Late again, sorry. I know I write more slowly about poetry but I tend to forget how much more slowly.

My previous post, about The Satanic Verses, turned out to be more of a handful than I had allowed time for, so I finished it in a rush. Last week I made a few small corrections to the web version and tidied up some minor infelicities (leaving the larger ones untouched, naturally). Also, I hadn’t had time to make a PDF of that post, so here it is now; as usual, it’s laid out for reading on screen rather than for print.

In December 1995 or January 1996, I wrote a 5,000-word essay on “The abolition of infinity in the poetry of William Empson”. The essay concentrated on a small number of poems, almost all dating from the late 1920s at the beginning of Empson’s career as a poet. I was pleased with myself to have found a unifying theme: it seemed to me that all of the poems I discussed expressed a disbelief in the reality of infinity, showing that the concept had no place in cosmology, in physics, in the lifespans of living beings — anywhere indeed except in mathematics.

My satisfaction with this common theme (and my self-satisfaction at having spotted it) probably led me to lose sight of the fact that it plays no part in most of the poetry that Empson wrote from 1930 onwards. I was reminded of this when I wrote last year about “The Wife Is Praised”, a draft poem from 1948. That same year, Empson wrote to a friend that he wanted to see if he could “still write verse” (Haffenden, Against the Christians, p. 385), suggesting that any new poetry he might write would not resemble his earlier work in subject-matter or tone.

That remark suggested to me that I had been too inclined to look at his earlier poetry as all of a piece, a single body of work. In a letter to Christopher Ricks, part of which Haffenden includes in Complete Poems (2000), Empson says that he stopped writing poetry because of the war, his “steady trickle of mental productiveness … was then all directed into propaganda” and that “[n]ursing myself back into literary work after the war was rather a business” (Complete Poems, p. 126). His poetic career was not revived, understandably. In the same letter to Ricks, he suggests that the theme of his poetry from the years before the war had been the approaching war itself. With the defeat of the Axis powers …

… the theme which all the modern poets I admired had been working on, which I had been working on too, had been blown out like a candle.
… my second volume of verse The Gathering Storm means by the title just what Winston Churchill did when he stole it, the gradual sinister confusing approach to the Second World War. (Complete Poems, p. 127)

Even such an apparently personal poem about lovers parting as “Aubade”, written while Empson was teaching in Tokyo in the early 1930s, is relevant to the approaching war. An earthquake prompts his lover to get out of bed “Hours before dawn” (l. 1) and take a taxi back to (presumably) the home of her employer, the German ambassador (see Haffenden, Among the Mandarins, p. 326), to whose son she was nursemaid. The speaker (clearly Empson himself) wonders if this means they should get out of the house in case it collapses:

Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No. (l. 11)

She is leaving not for fear of the quake but because the noise is likely to waken the child she is responsible for:

None of these deaths were her point at all,
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know. (ll. 17–19)

The “he” in line 18 is clearly the boy; the one in the following line seems to me equally clearly to be the boy’s father. Perhaps the young woman would prefer that her employer not know that she was spending the night at her lover’s house, but her laughter suggests that she is not particularly worried. It seems equally likely that she doesn’t wish to be seen to neglect her duties or leave her young charge in distress.

The poem is made up of five-line stanzas followed (in each case except the last two) by three-line stanzas, and it has repeated lines, like a villanelle’s refrain. The repeated lines are “The heart of standing is you cannot fly” and “It seemed the best thing to be up and go”. Of the first of these, Empson points out the ambiguities inherent in “standing” and “fly”, as well as “lying” (l. 15) and “lie” (l. 22):

“Standing”, the main repeated idea in the stock lines, can be for instance getting out of bed, resisting an attack or not going away. “Flying” can mean going through the air or simply escaping; “lying” of course staying in bed or telling untruths. (Complete Poems, p. 316)

So when, in line 15, the speaker asks “Some solid ground for lying could she show?” both senses of the word are in operation, with mendacity as the dominant idea. But is he asking whether her behaviour could provide him with some solid ground for lying to her, or does she have some solid ground for lying?

His lover having departed, the speaker stays in bed a little longer:

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly. (ll. 22–4)

The concealed threat and the inclination (or compulsion) to lie eventually — not immediately — disturb his sleep. From this point on, the poem becomes a little more obscure. The general sense is fairly clear, at least if you read Haffenden’s notes as well as Empson’s, but particular phrases or expressions appear to have a personal meaning for Empson that isn’t easy for the typical reader to disentangle. I take a “bedshift flight” (l. 30) to be one that crosses multiple time zones, so that your expected hours of daylight and darkness are out of whack with those of your surroundings. Haffenden’s notes on line 35 help to explain the resonances of particular words and phrases but don’t (it seems to me) help us to make sense of the line as a whole. (I’d like to be able to make sense of it because it’s a line I find myself coming back to, and one I very much like the sound of.)

