Empson’s Elegy: The Legacy of John Donne in the Poetry of William Empson

Empson’s Elegy: The Legacy of John Donne in the Poetry of William Empson

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  Empson’s Elegy: The Legacy of John Donne in the Poetry of William Empson In the opening to his 1957 essay, 'Donne the Space Man', William Empson identifies John Donne's poetryas a strong influence upon his early work: 'I was imitating it in my own poetry, which I did with earnestconviction' (p.337). Later, he describes this relationship with Donne's work as being carried out 'with loveand wonder' (1972, p. 95). In both essays, Empson shows a dedication not only to the defence of Donne's personal reputation, but to his wider ideas and approach to poetry. While explicit, and widelyacknowledged by critics beside Empson himself (Gill, 1974; Fry, 1991), the direct effect of Donne uponEmpson's creative work has received little attention, excepting brief glosses in support of wider arguments.However, a closer examination of the relationship between Donne and Empson's poetry indicates a broadcontextual, ideological and stylistic affinity. This is particularly evident when considering Empson as animitator and elegist of Donne, using similarly eclectic imagery and adopting the relationship to contemporaryscience Donne exhibited.In order to understand the extent to which Donne influenced Empson, we must consider Donnethrough Empson's own interpretation. It is clear that Empson perceived a difference between his own viewand that of his contemporaries. His refutation of editing choices in new editions of Donne's poetry, mostthoroughly of Helen Gardner's The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets  (1965) in 'Rescuing Donne'(1972), indicates a firm, often contentious critical stance. This earned him some criticism. M.P.H.Merchant, for example, was driven to question whether 'Professor Empson's own opinions were in someway becoming confused with Donne's' (Haffenden, 2009, p.400). In 'Donne The Space Man', Empsonlargely rejects more widely accepted Earthbound and colonial readings of Donne's microcosms in favour of a prescient Donne, definitively preoccupied with cosmology (1957). In addition to this, Price observes that'Empson took from Donne a working definition of metaphysical poetry, in which the individual person ismade to stand for everything' (2005, p.319). This idea - taken from neo-platonic and hermetic philosophy,wherein the universe and man are perceived respectively as macrocosm and microcosm - is particularly1  significant to Donne's representation of love in his early poetry. Empson, indeed, states that Donne and hisimitators 'believed [...] that a love affair is the fundamental means of understanding the world' (Haffenden,1995, p.4). Price argues that this is also true of Empson's poetry, where the disparate scales of the moderncosmos, as described by Eddington and Einstein, and the personal are brought together to reconcile thecontradictions of modern life. As such, Empson's view of Donne was deeply connected with his owninterests, in cosmology, in the idea of the microcosm, and in the application of new science to personalexperience.Empson's celebrated note accompanying his poem, 'Bacchus', provides ‘the notion [...] that lifeinvolves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’ (1969 , pp. 104-5). 1 The word 'analysis' here demonstrates Empson's preoccupation with scientific method, and themetaphysical approach to poetry provides a fertile poetic equivalent to this type of thought. Donne's poemsare exploratory, juxtaposing images in unexpected ways, often to create highly structured andfundamentally logical arguments. The most widely known example of this is the early love poem 'The Flea',where lines such as 'It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be'function much like an equation: your blood + my blood = our blood, together. The effect is similar to that in'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning', where the unification of separated lovers' souls is described: 'Our two souls therefore, which are one'. The influence of such lines is clear in poems like Empson's 'Arachne':'two is least can with full tension strain, / Two molecules; one, and the film disbands'. While a mathematicalrendering of these poems is reductive, losing the elegance of the metaphors, chiasmus and imagery, itserves to illustrate the similarity of such poems to the patterns of scientific thought.Contradiction has a pivotal function in much of Donne's poetry, whether it be in the union of soulsas a positive argument for otherwise sinful physical pleasure ('The Ecstasy', 'The Canonization') or the useof objective sciences to illustrate the vicissitudes of passion ('A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'). Thisidea of contradiction is equally prevalent in Empson's poetry, often conveyed through a tight lattice of  1  All Empson poetry is taken from this edition. Unless separately cited, all Donne poetry is taken from Burrow, Colin (ed.)(2006)  Metaphysical Poetry . London: Penguin. 