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Sir William Empson Biography

(1906–84), Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cambridge Poetry, Poems, The Gathering Storm, Collected Poems

British poet and critic, born at Yokefleet Hall near Howden, Yorkshire, educated at Magadalene College, Cambridge, where he initially read mathematics and went on to study English. In lieu of essays, Empson was permitted by I. A. Richards, his supervisor, to submit a dissertation which formed the core of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), the range and fluency of which established his reputation as a critic. A number of his best-known poems, including ‘To an Old Lady’, ‘Arachne’, and ‘Legal Fiction’, appeared in Cambridge Poetry of 1929. Between 1931 and 1934 he was Professor of English at Tokyo University; following a period of writing and study in London, in 1937 he took up a professorship at Peking National University, to which he returned after working in the BBC's monitoring department during the Second World War. From 1953 to 1971 he held the Chair of English at the University of Sheffield. Although he produced only two principal volumes of poetry, Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm (1940), his acutely individual verse, which combines unsettling emotional power and great intellectual vitality, remains highly valued. His virtuosity in adapting traditional forms gave him particular command of the iambic pentameter as a uniquely flexible vehicle for the detached but quirkily insistent conversational tone he characteristically used. Despite the intimidating complexity of occasional poems like ‘High Dive’, in which mathematical, literary, and philosophical aspects of his intelligence are imaginatively conflated, his work invariably retains an identifiable centre of humane sensitivity. Collected Poems (revised edition, 1955) contains nothing later than ‘Chinese Ballad’ of 1952. The dry and ironically recondite manner of his verse is clearly echoed in some of the poetry of the Movement, notably that of John Wain, who remarked on Empson's ‘passion, logic, and formal beauty’. Empson's career as a critic continued with Some Versions of Pastoral (1935); ‘The Child as Swain’, its concluding discussion of the extent to which Victorian anxieties inform Lewis Carroll's Alice books, memorably illustrates Empson's practice of relating literary works to their socio-cultural contexts. His minutely precise and revealing style of exegesis was influential in the emergence of the New Criticism during the 1930s and 1940s; he argued against that school's exclusion of biographical factors in Using Biography (1984), a collection of essays. His other works include The Structure of Complex Words (1951), a wide-ranging exploration of levels of meanings, and Milton's God (1961), in which his antagonism to Christianity is most apparent. Empson's criticism constitutes a major contribution to modern literary discourse, its breadth of reference and analytical clarity attractively complemented by his stimulatingly speculative manner and talent for axiomatic succinctness. Among his numerous posthumously published collections of critical essays are The Royal Beasts (1986) and Argufying (1987), both edited by John Haffenden. William Empson: The Man and His Work (1974) is a collection of essays and memoirs edited by Roma Gill.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Dutchman to Paul Engle Biography