For those who couldn’t see the relationship of this poem to the threat of war, Empson was able to explain:

… if you were a young Englishman coming to teach in Japan in the early 1930s, the wise old Englishman, leader of the colony, would tell you, “Don’t marry a Japanese lady, because the two countries will be at war within ten years.” (p. 317)

That prediction turned out to be true, of course. So, the couple wouldn’t be able to stay together and this was clearly foreseeable, but they weren’t ready to part yet. Hence the need for lies, and the shifting meanings of “standing” and “fly”.

“Reflection from Rochester” is another poem written in expectation of the war. Its epigraph is a line from the Earl of Rochester’s “Satire against Mankind”, a witty and well reasoned seventeenth-century satire on humankind’s vain pretence to be rational creatures. Empson quotes two other lines from Rochester’s poem, which read in their original context like this:

For hunger or for love they bite, or tear, {Empson’s last line}
Whilst wretched man is still in arms for fear. {epigraph, substituting “But” for “Whilst”}
For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid,
From fear, to fear, successively betrayed. (ll. 139–42) {Empson’s first line}

So, Empson has left out “For fear he arms, and is of arms afraid”, the line that elucidates the idea of successive betrayal in the next. Rochester has been describing and explaining the phenomenon that would, much later, come to be called “the arms race”. He sees humans as being inextricably caught in a vicious circle where fear of each other leads us to arm ourselves more heavily and dangerously than before, thus creating even better reasons for our mutual fear. This, Rochester tells us, results in “a most tedious life in misery | Under laborious mean hypocrisy” (ll. 151–2).

Even Rochester acknowledges that our base fear of other humans can lead to desirable, outwardly admirable, behaviour, though of course he puts it the other way around: fear is “the source whence his best passions came” (l. 143). Or, as Empson has it, our pursuit of security and flight from fear helps us to achieve “All the advantage of a wider range” (l. 9). In lines 2 and 3, he puns on the word “cause”. We feel “safe with causes” (l. 3) so we adhere to them, thereby giving ourselves new causes of fear (reasons to be afraid) by exposing ourselves to new risks. The next two stanzas look, in rather abstract terms, at ways in which the flight from or desire to avoid danger leaves us vulnerable to new threats, while at the same time broadening our horizons.

The fourth stanza is a turning point. The first half of it appears to be saying something important or significant but at the same time obscure and difficult to interpret. It seems clear that “the first fear” is the subject, not the object, of “deceived”. What or whom has it deceived? My guess is that it has deceived humans generally, including Rochester and, up to a point, Empson. It’s the next clause that causes the difficulty: “Thought the wheels run on sleepers.” Who thought this? Almost certainly not the “first fear” itself. More importantly, what does it mean to run on sleepers? That there are no rails, perhaps? But even in the absence of rails, the sleepers would be laid out on a fixed path; there would be no possibility of deviation from the predetermined route. So, I’m inclined to think that running on sleepers rather than on rails gives the impression, without the reality, of being less constrained, having some wriggle room. With the next sentence we get a definite, firm assertion: “This is not | The law of nature it has been believed” (ll. 11–12).

What I think this means is that the implied “law” of Rochester’s vicious circle — that humans will indefinitely keep on arming ourselves more heavily, while becoming more and more afraid of each other as a consequence — is not true. “Increasing power” (l. 13) of destruction already makes it extremely foolhardy to attempt suicide unless you’re seriously determined about it — it has become too easy to kill yourself, or anybody. Quantitative change eventually becomes qualitative, in this case changing the nature and extent of the threat, so that finally there will be no defence against it: “Mere change in numbers makes the process crass” (l. 21).

It’s worth noting that the poem was written before the development of nuclear weapons, a fact that Empson alludes to wryly in a note to his original notes. He had written in 1940 “it is not clear that the new methods of destruction have yet proved themselves so much more effective than the old ones”; for publication of the collected edition in 1955, he added:

Here and at some later points these notes are marked by their date, which was 1940, but there seems no need to alter them on that account. (Collected Poems, p. 112)

Facing into a war that Empson will see as both just and necessary, against Hitler, fascism and Japanese expansionist aggression (the last of which he will see at first hand in China in the next few years), Empson fears that the destructive power of modern weaponry may have advanced to the point where war is no longer capable of being “serviceable even in the queer marginal ways it used to be” (Complete Poems, p. 332).

It’s a question that he can’t yet answer definitively. In the final stanza, “blank eyes” look for a pattern or precedent, a guide to present and future action, in a past where “a less involute compulsion” was in operation. We may still be compelled by mutual fear but in circumstances more complicated than those of our ancestors.

Rochester’s satire is sometimes given the title “A Satire against Reason and Mankind”, but Empson uses the shorter “A Satire against Mankind”. Either title is ironic but the shorter version is more effective, in part because it is less likely to distract us from the recognition that Rochester is not arguing against rationality: “’Tis not true reason I despise, but yours” (l. 111). Finally, he implies that reason is likely to be our only possible escape from the cycle of betrayal “From fear, to fear”. Empson must have thought likewise.

In both his biography and Complete Poems (p. 332), Haffenden says that Empson thought of “Reflection from Rochester” and “Courage Means Running” “as essentially related, exploring the same theme from different angles.” However, I’d like to explore the connections between the Rochester poem and a different one, the similarly titled “Reflection from Anita Loos”. This poem is a villanelle in which the repeating lines are “No man is sure he does not need to climb” and “A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.” The second of these is Empson’s decasyllabic rendering of Dorothy’s remark in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), “Fun is fun, but no girl wants to laugh all of the time”. (Two slightly different versions of this line are quoted in Complete Poems, p. 365.)

The other refrain, “No man is sure he does not need to climb”, has been taken to refer to ambition, a reading which gains support from Empson’s own notes in which he writes “actually no doubt women are about as ambitious as men” (p. 362). But the idea of a need to climb suggests that we are in the same territory as in the second stanza of “Reflection from Rochester”: “By climbing higher not to look down” (l. 4), that is, seeking to escape one threat by exposing ourselves to unforeseen others, while at the same time gaining a view of a “wider range” both of dangers and possibilities.

And, of course, the second line, “It is not human to feel safely placed”, echoes the theme of the earlier poem: the elusiveness of security. So, the two “Reflections” poems are related, but while the first is mainly concerned with fear and weaponry, the second concentrates on cruelty and control.

In the letter to Christopher Ricks referred to above, Empson writes that he came to see the poem as unsuccessful:

My war started in 1937, when I refugeed with the Chinese universities, and I went on writing criticism there, also the Anita Loos poem, which I now think bad. (Complete Poems, p. 128)

He doesn’t make clear why he thinks so. It’s possible that the juxtaposition of the tortured Christ with fun-loving young women who could laugh at least some of the time struck some readers as bathetic or worse. He devoted a substantial proportion of his notes on the poem to explaining the reference to Christ:

I had better say more about the line, as many readers may find it merely offensive. (p. 362)

He went on to sketch out ideas that he would later develop in his critical writings, particularly those on Donne and Milton. But perhaps the real problem is that the “merely offensive” (or apparently so) reference to Christ was likely to detract from the shock of the next stanza:

Gentlemen prefer bound feet and the wasp waist.
A girl can’t go on laughing all the time. (ll. 14–15)

I don’t know how much was known about footbinding in England and the Anglophone world in 1940 when the poem was first published. (I first heard about it in the 1980s when Emily Prager’s short story, “A Visit from the Footbinder” drew a lot of attention.) To readers who were aware of the practice, Empson’s linking of it with tightlacing, or very tight, rigid corsets, may have seemed disproportionate, in that footbinding (which was still happening when Empson wrote) involved the deliberate breaking and misshaping of a young girl’s feet, while tightlacing could be presented as more a matter of fashion.

Haffenden tells us that Empson wrote a radio feature for the BBC a greatly cut-down version of which was broadcast in 1942, in which one of the characters argued that tightlacing was an even crueller practice than footbinding. Haffenden adds that, since Empson was writing propaganda in favour of the Chinese and against the Japanese invasion of the country, “he does what he can to put an indemnifying gloss on the horror” (p. 366). This passage rings true, though:

And of course the purpose behind these two ways of mutilating women, so far as there was any purpose at all, and it wasn’t just a crazy fashion, was exactly the same: it made the man feel safe, because he knew the woman couldn’t hit him back. (p. 366)

Or run away; or concentrate on any activity that required her to ignore the pain she was in. So, the theme of the Anita Loos poem is torture, deliberate cruelty, the intentional infliction of continuing pain, all in the interest of keeping women (among other threats) under control, of making “men feel safe”. It’s hardly surprising that a girl couldn’t keep laughing all the time.

In writing this, I was struck for the first time by the recurrence of the idea of blankness in several of the poems. The word “blank” is found in “Aubade”, line 22 (quoted above) and the last stanza of the Rochester poem (coincidentally the same line number). That the idea had some special significance for Empson is suggested by its position in the first line of his poem “about stopping writing poetry” (Complete Poems, p. 395), “Let it go”. This is a suggestion I’d like to examine more closely, though probably not in a post for Talk about books.

Editions: I’ve relied on Haffenden’s edition of The Complete Poems (2000), and also consulted Collected Poems (1955). I’ve quoted Rochester’s “Satire against Mankind” from the Everyman edition, edited by Paddy Lyons (1996)

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