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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 Read the rest of this entry