Empson, Sir William


Empson, Sir William
born Sept. 27, 1906, Hawdon, Yorkshire, Eng.
died April 15, 1984, London

British poet and critic.

He studied at Cambridge and later taught in Japan and China. His precocious Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), which suggests that uncertainty or overlap of meanings in the use of a word can be an enrichment of poetry rather than a fault, had an immense influence on 20th-century criticism; its close examination of poetic texts helped lay the foundation for New Criticism. Later works include Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and The Structure of Complex Words (1951).

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▪ British critic and poet
born Sept. 27, 1906, Hawdon, Yorkshire, Eng.
died April 15, 1984, London

      English critic and poet known for his immense influence on 20th-century literary criticism and for his rational, metaphysical poetry.

      Empson was educated at Winchester College and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He earned degrees in mathematics and in English literature, which he studied under I.A. Richards. His first poems were published during this time. Several of the verses published in Empson's Poems (1935) also were written while he was an undergraduate and reflect his knowledge of the sciences and technology, which he used as metaphors in his largely pessimistic assessment of the human lot. Much influenced by John Donne, the poems are personal, politically unconcerned (despite the preoccupation with politics in the 1930s), elliptical, and difficult, even though he provided some explanatory notes. Later collections of his poetry included The Gathering Storm (1940) and Collected Poems (1949; rev. ed. 1955).

      Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; rev. ed. 1953), one of the most influential critical works of the first half of the 20th century, was essentially a close examination of poetic texts. Empson's special contribution in this work was his suggestion that uncertainty or the overlap of meanings in the use of a word could be an enrichment of poetry rather than a fault, and his book abounds with examples. The book helped lay the foundation for the influential critical school known as the New Criticism, although Empson never allied himself with the New Critics' attempts to disregard authorial intention. Empson applied his critical method to somewhat longer texts in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and further elaborated it in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), where he added attention to social, political, and psychological concerns to his primarily linguistic focus.

      From 1931 to 1934 Empson taught English literature at the University of Tokyo, and he subsequently joined the English faculty of Peking National University in China. He was Chinese editor at the British Broadcasting Corporation during World War II and returned to teach at Peking National University from 1947 to 1952. Empson was professor of English literature at Sheffield University from 1953, becoming emeritus in 1971. He was knighted in 1979.

      Empson's later criticism includes many uncollected essays and one book, Milton's God (1961), in which his extreme rationalism is directed against a positive valuation of the Christian God. This later body of writing concerns itself with biography and textual criticism as well as with issues of interpretation and literary theory more generally.

Additional Reading
Critical studies of Empson's work include Roma Gill (ed.), William Empson: The Man and His Work (1974); and John Constable (ed.), Critical Essays on William Empson (1993).

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Empson, Sir William — (1906 1984)    Born at Yokefleet Hall, Howden, Yorkshire, son of an Army officer, he was educated at Winchester College and studied mathematics and English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930),… …   British and Irish poets

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  • sir — /serr/, n. 1. a respectful or formal term of address used to a man: No, sir. 2. (cap.) the distinctive title of a knight or baronet: Sir Walter Scott. 3. (cap.) a title of respect for some notable personage of ancient times: Sir Pandarus of Troy …   Universalium

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  • sir — (Voz inglesa.) ► sustantivo masculino Tratamiento honorífico empleado por los británicos. * * * sir (ingl.; pronunc. [ser]) m. *Tratamiento de respeto usado en Inglaterra delante de un nombre de hombre o para dirigirse a la persona de que se… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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