Empson, William (1906–1984)
Stuart Christie
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, China

Empson, William (1906–1984)

Stuart Christie
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong,


Basic English; Beijing; Bloomsbury; George Orwell; I. A. Richards; Mass observation; Seven types of ambiguity; Some versions of the pastoral; Tokyo; W. H. Auden


English poet and critic, William Empson (燕卜 蓀) (1906–1984), is widely appreciated as an innovating and nodal figure whose life experience and criticism, particularly throughout the 1930s and 1940s, documented the foreigner's experience of global cities situated on the flanges of Western understanding. Working in Tokyo and Beijing before and after the Second World War, Empson was among the earliest and foremost advocates for literary globalization within and beyond English letters and, perhaps most especially, for the decolonization abroad of those elite traditions that had nurtured him and which, prior to 1949, remained models for higher learning far from England. Empson accordingly remains a significant figure for the study of the global city, because his work captures (and to a great extent was defined by) the early and increasingly popular recognition of multilateral bases for modern urban experience beyond British colonialism and on a truly global scale (Christie 2017).

So situated, Empson pioneered what we may recognize as the criticism of world literature by minting virtue out of relative ignorance: he was a career monolingual without orientalist credentials. Even so, he participated actively in the critique of influential twentieth-century totalitarian popular movements and likewise even more capably theorized pastoralized projections beyond them, his critical interests centering upon, and often asserting, the relevance of the global city, its historical inheritances, and religions – and most particularly, after 1952, the antithesis between those two great urban religions, Buddhism and Christianity.

Beyond creating scholarly capacity for world literature, Empson's many contributions also included cross-disciplinary structuralist approaches to language and close reading, area studies (art history in an Asian context), second-language learning (Basic English), urban sociological method (Mass Observation), and life writing and its criticism (primarily on Shakespeare, Marvell, Donne, and their contemporaries). A student of I. A. Richards, Empson had left Magdalene College, Cambridge, under a cloud having been expelled in 1929 for possession of birth control.Across the long retour that followed, apart from periods back in London (in Bloomsbury, 1934–37) and during wartime service as a propagandist at the BBC Monitoring Department and the Far Eastern Service (1940–1946), where he worked, as Chinese Editor, alongside Eric Blair (George Orwell) in "Liar's School," Empson lived in Asian metropolises: in imperial Tokyo, as a lecturer at Tokyo University of Literature and Science (Tokyo bunrika daigaku [東京文理科大学], 1931–1934) and, subsequently, in Beijing (1937–1939; 1947–1952), where he taught at Beˇijīng dàxué [北京大學], (Beida).

Within literary humanities, Empson is best known for his Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), written while he was an undergraduate as an exegesis of Richards' practical criticism. Seven Types, like the linguistic functionalism of Empson's older contemporary, Roman Jakobson, situated specific literary texts and usages in their historical context and sought to establish for them a wider field of literary-semiotic reference. At Cambridge after 1925, Empson's intellect was rightly considered formidable: he took a First in the Mathematics Tripos (Part I) in his first year, his emerging interest in literature being secondary, even as he served as "Skipper" (literary editor) for Granta and began writing and publishing poems inspired by the meter and metaphysics of John Donne. Empson subsequently changed his course to Literature; by 1929, he had achieved a "starred First" in the Literature Tripos, directly inspired by the energy of the Clark Lectures of this period delivered by T. S. Eliot (1926) and E. M. Forster (1927). By 1928, 15 poems among a collection eventually published as Empson's Collected Poems (1935) had already been written. Of this fruitful and formative period of collaboration with his student, Richards recalled:

At about [Empson's] third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [. . .] with the unpunctuated form of [Shakespeare's Sonnet 129] 'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame'. Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by 'You could do that with any poetry, couldn't you?' This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, 'You'd better go and do it, hadn't you?' (Lodge 1972: 145–46)

Concurrent with the drafting of his exegesis of Seven Types and while writing poetry, Empson ranged broadly in his undergraduate interests and friendships in the years that followed. Via Richards' stormy relationship with Charles K. Ogden, Empson became an early adherent of Basic English – the functional micro-language some advocated as a solution for the crisis in global illiteracy and the modern answer to Sanskrit – and, through his friendship with fellow students at Cambridge, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, served as advisory editor for the avantgardist student publication Experiment. Recruited by Madge, Empson was also among the earliest data collectors for the Mass Observation movement.