2  scientific, mathematical, Biblical, literary and mythological references. Poems such as 'High Dive', which portrays indecision from the triple perspective of God, Scientist and Man, flit between these fields of reference at a dizzying speed. Empson shifts and layers connotations so that even when linked, one is leftwith a sense of overwhelming contradiction:Holding it then, I Sanctus brood thereover,Inform /in posse/ the tank's triple infinite(So handy for co-ordinates), chauffeur The girdered sky, and need not dive in it;Stand, wolf-chased Phoebus, ø infinite-reined,Aton of maggots of reflected girder (Steeds that on Jonah a grim start have gained)And need not keep the moment, nor yet murder.To create this effect, Empson draws upon not one religious perspective but a progression, from theCatholic 'I Sanctus', a prayer in adoration of the holy trinity in the Order of Mass, to ancient Greek Phoebus and 'the heretical Egyptian sun-god' Aton (1969, p.97). In the first quoted stanza, the omniscientCatholic God observes and controls but does not interfere, whereas, in the second, Man is likened to aneclipsed Phoebus, god only of maggots - mere reflections of the 'girder' of the Heavens. This is infused withmathematical and astrological imagery. The colloquial parenthesis of the first quoted stanza ('so handy for co-ordinates') alludes to the three axes and dimensions of a graph, parallel to the 'triple' perspectives of the poem. By apposing the mathematical and religious, Empson develops an ambiguity in the phrase 'tripleinfinite', so that it refers simultaneously to these three perspectives and to the Holy Trinity. The frequent,unsettled shifting of perspective creates a sense of the infinite possibilities of an unmade choice, in a way3  that is best described through (as it a reaction to) the idea of wave-particle duality. Just as light must beconsidered simultaneously as wave and particle, the writhing reflections are both 'maggots' and cantering'steeds'.This breadth of reference is similar to that of the Metaphysical poetry exemplified by Donne, whichdraws upon imagery from numerous fields and sections of society. For example, 'The Canonization' provides a catalogue of semantic fields present across Donne's poetry; the central religious conceit unfoldsamid images of monarchy and the merchant class ('the King's real, or his stamped face', 'What merchant'sships have my sighs drowned?'), litigation and warfare ('Soldiers fight wars, and lawyers find out still /Litigious men, which quarrels move'), alchemical and animal imagery ('We find in us the' eagle and thedove,/The phoenix riddle hath more wit') and a myriad other allusions that encompass the civilised world:'Countries, towns, courts'. Whereas Donne seeks to situate his love in the context of the society in whichhe lived, with the aim first of diminishing its apparent impact on the external world ('Alas, alar, who'sinjured by my love?') before presenting it as a 'pattern' worthy of invocation by aspirant lovers, Empson presents an all embracing scope of religion and mathematics which leaves the reader initially asoverwhelmed and uncertain as the diver it portrays, but culminates in a deep investigation of how it is possible to make decisions in a world of infinites. As Kathleen Raine states, the 'imaginative depths' in Empson and Donne, come in part from the'passion by which both are driven to impose order on fields of knowledge and experience so contradictoryas to threaten the mind that contains them with disintegration' (Haffenden, 2006, p.350). In sharing this'largeness of outlook' (1974, p.84) he perceived in Donne, Empson opened himself up to the samecriticism that shaped contemporary receptions of Metaphysical poetry. Louis MacNiece, writing at thesame time as Empson, condemned his poems for ‘being merely a set of soluble puzzles, games for thedetection fan, the statistician and the crossword puzzler’ (Cunningham, 1988, p.76). This echoes Johnson's protest that ‘the metaphysical poets’ (of whom he goes on to mention Donne in particular) ‘were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour’ (2009, p.397). In both cases, they are4  accused of showing off at the cost of poetic grace and feeling. Johnson went on to suggest that theMetaphysical poets 'neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter nor represented theoperations of intellect’ (2009, p.397). This was refuted by contemporaries of Empson, most notably T.S.Eliot, whose famous review of Grierson’s 1921 collection of metaphysical poetry revived interest in thegroup. Eliot (2001) objects to Johnson’s criticism, describing the metaphysical poet as a talented magpie,consolidating ‘disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience’ (p.966). As such, this breadth of reference, and the difficulty it presents to readers, may be seen as an inevitable progression from thechallenges faced by Donne and his contemporaries. Writing in a period of discovery, amid the emergenceof Renaissance science, colonial exploration and philosophical advancement, criticism like that of Johnsonshows a reticence to adapt to a growing field of knowledge. For Modernist poets like Empson and Eliot,then, coming four centuries later, the argument Empson makes to justify his notes, that 'there [was] nolonger a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge' (1969, p.93) seems valid.Furthermore, it is clear that Empson values the ambiguities which arise from this growing field of knowledge applied to poetry. In his first book of criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), he statesthat 'the way in which opposites can be stated so as to satisfy a wide variety of people, for a great number of degrees of interpretation is the most important thing about the communication of the arts’ (p.221). Assuch, Empson's interest in metaphysical techniques emerges from his seeing them as a rich source for critical interpretation. Earlier in the book (pp. 139-145), a close reading of 'A Valediction, of weeping' isused to support Empson's fourth proposed type of ambiguity: 'when two or more meanings of a statementdo not agree among themselves, but combine to make clear a more complicated state of mind in the author'(p.133). As illustrated by 'High Dive' and 'Bacchus', Empson's view of modern life is one in whichcomplexity and contradiction are commonplace. 'Arachne' depicts a kaleidoscope of existence through therapid listing of 'pin-point extremes':5
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