A belated appreciation of William Empson from the haply mute

18 Jun

I ought to have read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity years ago.  Promotional blurbs don’t lie.  This book has, indeed, been “a landmark in the history of literary criticism” since 1930, but I just picked it up this year.

I like ambiguity and I agree with (and find charming) Mr. Empson’s opening assertion that ambiguity is a kind of deceit.

But very quickly, I begin to lose interest in the difference between ambiguities of the first type and the second type, and I’m not sure I have the stamina for a discussion of all seven types of ambiguity.

And, soon, I’m skipping the text and reading only the examples Empson has drawn from literature.  They’re fun.  For instance, in chapter one, as an illustration of how “a metrical scheme imposes a sort of intensity of interpretation upon the grammar,” there is this excerpt from a poem by Robert Browning:

I want to know a butcher paints,
A baker rhymes for his pursuit,
Candlestick-maker much acquaints
His soul with song, or, haply mute,
Blows out his brains upon the flute.

I’m with Browning.  I want to know a butcher paints, too. Actually, I really like almost all the material Mr. Empson has chosen as illustration.  But I get restless with his explanation of how it works:

‘I want to know that the whole class of butchers paints,’ or ‘I want to know that some one butcher paints’ or ‘I want to know personally a butcher who paints’; or any of these may be taken as the meaning, and their resultant is something like, ‘I want to know that a member of the class of butchers is moderately likely to be a man who paints, or at any rate that he can do so if he wishes.’

Couldn’t I just have the poem?  Maybe this whole enterprise (pinning down ambiguity) is wrong-headed, for my tastes.  Maybe ambiguity, like a few other mysteriously beautiful things, should just be left alone.  

Just show me an example of thing itself, instead of describing it, defining it.

That’s what I told my father, the last time my parents came to visit, when he picked up Seven Types of Ambiguity from my kitchen table, and asked me what I thought of it.  I think he laughed at my cranky answer.

When my parents left, I tried the book again, and found this inscription on the first page:

53 Responses to “A belated appreciation of William Empson from the haply mute”

  1. sledpress June 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm #


    • jenny June 19, 2012 at 5:04 am #

      Sled, just a whimsical Father’s Day card for a whimsical father.

  2. Christopher June 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    While I had never heard of “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, I had heard of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by a Stephen R Covey.

    Everyone, but everyone, was reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” twenty years ago. Being the compleat conformist, I tried reading it too but had to give up because it was just too intellectual for me.

    As a result, I remained a Highly Non-Effective Person.

    But I have to say, “Seven Types of Ambiguity” intrigues me. Do you think that were I to read it, I might, in addition to learning all about Ambiguity, become a Highly Effective Person too?

    • Richard June 19, 2012 at 1:05 am #

      Compleat conformist, Christopher? You’re angling for compliments. 🙂

      • sledpress June 19, 2012 at 7:22 am #

        Oh, trust you not to spare the rod.

      • Richard June 19, 2012 at 10:22 pm #

        There’s the rub, Sledpress.

    • jenny June 19, 2012 at 5:08 am #

      I, Christopher, am also highly non-effective. Highly.

      I’m thinking of reading Ulysses next. Have you read it?

  3. Richard June 18, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    Excessive clarity and excessive analysis lead to ambiguity, as shown by this assertion.

    Highly subjective, ambiguity can be judged only by the degree of bewilderment or enlightenment in others and is volatile.

    In legal documents, failure is largely the result of losing track and over-use of ornament rather than the use of particular words. So it is, I imagine, in poetry. Rhyme and meter help to concentrate the mind.

    Word-association tends toward music, where ambiguity is non-existent.

    It’s all about means and ends, conscious or unconscious.


    • jenny June 19, 2012 at 5:16 am #

      Hold on, while I gauge my degree of bewilderment, Richard.

      • Richard June 19, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

        The problem is a tripartite one. (Notice the ambiguity).

