The Fire Sermon and the Sphinx: The Poetry of William Empson

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the peculiar modernism of an obscure poet

William Empson wrote one of the most influential works of literary criticism of the entire twentieth century. His 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity, which put forward seven different ways in which a variety of poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to T. S. Eliot utilise ambiguity in their work and analysed specific examples from the poems, is a masterclass in close reading. What’s all the more remarkable is that Empson completed the book when he was just 23 years old, shortly after he’d been sent down from Cambridge after contraceptives were found in his university rooms. At the time, he was a graduate student working under I. A. Richards. With his expulsion from Cambridge, a promising academic career very nearly came to an end. As it was, it would take Empson over two decades to gain an academic post at a British university.

But as well as writing one of the pioneering works of literary criticism, in which he analysed other poets’ work, William Empson was also a fine poet himself, his work falling somewhere between the obscure high modernism of someone like T. S. Eliot (whose influence on his work Empson readily acknowledged) and the more formally traditional work of the ‘Poets of the Thirties’ such as Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden (about whom Empson wrote a delightfully mocking poem). Empson’s poetry appeared in two volumes, Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm (1940). After that, his poetic muse seemed to abandon him, although he did write a short masque for the Queen’s visit to Sheffield University in 1955 (where Empson was teaching as a professor; he later joked that she only knighted him because, in the masque, he implied ‘that she was God, and that she had invented steel’).

In many ways, the Eliot comparison makes more sense than the Auden one. Although his poetry utilises more conventional forms such as the sonnet and villanelle, Empson is as challengingly obscure and as wilfully allusive as the author of The Waste Land. Indeed, Empson, a keen amateur scholar of Far Eastern religions including Buddhism, wrote his own ‘Fire Sermon’ which neatly dovetails with the third part of Eliot’s The Waste Land (which bears the title ‘The Fire Sermon’). Elsewhere, his poem ‘Four Legs, Two Legs, Three Legs’ refers to the riddle of the sphinx while conflating that feline-woman hybrid from the Oedipus story with the famous statue in Egypt.

Empson also challenges our ideas about what poetry should be and do. His poem ‘Camping Out’ has an opening line, about a woman cleaning her teeth into a lake, which one editor dismissed as an attempt to be wilfully ‘anti-poetic’. (Sylvia Plath once said that she could imagine anything coming into a poem – except for a toothbrush.) The poem goes on to liken the blobs of toothpaste-infused spittle (falling from the woman’s mouth into the lake) to the white stars in the night sky, which, until dawn came, could be seen reflected in the lake’s surface.

But Empson’s most famous poem, ‘Missing Dates’, is not, as one might expect, one of his most accessible. The poem, one of several villanelles Empson wrote, resists any traditional analysis; if we performed a close reading of ‘Missing Dates’ inspired by Empson’s own pioneering method of literary criticism in Seven Types, we might begin with the title. ‘Missing Dates’: missing as in lost, and lost as in ‘something which happened and was then mislaid or forgotten’ or ‘missed, as in a lost opportunity, a road not taken’? ‘Dates’ as in dates in a diary (‘missing’ because torn out, perhaps because of unhappy memories recalled), or romantic assignations?

For what it’s worth, I interpret ‘Missing Dates’ as one of the greatest poems in the English language about writer’s block; it is a poem which refuses to say what it means in any straightforward way partly because such easy or glib statements are not Empson’s style but, more crucially for this poem, because it is about the failure to write poetry, like those ‘missing’ dates in a diary against which all a poet can record is ‘I wrote nothing today … again’. The clues are there: ‘It is the poems you have lost’, the final stanza begins, as if bringing the poem’s ‘argument’ to a conclusion, like the closing couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet. The ‘poison’ that fills the blood stream is the sense of failure, of one’s creative talent drying up day by day, that creeps into the body and makes it harder and harder, as days go by, to envision a time when you will ever be able to write again. The ‘effort’ is still there, the poem’s second line tells us, but the ‘failure’, like the effort, never tires out: failure, if you will, even fails to die. ‘Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills’: if you don’t have the ‘fire’ of creativity, you are a mere body, not a creating poet. The ‘waste’ is so much waste paper. Even the repeated refrains afforded by the villanelle form seem to taunt the poet with his failures, just as day by day his failure continues.

Of course, this interpretation may be faulty, but it’s one of the joys of reading William Empson’s poetry. Like that waste, it remains – and remains open to new analysis and new responses. It’s just that he probably deserves a few more readers to do the responding. Thankfully, his The Complete Poems (Penguin Modern Classics) contains extensive notes and an illuminating interview with Sir Christopher Ricks; its cover is also rather beautiful.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

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