William Empson Essays On Shakespeare

For example, the universal recognition of the difficulty and complexity (indeed, ambiguity) of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 94" ("They that have power…") in light of the preceding and following sonnets is traceable to Empson's sophisticated analysis of the sonnet in Some Versions of Pastoral.Empson's study of "Sonnet 94" goes some way towards explaining the high esteem in which the sonnet is now held (now reckoned as among the finest sonnets in the collection), as well as the technique of criticism and interpretation.He was a great critic of John Milton , William Shakespeare (Essays on Shakespeare), Elizabethan drama (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 2, The Drama), and published a monograph on the subject of censorship and the authoritative version of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (Faustus and the Censor); but he was also an important scholar of the metaphysical poets John Donne (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy) and Andrew Marvell.

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Empson's Milton's God is often described as a sustained attack on Christianity and defense of Milton's attempt to "justify God's ways to man" in Paradise Lost.

Empson argues that precisely the inconsistencies and complexities adduced by critics as evidence of the poem's badness, in fact, function in quite the opposite manner: What the poem brings out is the difficulty faced by anyone in encountering and submitting to the will of God and, indeed, the great clash between the authority of such a deity and the determinate desires and needs of human beings.

Empson's best known work is the book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which, together with Some Versions of Pastoral and The Structure of Complex Words, mine the astonishing riches of linguistic ambiguity in English poetic literature.

Empson's studies unearth layer upon layer of irony, suggestion, and argumentation in various literary works—a technique of textual criticism so influential that often Empson's contributions to certain domains of literary scholarship remain significant, though they may no longer be recognized as his.

Thus, for instance, Empson remarks in the first few pages of Some Versions of Pastoral that: What this means, as the context makes clear, is that eighteenth century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents.

This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death.

Already, the heat of Empson's political views find their way into these lines, though perhaps even here there is nothing more ideological than an ordinary sense of fairness or justice.

He goes on to deliver his political verdict with a subtle, although astute, psychological suggestion: Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the "bourgeois" themselves do not like literature to have too much "bourgeois ideology." Despite the overtly political issues grappled with in these passages, Empson is as sensitive to the moral dimension, producing an astute interpretation of the poetic achievement of Gray.

Perhaps it should be expected, then, that Empson consistently ridiculed, both outrightly in words and implicitly in practice, the doctrine of the Intentional Fallacy formulated by William K. Indeed, Empson's distaste for New Criticism could manifest itself in his distinctive dismissive and brusque wit as when he describes New Criticism, ironically referring to it as "the new rigour," as a "campaign to make poetry as dull as possible" (Essays on Renaissance Literature: Volume 1, Donne and the New Philosophy, p. Similarly, both the title and content of one of Empson's volumes of critical papers, Using Biography, show a patent and polemical disregard for the teachings of New Critics as much as for those of Roland Barthes and postmodern literary theories predicated upon, if not merely influenced by, the notion of the "Death of the Author." Despite the fact that some scholars regard Empson as a progenitor of certain of these currents of criticism, he was vexed enough about this view to comment: Now and again somebody like Christopher Norris may, in a pious moment, attempt to "recuperate" a particularly brilliant old-style reputation by claiming its owner as a New New Critic avant la lettre—Empson in this case, now to be thought of as having, in his "great theoretical summa," The Structure of Complex Words, anticipated deconstruction.

The grumpy old man repudiated this notion with his habitual scorn, calling the work of Derrida (or, as he preferred to call him, "Nerrida") "very disgusting" (Kermode, Pleasure, Change, and the Canon).

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