        Would a better term be confusion (without the italics)? That depends on the degree which cannot be judged until after the gauging. Hence the dilemma. The only solution is to gauge before the confusion/bewilderment sets in, an impossibility since until then you will not know that gauging is required.

        This brings me to the further difficulty alluded to above. Bewilderment/confusion ceases in the holding on (with or without the italics) process so cannot then be gauged, a single issue with three unresolved aspects. A trifurcation (with the italics).

        The key is the method of gauging. I suggest you read the text repeatedly. This reveals either a convergent or divergent series, one providing a solution at infinity, the other an impossibility.

        I hope this helps.

      • Richard June 19, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

        A fly might traverse a cobweb with ease or get caught. And you know what happens then!

  4. Richard June 19, 2012 at 1:12 am #

    News of William Empson’s death was exaggerated.

    • jenny June 19, 2012 at 5:08 am #

      That’s funny!!! 🙂

      • Richard June 19, 2012 at 7:47 am #

        Me or Mark Twain?

      • jenny June 20, 2012 at 5:15 am #

        You are funny (and apt) for bringing Twain along to this particular party. That’s what I meant. Cheers!

      • Richard June 20, 2012 at 6:39 am #


  5. Christopher June 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Since “Empson” is a name that appears in my family tree, it’s just possible I am (or I was) blood-related to William.

    Is this why I’ve never known who I really am, I wonder?

    • jenny June 21, 2012 at 5:41 am #

      Blood-related to the king of ambiguity! Now you really have to read the book. Or try to. I did also discover this Sir Walter Scott poem in Empson’s book. In addition to its general appeal, it might be an argument for reading difficult books:

      Lucy Ashton’s Song

      LOOK not thou on beauty’s charming;
      Sit thou still when kings are arming;
      Taste not when the wine-cup glistens;
      Speak not when the people listens;
      Stop thine ear against the singer;
      From the red gold keep thy finger;
      Vacant heart and hand and eye,
      Easy live and quiet die.

      • dafna June 23, 2012 at 12:38 am #

        great poem.

        which type of ambiguity does it express?
        if lucy ashton be a beauty and her song be a song not meant to be heard… the message seems clear, more irony than ambiguity.

        the cover of the book had me thinking it was a book about typography!

      • jenny June 23, 2012 at 11:46 am #

        Hey, Dafna! I like it too. It’s not usually the message (overall) that is ambiguous; it’s the language. But, you’re asking me which type (according to Empson) of ambiguity is represented here. I don’t remember.

        Yep. The book cover looks classy. Typography is cool. What little I know about it, anyway.

      • Richard June 26, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

        Do you really mean that, jenny? Every vestige of experience is riven with ambiguity: love/hate, life/death, knowledge/ignorance, self/others, the world/existence, tact/honesty, truth/falsehood, joy/sorrow, beauty/ugliness, attraction/revulsion, reality/delusion. Each of those words is an ambiguity and each is the shadow of an enduring pain/ecstasy, perplexity/clarity.

        And each pair is not black/white, is it dafna, zero/one, but every shade and colour in between in a never-ending circle.

        This ambiguity is the very essence of meaning, so is the overall message. A poem conveys nothing and everything.

      • jenny June 27, 2012 at 5:55 am #


  6. Cyberquill June 21, 2012 at 4:00 am #

    I want to know a lawyer cooks.

    • jenny June 21, 2012 at 5:44 am #

      A member of the class of lawyers is moderately likely to be a woman who cooks, or at any rate, she can do so if she wishes.

      • Cyberquill June 21, 2012 at 7:20 am #

        Or if her husband wishes. You know, there’s actually a novel titled Seven Types of Ambiguity, with the word “seven” spelled out. I started reading it once, but I couldn’t get through it, as one thing didn’t really happen after another; sort of several narratives going on simultaneously, or told from different perspectives. Hard to explain. Very confusing. Totally fiction for the feminine reader. You’d love it.

      • sledpress June 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

        “Fiction for the feminine reader?” Now things are getting offensive.

        Please bring me John Buchan with a side of Conan Doyle, E. R. Eddison. and Rider Haggard, with Robertson Davies for dessert.

