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Seven Types of Ambiguity

Experiment, Tractatus, Seven Types of Ambiguity

empson major poetry language

the book which established William Empson's reputation upon its appearance in 1930. It formed the first major product of the mode of close textual analysis initiated in the mid-1920s at Cambridge University by I. A. Richards, under whose supervision Empson originally drafted the work as a student. At the time, the Cambridge journal Experiment promoted a scientifically rational view of literature in the spirit of Wittgenstein's critique of the metaphysical dimensions of language in the Tractatus (1922); Empson partook strongly of such attitudes in Seven Types of Ambiguity, dissociating himself as a critic from any responsibility to produce moral or aesthetic judgements with regard to the value of literature. His purpose in the book was rather to demonstrate the workings of the ‘machinery for analysis’ in order for readers to have available an objective method of validating their own responses to texts. This was achieved by pursuing the implications of language in a wide range of poetry with great sensitivity of response to verbal nuance and occasional displays of brilliant ingenuity in establishing more remote extensions of meaning. In the preface to the second edition (1947) Empson admitted to having shown a tendency to ‘trail my coat’ and altered some of the more provocative passages. The term ‘ambiguity’ was central to his methodology, which admitted any linguistic event ‘which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of writing’. Metaphor, paronomasia, and Freudian indications of mental division were among his varieties of ambiguity, which he qualified with the statement that ‘sometimes … the word may be stretched absurdly far’. The scope of the poetry considered is very wide, comprehending verse by most of the major poets from Chaucer to T. S. Eliot.

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