William Empson

The Pepys Librarian writes about the critic and poet WILLIAM EMPSON, who was a student at Magdalene College from 1925 to 1929.


William Empson was one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century; he was also an influential poet, writing difficult but intellectually generous poems.   Empson came up to College from Winchester to read Mathematics, in which he excelled.  He gained a First in Part I. After a less impressive performance in Part II, he commenced another first degree, this time in the new discipline of English.  A friend and pupil of the outstanding literary critic I A Richards, within a year Empson had been elected to a bye-fellowship in Magdalene with Richards’s strong and essential support.  Magdalene thus had two of the finest literary critical minds of the 1920s on the Fellowship at a time when the discipline of English studies was developing rapidly.


Empson and I.A. Richards at Magdalene, from the College Archives.

It is hard now to appreciate how young a subject the academic study of English literature actually is.  The Faculty of English in Cambridge was only founded in 1919 – less than a century ago and long after subjects such as Law or Engineering.  For the Victorians, thoughtful engagement with writing in English had been a by-product of the needs of other subjects, in particular Modern Languages and Classics.  For these disciplines the meaning, tone and structures of an English literary text were to be examined as a starting point from which a student could make an adequate translation. English departments not just in Cambridge owe a huge debt to Richards and Empson for articulating a new emphasis on the study of English literature in its own right.

Empson wrote to thank Richards for supporting his bye-fellowship. But disaster struck.  Always something of the enfant terrible, Empson found himself writing to Richards again all too soon: he had been sent out of residence.  His bedmaker (cleaner) had found condoms (euphemistically referred to in the Governing Body papers as ‘engines of love’) in his room and Empson had been asked to leave.  Empson’s letter to Richards was from the family home back on Humberside.  The letter survives in the Magdalene College Richards collection, and we can perceive   Empson’s self-pity and sense of injustice.



Letter from Empson to I.A. Richards, from the College Archives.


Among the earliest records of Empson in the College archives is a poem about the college itself:  ‘Sleeping out in the Cloister’ was printed in the Magdalene College Magazine (1929).  This was merely 4 months before Empson was sent down, and relates to the area of Magdalene near the Pepys Library in second court.  The printing of verses by students and Fellows in the Magazine was common in the years after A C Benson had established the annual publication of a College record; and in this regard, the journal echoed those of public schools (on which Benson’s concept was based). In ‘Sleeping out in the cloister’, Empson wrote that “The creepiness of Cambridge scenery,/… consists in having trees,/ And never, from any view-point, looking ‘wooded.’/ What was once virgin forest, in safe hands.”  By contrast, the College cloister offers an “opposite disorder”. “Here”, writes Empson observing the trees which overarched the court, “jungle re-engulfs palace and campus.”  It is meant not only as a description of the unique connection between the formal and the wild which we can still see in the College grounds but also as a metaphor to represent the relationship of a dynamic young scholar to the tenacious traditions of Victorian and Edwardian learning.

The poem was subsequently reproduced in one of the student publications, Venture (1930).  The tradition of writing poetry was closely associated with the idea of college (and school) magazines.  But there was a new influence, too: the formation of the young Faculty of English.  Whether this was a help or a hindrance is a moot point.  Hugh Sykes Davis waspishly wrote in 1955: “It is certainly no part of an English Faculty’s business to make young men into poets; it is much more its business to stop them from trying to be poets, and this it often does with some success. But those who are unstoppable are none the less influenced by the methods which have been used to stop them, and they often reflect closely the literary tendencies of the Faculty.”  The literary tendencies in the late 1920s, as outlined by Hugh Sykes Davies, boiled down to an interest in the imitation of the Metaphysicals (manifested in the use of long words, an aspiration to containing within poetry ‘difficult’ ideas and a lack of interest in place) at the expense of the Romantics; and Empson was perhaps the leading example. Here, for example, are a few lines from his poem, ‘Missing Dates’:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The multiple layers of metaphor language and the sense of a half-complete struggle to define or at least control the ideas through oblique but epigrammatic statements are very striking.  They remind us of Donne or Vaughan.

The importance of Richards as an influence on Empson cannot be over-stated, though there were other powerful lecturers in Cambridge – Wittgenstein and Moore, for example.  And Empson’s first degree had been in Mathematics.  But it was Richards’ lectures on Practical Criticism which created the zeitgeist.  Empson was working in the weeks before his expulsion on what was to be his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity.  It is original, startling in places and hugely influential in the teaching of English nowadays not only at university but at school too; and it offers in many ways the intellectual positioning implied by Richards’s more empirical and experimental interest in the processes of reading and understanding.

Empson stayed in touch with his old tutor, and they conducted a lively debate for the next forty years. In green ink on the inside cover of his copy of William Empson’s The structure of complex words (1951) which is housed in the Magdalene collection, Richards wrote, “My feeling is that W.E. is almost always right in dissenting from what he takes I.A.R. to be saying, but nearly invariably wrong about that.”    A picture of a moody-looking Empson is taped into the book’s inside cover.



William Empson’s ‘The Structure of Complex Words’ from the I.A. Richards Collection, Magdalene College.

The archives also preserve a copy of a letter dated 1983 from William Empson, by then ‘Sir William’, on the occasion of the elevation of fellow-poet Stephen Spender to the same honour: “Isn’t it awful that Spender has got a knighthood? It takes all the point out of mine.  Put not your trust in princes”.

For yet another example of the intriguing Magdalene connections between literary figures of the twentieth century, we might note that William Empson, as a lecturer at Sheffield in 1959 , became the PhD supervisor for that lively spirit behind the Cambridge and London-based poetic circle called The Group, Philip Hobsbaum.  Hobsbaum in his turn, gained a lectureship at Queens’ Belfast where he met, taught  and became a key influence on  a “gangling youth…smiling and keen”; a poet who will be  the theme of a later post in this series – the Nobel Laureate and Honorary Fellow of Magdalene, Seamus Heaney.

By M.E.J. Hughes

Pepys Librarian and Keeper of the Old Library

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