William Empson – 7 Types of Ambiguity

“…a grunt it at once too crude and too subtle to be conveyed by the alphabet at all.”
“…or like the growth of a flower, which it would be folly to allow analysis to destroy by digging the roots up and crushing out the juices into the light of day… I myself, I must confess….unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.” (9)
“the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.” (3)
“…is all good poetry supposed to be ambiguous?
I think that it is.” (xv)
“What I would suppose I that, whenever a receiver of poetry is seriously moved by an apparently simple line, what are moving in him are the traces of a great part of his past experience and of the structure of his past judgments.” (xv)
“rookie” analysis / Macbeth. (18)
“The human mind has two main scales on which to measure time.” (analysis)
ITALIAN ASSASSIN BOMB PLOT DISASTER
Headline analysis (236)
“The object of life, after all, is not to understand things, but to maintain one’s defences and equilibrium and live as well as one can.” (247)
“They must possess a fair amount of equilibrium or fairly strong defences; they must have the power first of reacting to a poem sensitively and definitely (one may call that feminine) and then, having fixed the reaction, properly stained, on a slide, they must be able to turn the microscope on to it with a certain indifference and without smudging it with their dingers; they must be able to prevent their new feelings of the same sort from interfering with the process of understanding the original ones (one may call that ‘masculine’) and have enough detachment not to mind what their sources of satisfaction may turn out to be.” (247)
“…whether a scientific idea of truth is relevant to poetry at all. It would be tempting, then, to say I was concerned with science rather than with beauty; to treat poetry as a branch of applied psychology.  But, so far as poetry can be regarded altogether dispassionately, so far as it is an external object for examination, it is dead poetry and not worth examining; further, so far as a critic has made himself dispassionate about it, so far as he has repressed sympathy in favour of curiousity, he has made himself incapable of examining it.” (248)

Analytical critic vs appreciative critic. (both in the same; poetry creates the dogma, dogma creates the poetry). (249)

“prosaic knowledge” (252) of criticism “I admit that the analysis of a poem can only be a long way of saying what is said anyhow by the poem it analyses.” (a poem says what cannot be said, or what cannot be said any other way — see: heresy of paraphrase) …so what’s the point?  The point is “such an advance in the machinery of description makes a reader feel stronger about his appreciations, more reliably able to distinguish the private or accidental from the critically important or repeatable, more confident of the reality (that is, the transferability) of his experiences….  What is needed for literary satisfaction is not, ‘this ia beautiful because of such and such a theory,’ but ‘this is all right; I am feeling correctly about this; I know the kind of way in which it is meant to be affecting me.” (254)

Best reading: Chapter 1, 2, 8.

So– for all of Empson’s pretensions towards a more scientific criticism, he is not nearly as radical as some of the other New Critics (though Empson is on the earlier side, and British side of things).  He does indeed believe that the full dissection of a poem can kill it.  He is more for a middle ground.

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