The difficulty at Cambridge, resulting in Empson's expulsion on charges of "gross immorality," forced him to look abroad, without a degree, for work. He turned again to Richards for help and, arriving in Tokyo in 1931, eventually ran afoul of the law (Haffenden 2004: 351). Settling into his work, Empson taught English letters to his Japanese students at a time of rapid and dynamic modernization in the imperial capital – the modern airport at Haneda, the Central Post Office in Marunouchi, Japan's first elevated railway (Tokkaido-Tokyo line), and the recently renamed Tokyo Science Museum (Ueno) were all evidence of the grip of modernizing forces attending the accumulated wealth of the Japanese empire. Japan's invasion of Chinese Manchuria likewise served as a foreboding backdrop, off- stage, to the Art Deco styles transforming the tastes of the Japanese elites whose sons and daughters Empson taught in the urban core. Empson grappled with his role and a lack of connection with the surrounding culture:

One reason I wanted to come East was to find out what teaching was like across so large a gulf, but most of the Bunrika students [. . .] are so anxious not to lose dignity that I am flung nervously into acting in sympathy with this object: after a year of it I know very little indeed even of what they know, still less what works for them in literature, or what methods would make anything else work. (Haffenden 2006: 46)

Certainly, as he wrote these words to Richards in September 1932, Empson had little idea of how much Japan and China would eventually "work," and how productively, for him. For all his sympathy and his Japanese students' diffidence, Empson continued to write poetry while in Tokyo and cultivated an itinerant interest in the Buddhist statuary accessible to him at Nara (most notably, the Horyu-ji temple and the Chugu-ji nunnery). Across his Tokyo triennium, he lived first in Kojimachi (Chiyoda [千代田区, chiyoda-ku]) and then Takanawa (Minato [港区] minato-ku), where he met and fell in love with "Haru" who inspired in him the famous lines about illicit love during an earthquake depicted in his fine poem, "Aubade" (1937):

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff.
The thing could take Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
(Empson 1950: 48)

Elsewhere in the poem, the persona owns that "the guarded tourist makes the guide the test," a coy line which underscores not only his local lover's greater knowledge in the contact zone of culture and language difference ("The language problem but you have to try") but also the fact of modern urbanity testing these differences and, ultimately, leveling them ("I hoped that various buildings were brought low"). Finally, "Aubade" is a city poem, prescient in its depiction of a globalizing urbanity requiring all insular traditions to converge, even as any totalizing claim is sundered "after two aliens had one kiss" – in a shared embrace, a moment, a sudden awakening into danger followed by the snapping back to form.

Indeed Empson, like the persona of his poem, had already up and gone: the startling and sudden impact of Seven Types of Ambiguity among academic circles back in England went largely unnoticed by Empson in Japan. His widening catalog of Buddhist sculptures (some photographed) continued, as did his deliberate and incisive encounter with hegemonic strains of Marxist thought – termed by Empson "proletarian literature" – which he also read and wrote on while based in Tokyo. Published in 1935, Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral is as innovative and unconventional as Seven Types had been, employing the critique of genre, typology (e.g., doubled plots), and remarkable interpretive range to works ranging from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Some Versions at once establishes, and yet ultimately deposes, any notion of the tradition of English pastoral as beholden to Marxism, including its Stalinist flavor of the day, which had so gripped W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and others of Empson's generation. His analysis is equally fresh and acute, offering a critique of the propagandistic uses to which literature was then being put:

Proletarian literature usually has a suggestion of pastoral, a puzzling form which looks proletarian but isn't. I must worry the meaning of the term for a moment. One might define proletarian art as the propaganda of a factory-working class which feels its interests opposed to the factory owners'; this narrow sense is perhaps what is usually meant but not very interesting. You couldn't have proletarian literature in this sense in a successful socialist state. The wider sense of the term includes such folk- literature as is by the people, for the people, and about the people. (Empson 1974: 6)

Empson's ensuing insight into the complex psychology of popular movements and political propaganda, witnessed by him on the ground in Japan and China and again when promulgating the British "message" over the airwaves at the BBC in wartime, was to instill in him a probing knowledge about the capacity of language to shift and to subvert extant bases of knowledge, combining as it does the power to signify and to distort meaning.

After his return to England, Empson lived in Bloomsbury and found freelance work before making his bid (again with Richards' help) for a teaching job in China which, then in full throes of the second Sino-Japanese War, may have been just about the best he could do. Empson arrived right in the middle of it. He was widely praised by his Chinese colleagues and students for having remained at his post in advance of the Japanese occupation of the Chinese capital in the summer of 1937. He, along with his colleagues and students from Beida and the other "exiled" Beijing-based universities, relocated westward – first to Changsha (chángshā,長沙) in Hunan province (hu´nán [湖南]) and then onto Kunming (kūnmíng, 昆明) in Yunnan province (yunnan, 雲 南) in February 1938. Once in Yunnan, the remaining intellectuals of "free China" established themselves, in temporary housing, as the "National Southwestern Associated University" (guóli xīnán liánhé dàxue, 國立西南聯合 大學) or Lianda. The mythology of Empson's character and conduct among the exiled Chinese universities persists today – his citing, albeit imperfectly, vast tracts of Book 1 from Milton's Paradise Lost and other canonical texts from memory for want of any reading materials, sleeping on his chalkboard in lieu of a cot, and long stretches without food and a bath. One rightly suspects such anecdotalism; still, the privation was real enough, and it inspired some of his best poetry, as in "Autumn on Nan-Yűeh" (1940):

And it is true I flew, I fled,
I ran about in hope, on trust,
I felt I had escaped from They.
Who sat on pedestals and fussed [. . .]
But is it true one ought to dread,
This timid flap, that shirk, that lust? (1950, 71)

After the Second World War, Empson and his family returned to Beijing where he enjoyed a second, more stable tenure at Beida (1947–1952) and, occasionally, lectures at Tsinghua University (This work was partially funded by the British Council prior to and succeeding the liberation of China by communist armies.). Empson was among only a handful of foreigners in Tiananmen Square upon the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949; he was also among the very last British expatriate professors to quit China after the closing down of the British Council's operations there in 1952. He returned to England for good that year, establishing himself at the University of Sheffield in 1953 where he served, sometimes as Head of Department, until his retirement in 1971.

China, or so it seemed, had decentered Empson's interests decisively. This shift after the war resulted in his increasingly stubborn commitment to authorial intentionalism and linguistic structuralism, a pairing many of his erstwhile colleagues found odd. He also set himself the task of rescuing John Milton from those he called the "neo-Christians," projects which were to serve as the basis for his final two works of importance, The Structure of Complex Words (1951) – first begun at Lianda – and Milton's God (1961). Their publication was to mark the decisive separation of Empson's thought from literary movements of the academic mainstream, such as the American New Criticism, which had formerly sought to domesticate him; Milton's God, in particular, also demonstrated Empson's capacity and appetite for polemic as he set his sights upon a favorite theme: the capacity of institutionalized Christianity to sanction torture worship. This stance earned Empson the lasting enmity of distinguished critics with whom he had formerly enjoyed a degree of collegiality, ranging from T. S. Eliot to C.S. Lewis to Helen Gardner. Caricatured at times for his eccentricity, Empson remains among the twentieth-century's finest, if most unorthodox, literary critical minds, capably occupying that historical juncture when anglophone world letters in the imperial context encountered equally forceful democratizing crosscurrents and were fit to purposes far different from those originally intended.


Of tremendous significance at the time of this writing is that Empson's The Face of the Buddha manuscript has been recently annotated and published (Arrowsmith 2016). Believed by Empson himself to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in 2007 in a box in the basement of the British Library where it had lain undisturbed for nearly 60 years. Its analysis ensures a fresh and timely reconsideration of Empson's legacy beyond the narrower confines of Anglo-American literary scholarship in the English language. Witnessing directly the impacts of modernizing urban experience as it emanated outward from Beijing and Tokyo, Empson recognized the unique harnessing of world literature to traditions persisting well beyond the anthropological and philological confines of orientalist institutions in London, New York, Berlin, and Paris. Notably, Empson's impact upon his many students in Japan and China, and their students, remains to be fully measured. The undertaking promises an important, and perhaps an even more lasting, account of Empson's remarkable contributions to the transculturation of anglophone literary modernity as it traveled from west to east, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

The final publication is available at Springer Nature via http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62592-8_26-1.


Arrowsmith, Rupert, ed. 2016. The face of the Buddha by William Empson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christie, Stuart. 2017. Empson the space man: Literary modernism makes the scalar turn. Comparative Literature: East & West 1: 25–39.

Empson, William. 1950. Collected poems. New York: New Directions.

Empson, William. 1974. Some versions of pastoral. New York: New Directions.

Haffenden, John. 2004. Among the mandarins: A life of William Empson. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haffenden, John, ed. 2006. Selected letters of William Empson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lodge, David, ed. 1972. 20th century literary criticism: A reader. London: Longman.