The Yorkshire-born Empson (1906—84) 'became a part of [American New Critics'] common orthodoxy but, they feared, a tricky and a subversive part' (Norris, 1978, p. 3). Sent down from postgraduate studies at Cambridge for harbouring a woman in his rooms, Empson spent most of the 1930s and 1940s teaching English in Japan and China, later settling at the University of Sheffield. His broadest influence came through his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), begun while he was Richards's student: Empson's vigorous 'method of verbal analysis' showed, as he put it, how 'alternate reactions to the same piece of language' contribute to the meaning and force of poems (Empson, 1947, pp. viii, 1). These extend all the way from apparently trivial puns and overtones to double meanings which 'show a fundamental division in the writer's mind' (ibid., p. 192). Apparently an anatomy of ambiguity, the book is in fact a demonstration of how to respond flexibly and brilliantly to the hints and verbal nuances in any poem.
Empson denied poetry its own ontology, 'treat[ing] the poem as a concentrated species of ordinary language' (Norris, 1978, p. 25). Nevertheless, Empson's verbal analyses, tastes and terms made him part of the New Critical project; reviewing The Well-Wrought Urn, he wrote, 'I agree so fully with [Brooks's] general position that if I were attacking him I should be attacking myself' (Empson, 1987, p. 282). Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) expands Empson's reach to prose, including John Gay and Lewis Carroll. A 1948 summer at Kenyon College saw Empson's reacquaintance with the American New Critics and the start of his most ambitious and most abstract work, The Structure of Complex Words (1951). Milton's God (1961) and many later articles combine Empson's unmatched — and entertaining — analytic skills with a sometimes strident campaign against Christian belief.
Empson had written almost all his poems by 1940; he became the only important English poet of the 1930s not to be caught up in the orbit of Auden. Instead Empson, more than his peers could, learned from Donne. Dense with arguments and associa tions, Empson's poems can be spectacularly intelligent, or unintelligible. Extravagant dry wit, extreme condensation, buried allusion, submerged pathos, and fended-off terrors (of death, of isolation) mark the style he forged. His best-known poem, the villanelle 'Missing Dates', ends:
It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
Other poems appropriate modern science. 'To an Old Lady' brings in King Lear and the second law of thermodynamics as it instructs its readers to respect its subject (according to Empson, his mother):
Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet
Revere; do not presume to think her wasted.
Project her no projectile; plan nor man it;
Gods cool in turn, by the sun long outlasted.
Several of Empson's poems are free translations from Chinese and Japanese. In 'Chinese Ballad' (1951) two dolls of mud, smashed together, then remade, stand both (as in Donne's 'Valediction Forbidding Mourning') for the common substance of separated lovers, and for the tenacity of guerrillas fighting the occupying Japanese.
The New Critics' force in America is occasionally likened to that of F. R. Leavis in Britain, though New Critical pedagogy focused on close textual explications rather than on explicit moral judgements. The American figure most like Leavis was the poet—critic Yvor Winters (1900—68), who insisted that good poems' structures resemble logical arguments and convey ethical truths. Winters therefore held up as models not Donne's school but Ben Jonson's. Winters described modern poetry provocatively in Primitivism and Decadence (1937) and In Defense of Reason (1947); Maule's Curse (1938) applied his methods and standards to nineteenth-century American literature. Winters's poems of the 1920s follow modernist modes, especially those of Williams. His later work adheres to the strictures of his criticism, marked by clarity and adherence to recognized forms and genres: 'On Teaching the Young' declares:
The young are quick of speech. Grown middle-aged, I teach Corrosion and distrust, Exacting what I must.
A poem is what stands When imperceptive hands Feeling, have gone astray. It is what one should say.
Winters taught for decades at Stanford University in California, producing there, at first, doctrinaire classicist followers; the best of them is J. V. Cunningham (1911—85), a rigorously dry epigrammatist. Winters's greatest influence on poetry came indirectly in the 1960s and 1970s, through his later students and admirers. Donald Davie introduced Winters's Collected Poems, while Robert Pinsky and Thom Gunn have portrayed Winters in their own verse.
Raised in Massachusetts and in Maine, Blackmur (1904—65) eventually became a professor at Princeton despite his lack of a college degree. Blackmur's essays ask much of his reader, both in their movement of thought and in their demanding prose style. His stiffly Eliotic and Yeatsian poems have not retained their appeal. Language as Gesture (1952) and Form and Value in Modern Poetry (1957) gather the important essays, among them appreciations of Yeats and Eliot; an early examination of Stevens; and a famous attack on e e cummings. The retrospective 'Lord Tennyson's Scissors: 1912—1950' rises to a fine if sombre statement of the New Critics' take on their period:
The general poetry at the centre of our time takes the compact and studiable conceit of Donne with the direct eccentricity, vision and private symbolism of Blake; takes from Hopkins the incalculable . . . freedom of sprung rhythm . . . and from Emily Dickinson takes spontaneous snatched idiom and wooed accidental inductableness. It is a Court poetry, learned at its fingertips and full of a decorous wilfullness called ambiguity. It is, in a mass society, a court poetry without a court. (Blackmur, 1957, p. 382)
Was this article helpful?