Tag Archives: William Empson

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: