William Empson lived into his late 70s but his career as a poet was over while he was still quite young. His first volume, Poems came out in 1935, when he was 28, while the second, The Gathering Storm was published in 1940. Collected Poems (1955) contains all the poems from those two volumes and a handful of others. He continued to write verse, at least into the late 1940s. John Haffenden, who edited The Complete Poems of William Empson (2000) tells us that since his death “a number of poems have come to light among the papers left in his study” (p. xliii).

Haffenden includes all but one of those in The Complete Poems, the exception being a 200-line poem (with one 8-line stanza deleted in typescript) titled “The Wife Is Praised”, in a draft dating from 1948. Empson’s estate withheld copyright permission to include “The Wife Is Praised” in The Complete Poems, on the ground that it was “an unfinished ‘private’ poem” (Complete Poems, p. xlv). A few years later, however, Haffenden was able to include it as an appendix to the second volume of his biography of Empson, Against the Christians (2006).

In the mid 90s I wrote a long essay about some of Empson’s early poetry. Reading Haffenden’s biography recently, I noticed for the first time (or perhaps was reminded of something I’d forgotten) that the later poems seem more open, more varied, sometimes more playful, broader in theme and tone than the ones I written about in my essay. The poet seemed more interested in phenomena, in the incidental details of life than (as his earlier self had been) in ideas, contradictions and paradox. I ought to take a closer look at those poems soon. For now, it’s enough to note that Empson had changed as a poet as he grew (slightly) older.

When he finished the book he considered the centrepiece of his critical work, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), he wrote to the poet and editor Tambimuttu that he hoped to “see if I can still write verse” (Against the Christians, p. 385). The poetry he hoped to write would be rather different in theme (and most likely in style) from what he had done before.

A new battle for freedom to print highminded advice about sex would strike something a bit warmer, wouldn’t it? (p. 385)

Empson was unambiguously in favour both of bisexuality and of directing one’s sexual jealousy into more pleasurable and innocuous channels than it would typically take. “The Wife Is Praised” is a poem in which he brings these ideas together. It is addressed to his wife, Hetta, and appears to describe an unconventional relationship that is already well established. The second stanza is at once surprisingly explicit and frustratingly elusive:

For the vision of love that was pressing
 And time has not falsified yet
Was always a love with three corners
 I loved you in bed with young men,
Your arousers and foils and adorners
 Who would yield to me then.

Haffenden interprets this as proposing an arrangement in which the husband would be “pimping for the wife in the expectation not just of scopophiliac pleasure but even possibly of sharing the lover’s favours” (p. 385). (Incidentally, there is no doubt that the husband — “I” — is Empson himself: Hetta is named in the final line of stanza four.)

This reading gets considerable support from the fifth stanza, where Empson contemplates offering the opportunity to have sex with his wife — “a stunner, and at my disposal” — in return for a promise to “be nice to me too”. And, in the previous stanza, he imagines that some of the young lovers will “think me a price they must pay”.

But Haffenden acknowledges that such behaviour on Empson’s part “must inevitably presume upon a degree of paternalistic licence” (p. 384). I’m going to try to argue that the “price they must pay” and the duty to “be nice to me too”, were not to be discharged by directly providing the husband with sexual gratification but rather by putting up with his watching (and increasingly impatient) presence.

And then they would “yield”. Yield in the sense of submit? Or yield in the sense of get out of the way and leave Empson to have sex with his wife? Both parties to the marriage would be aroused and ready, he from watching, she from the attentions of one of her “arousers and foils and adorners”. There’s further evidence in the very next stanza:

Taking turns at a generous female
 Is the best act of love with a man.
But I may not have thought to begin with
 That this would make you such a power;
That so nameless a sin is akin with
 The heart of the flower.

So, Hetta is the focus of attention, the point on which the triangle rests, and her husband’s feelings for the other man are best expressed (if you’ll pardon the indelicacy) through her. Towards the end of the poem (stanza 21), Empson writes:

I have always felt men were the glory
 And found them quite pointless in bed.

