William Empson: Vol. I: Among the Mandarins

John Haffenden, Author . Oxford Univ. $45 (695p) ISBN 978-0-19-927659-2

Haffenden takes a completist approach to his idiosyncratic subject and his groundbreaking critical works, including Seven Types of Ambiguity . Empson (1906–1984) hailed from Yorkshire squirearchy whose unexceptional history interests Haffenden perhaps more than it should. Empson distinguished himself as a public school student with his mild unconventionality. At Cambridge on scholarship, he gained notoriety for his technically striking poetry. But his academic career, fostered by I.A. Richards, was derailed by scandal after a housekeeper's discovery of prophylactics in his possession clinched suspicions that Empson had a female visitor in his rooms (Haffenden identifies her, though the gentlemanly Empson did not). He published Seven Types of Ambiguity to immediate acclaim and accepted teaching positions abroad, which took him to Japan and then China during the Japanese invasion. In between, he returned to London, rubbing shoulders with Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. Haffenden, a professor of English literature at the University of Sheffield (where Empson eventually taught) and editor of Empson's Complete Poems , is a competent biographer, but for such a fascinating character and such an eventful life, he delves into the details without bringing off Empson in his singular brilliance. 16 b&w photos not seen by PW . (June)

Reviewed on: 05/16/2005
Release date: 06/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 695 pages - 978-0-19-953991-8
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