        “Feminine” is a word that should be applied only to sanitary napkins, if that.

      • jenny June 22, 2012 at 6:04 am #


        I’m pretty sure CQ’s just riffing on my previous post (fiction for men, Chekhov’s phrase “feminine reader” and so on). Just a joke. Don’t be offended.

        By the way, I used the word “pretty” to make my comment more feminine. Kidding….kidding.

      • Cyberquill June 22, 2012 at 8:31 am #

        Exactly. Why expend the effort to come up with insults of my own when I can simply pluck them from surrounding posts?

      • Richard June 23, 2012 at 5:01 am #

        jenny’s right, Sled. CQ has the gift of an intense, harmless humour. He stretches a leg-pull to the point of dislocation but never beyond, so you two have a lot in common. He is an asset on any blog.

        Now I must brace myself …. just in case.

      • sledpress June 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

        Oh, it was quite clear where the joke originated. I rest my case nonetheless. “Feminine” is a pejorative adjective that smells of violet dusting powder layered over sour breast milk, and I reserve the right to dislocate the leg of anyone who uses it in my presence.

      • Cyberquill June 25, 2012 at 7:20 am #

        To rest one’s case and then keep talking is a classic feminine behavior. And in my native language, a third of all nouns are feminine, including the sun, so forgive me for failing to view the term as a pejorative.

  7. Christopher June 25, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    If I might make bold as to intrude on this conversation, is not “feminine” as legitimate an adjective as “masculine”? If “feminine” is to be proscribed, “masculine” should logically be proscribed too.

    If so, what replaces them?

    If “feminine” is a pejorative word, it may be because men have made it so. If a woman, and you think too that “feminine” is pejorative, have you not simply adopted this masculine view, and so given it a dignity it doesn’t deserve?

    Whatever happened to the feminine sense of worth?

    • Richard June 26, 2012 at 5:10 am #

      A bit off-thread, Christopher, but I thought this might interest Sled:


      There’s a follow-up piece today about the vilification she has received as a result of the article, but it hasn’t reached the web yet. It’s entitled: Single, Childless and Very Proud.

    • sledpress June 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

      I am female. I have a pronounced sense of worth. “Feminine,” other than in the technical linguistic sense which CQ cites — which has as much to do with human gender as male and female electrical and plumbing parts — is a straitjacket and a bludgeon at once, in my experience used primarily to reduce women to ineffectual, frail, diffident baby factories who are afraid to take decisive action or plant their feet solidly on the ground, and instead dribble their lives away reporducing, picking out china patterns and choosing colors of eye-shadow. Women are praised for being “feminine,” that is, decorative/yielding/maternal; or scolded for not being “feminine” because they display minds of their own or an interest in power other than the manipulative kind.involved with nagging or discreet and delicate flirtation.

      Maybe you had to be exposed to people from the American South to grasp the true horror of the word.

      • Cyberquill June 27, 2012 at 4:29 am #

        Methinks the lady doth protest too late. You were the first commenter on the previous entry that featured a quote by Chekov about the “feminine reader,” and you didn’t bat an eyelash about it. Apparently, when the author of this blog quotes Chekov saying “feminine,” it’s OK, but when I quote the author of this blog quoting Chekov saying “feminine,” the word suddenly sets off a string of demeaning associations to sanitary napkins and diffident baby factories. I therefore conclude that your objections to the word hinge less on the word itself than on the identity of the speaker. Or perhaps on what time of month it is.

      • sledpress June 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

        Wrong and wrong, CQ. For starters, I’m way too old for it to matter what time of month it is — which is a typical slang dragged out by men to discount anything a woman says that they don’t like, as is the word “feminine” itself when applied to anything they want to belittle.

        Second, you used the word “feminine” in that snarky way in your comment, and you used it in the year 2012, not in whatever year Chekov was writing, to (so I interpreted it) dismiss a novel you didn’t think enough of to finish.

