William Empson (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1993). The original citation information as given in Constable is followed by a cross-reference in parentheses: L. M. [Louis MacNeice], “Mr. Empson as Poet,” New Verse 16 (1935) 17-18 (Constable 58); F. C. [Fletcher Cooke], “Poems, by William Empson,” The Granta 45 (1935) 17 (Constable 59); H. A. Mason, “William Empson’s Verse,” Scrutiny 4 (1935) 302-4 (Constable 69-70); I. A. R. [I. A. Richards], “Empson’s Poems,” The Cambridge Review 57 (1936) 253 (Constable 76-8); W. H. Mellers, “Cats in Air-Pumps (Or Poets in 1940),” Scrutiny 9 (1940) 290-3 (Constable 109-11); Richard Eberhart, “Empson’s Poetry,” reprinted from Kerker Quinn and Charles Shattuck, eds., Accent Anthology: Selections from Accent, A Quarterly of New Literature, 1940-1945 (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1946) 571-88 (Constable 153). The original publication date of Eberhart’s review is not known, but it seems likely that it appeared soon after Empson’s The Gathering Storm came out in 1940.
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