Admittedly, there are many points at which the poem is obscure, where Empson’s ideas and associations may have been flowing faster than he could clearly grasp them, but I find it clear on balance that this is a poem about finding a way to have sex (again) with one’s wife, rather than about finding a way to have sex with her male lover. In that, it obviously has much in common with Empson’s long essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, which I wrote about in this newsletter in March of last year. In fact, stanzas 23 and 24 of the poem amount to a very compressed version of Empson’s reading of the novel.

You may remember that Empson’s argument was that Leopold Bloom, who no longer had sex with Molly, wanted to try to have another son, as a replacement for Rudy who died in infancy some ten years before. In Empson’s view, Bloom wanted Stephen to begin to have sex with Molly (wearing a condom, to be sure, so that any child who might eventuate would be Bloom’s) and then to make himself scarce at the appropriate moment, so that the intending father could take over.

We learn from Haffenden’s biography that Empson started to think about this reading of Ulysses in 1948, at much the same time as he wrote the draft of “The Wife Is Praised”, though his definitive essay on Joyce’s novel wouldn’t be published until 1982 (in the London Review of Books), so it seems likely that the circumstances of his own married life have influenced his perception of the Blooms’. Does that make it more likely that his interpretation of Ulysses is wrong? Is he “reading in” his own preoccupations and proclivities?

I’ve argued in my newsletter about Ulysses that there is evidence to support Empson’s account: Bloom does indeed think about Rudy and wonder if it’s too late to father another son; he asks about child mortality and predicting the sex of offspring; he debates with himself Stephen’s suitability for some unspecified purpose that Bloom has in mind. All of this is consistent with Empson’s theory. My view is that Empson’s “error” is in concentrating entirely on the literal act of generation (a new son for Bloom) that’s in prospect and ignoring the more momentous figurative one (the uncreated conscience of a race).

Haffenden reports that Empson sent his wife a copy of his initial thinking about Ulysses:

Hetta Empson was quite surprised to receive from her husband a letter outlining such a detailed account of his proposed exposition of Joyce’s novel; she even showed it around to some friends (including the young scholar David Hawkes). It may well be that she noted at once the likely applicability of Empson’s explicatory ideas to some aspects of their own marital situation. (p. 390)

Her surprise, suggesting that it was not Empson’s normal practice to send new literary critical ideas to his wife for her comments, makes me wonder whether he actually sent it as something else: as a hint or indirect suggestion, a tentative indication of the kind of “arrangement” he would like to enter into? Was he sounding her out?

If he was, that in turn makes me suspect that “The Wife Is Praised”, though ostensibly describing an existing state of affairs, in fact sets out a fantasy, a wished-for relationship, not an actual one. Haffenden clearly believes that it’s (at least in part) a trustworthy record of things that really happened. So, he writes:

It was just such “minor pleasures” that Empson allowed himself in bed with Hetta and her lovers. (p. 384)

Perhaps Haffenden has evidence that these three-way encounters took place. It’s more than possible that I overlooked such evidence, there in plain view in the two volumes of the biography, with more than 500 densely printed pages apiece, not to mention the copious endnotes. And, I must admit that I haven’t read the whole biography yet, probably no more than half, though I expect to finish it in fairly short order now that I’m fully engaged with it.

But, after several rereadings of the poem, I came to feel that the arrangement it describes was no more than an ideal one, not something that Hetta Empson and her men had in reality been parties to. I couldn’t get myself to believe in the idea of Empson offering “a stunner — and at my disposal” to a strapping young fellow he’d met in the pub.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that Empson wrote the poem as an expression of his desires and fantasies but perhaps decided that the letter explaining Ulysses might be a more effective way of communicating those desires to his wife. If I find evidence in the biography that I’m wrong about this, I’ll come back to this post and add a note. And, if I’m right, the executors’ contention that the poem is unfinished and was not intended for publication is probably on the money.

Knowing that Haffenden was prevented by copyright issues from including “The Wife Is Praised” in The Complete Poems, I’ve tried to be as sparing as I dare in quoting from the poem. I hope I haven’t misrepresented any part of it, and if I have it was unintentional. The full text is to be found as an appendix (pp. 665–71) to John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume II: Against the Christians (OUP, 2006).

In two weeks’ time, I’m hoping to write (finally) about the last two books in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, The Secret Place and The Trespasser. My posts about the earlier books in the series are here: In the Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place and Broken Harbour

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