        At no point have I suggested you might be suffering from hormonal fluctuations or self-centeredness, but since you’ve decided to make it personal, let me say I’m not really interested in feeding your chronic need to sling smarter-than-thou putdowns at other bloggers and commenters, which has reduced my pleasure in many conversations before this one. I will leave this conversation and not come back anywhere that I expect you to be. I like Jenny and many of her readers very much, but life is too short for me to spend time on this.

      • Cyberquill June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

        “All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.” (Marcel Proust)

  8. dafna June 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm #


  9. dafna June 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    • Richard June 29, 2012 at 1:40 am #

      hmmmmmm …………… yeaaaaaaaaah. 🙂

    • jenny June 29, 2012 at 6:26 am #

      Dafna! Thanks. OK, I got Aretha all weekend now. And Sammy too. 🙂

      • dafna June 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

        so very perfect!

  10. dafna August 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    hi jenny,

    are you back from your world tour yet? looking forward to a new blog entry from you.


  11. dafna October 1, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    hi jenny,

    still thinking about you. miss you. please write soon. hope all is going as planned, as much as it’s in our power to plan things 🙂

    • jenny October 2, 2012 at 10:09 am #

      Hi Dafna and happy new year! For the first time ever I chanted Torah on Yom Kippur without a single mistake or hesitation. Just nailed it.

      Surely this signals all good things for the year. And may you have all good things this year too!

  12. Christopher November 2, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    I note that your first posting was June 18, 2010, and your last was June 18, 2012. Since I intuit that this blog has seen its final entry, was the date of your putative final posting, deliberate?

    • jenny November 3, 2012 at 8:00 am #

      It was not deliberate, Christopher, but now that you point it out, perhaps I’ll pretend that it was. I like that sort of thing, the symmetry…and the pretending.

      I still accept invitations to read a good book. And talk about it. And talk about it. And talk about it.

  13. Christopher November 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Talking of books, I’m currently reading “Quiet” by Susan Cain. Because it’s non-fiction, I wouldn’t be reading it but for it having been given me for my birthday.

    I’ll explain that more than half the books I used to read were non-fiction. Now, with the internet, I find little need to read non-fiction.

    “Quiet” is about being an introvert in an extrovert culture. Among countless other things, it says in so many words that today’s Western culture (particularly the American) celebrates the party-loving, motor-mouth, and explains why.

    To the extent, then, that you’re not a party-loving motor-mouth, and are the type who likes to read serious books alone in little rooms, you’ll always feel like a Stranger in a Strange Land – a feeling, by the way, that I’ve had since birth. Hence the attraction for me of “Quiet”.

    If all this piques you, why, just go to YouTube, and you can see lots of videos of Susan Cain talking about all this.

    For my part, I’m glad “Quiet” was given me for my birthday. I’m finding it an enlightening and comforting read.

    • jenny November 4, 2012 at 6:47 am #

      I’ll look it up. Thanks.

      And happy birthday!

  14. Christopher January 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    How did you like (are you liking) China Mieville’s “The City and the City”?

    • jenny January 3, 2013 at 7:17 am #

      It’s terrific, but I’m not very far along–I got caught up in a Philip Roth marathon (maybe not so good for my psyche). Are you reading it? If you are, I’ll step up the pace. There is a reference to Bruno Schulz at the very beginning. That’s a great start.

      • Christopher January 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

        No, I’m not reading it, so you can continue it at your leisure.

        I’m surprised, though, you didn’t polish it off in a day!!!

        I was in my local bookstore the other day and was paging through some of Philip Roth. I was attracted, not so much to American Pastoral, but to The Plot Against America, no doubt because I think I detect ever-so-faint hints that something similar to that scenario could easily become reality, and relatively soon.

        Of course it could be only my imagination, and it likely is!!!

        I also paged through “Amsterdam” and was attracted to it.

        Meanwhile I still have to finish “A Man of Parts”, that I’m much enjoying. I’m not sure, though, it would quite be your cup of tea (or mug of coffee). But I could easily be wrong.

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