John Haffenden’s two-volume biography of the poet and critic William Empson is a substantial work. Each volume runs to more than 550 pages of text, plus notes and appendices. I finished the first volume at the beginning of this year and I’m not yet quite two-thirds of the way though the second. It’s highly entertaining, combining exhaustive detail of an eventful and fascinating life with informed discussion of his major works and ideas. Out of this mass of material, a single clause (not even a full sentence) stood out starkly for me:

Likewise, since he claimed never to form visual images when reading or thinking, the Chinese written character must have struck him as just as much of a dead-letter deterrent. (Vol.1, p. 459; emphasis added)
The top of page 459 of volume 1 of Haffenden’s biography, showing the passage quoted in the previous paragraph

These dozen words might seem like very tenuous evidence from which to conclude that Empson had aphantasia but to me they seem unequivocal and unambiguous. Who, after all, claims never to form visual images when reading or thinking, other than someone who can’t form such images, i.e. someone with aphantasia? Obviously, I can’t put myself inside the consciousness of someone who doesn’t have aphantasia, but I tend to assume that, for those who can form visual images, the process is involuntary and automatic.

The idea that Empson wasn’t able to visualize gets some, though again scant, support in his own writings. In a lecture titled “Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry” (1961), he says:

… what you began by meaning was a sort of picture in your head. People do, of course, get these pictures, but it is hard to say what they are used for, what function they were evolved to fulfil.
In literary criticism, where people are always talking about images, they have to be assumed to mean visual images; whereas the scientific use of the term includes muscular images. (Argufying, p. 157)

Later in the same lecture, he tells us:

It has been known for at least a century that many people don’t have visual images, and think without them, but the literary critics have stubbornly refused to pay any attention. Non-visualizers are often intellectuals, and I am sure it does intellectuals good to have their noses rubbed in their sensual corruption; I agree that it’s disgusting not to have images; but all the same even people who do have images don’t use them for thinking. (Argufying, p. 158)

The assertion that this has “been known for at least a century” may be an exaggerated reference to Francis Galton, who is thought to be the first person to have noticed that some people, [correction: apparently not] including himself, didn’t have any visual mental images. That was in 1880, just about 80 years before Empson’s lecture.

It may be significant that Empson has been accused of not understanding the difference between Symbolism and Imagism in poetry. Answering this charge, he wrote:

I think both theories are very confused and if my remarks sound confused it is because I meant to show that … My idea about Imagists is that they were a small group which concentrated upon carrying out with puritanical rigour an aspect of the general Symbolist theory, around 1912, and the results were so depressingly poky that even Ezra Pound before long stopped calling himself one. (Argufying, p. 172)

I’ll admit to never having grasped the distinction between the two movements myself, and I wonder if that has something to do — in Empson’s case as well as my own — with not understanding what (if anything) Imagism has to do with images. Commentary on poetry tends to be full of references to the image and cognate terms and the effect can be quite bewildering. In his Introduction to the first edition of The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard proclaims a determination to avoid the term “image” altogether:

So inconsistent has the use been, covering everything from the meaning of a single word to a meaning arising from a whole poem, that “image” does not seem to me truly a “technical” term, and I have not found it difficult to avoid. (p. xvii)

Yet, however varied and inconsistent its use, “image” strikes me as a term that can’t help connoting some hint of the visual. As a schoolchild, when I first started to study poetry, I didn’t know what to make of the fact that “poetic imagery” didn’t seem to have anything to do with “imagery” as I had understood it, i.e. visual imagery. It was a very long time ago, and I’m not sure to what extent I can rely on my memory of those days, but I think we were taught that “poetic imagery” was a term that covered metaphors, similes and figurative language generally. I think I just decided to accept that “poetic imagery” was a term of art, one that bore no relation to what I understood as the ordinary meaning of “imagery”.

These days, of course, I recognize that a metaphor may sometimes evoke a visual image in the mind of someone who has a visual imagination, but that realization came to me only several decades after I first grappled with the concept of poetic imagery. The upshot is that I’ve long accepted that, when people talk about images or imagery in connection with poetry, I’m likely to have only an imprecise idea what they mean. On learning, early this year, that Empson was presumably aphantasic, I wondered if something similar had been true of him.

More generally, I found myself wondering whether the lack of a visual imagination had affected his undeniably idiosyncratic approach to criticism, and if that was why his criticism had had a particular appeal for me from the moment I first came across it. Empson partly answered the question himself in his lecture on “Rhythm and Imagery”. He recalled that another critic (John Holloway) had taken issue with his reading (in Some Versions of Pastoral of these lines from Marvell’s “The Garden”:

The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;

Empson had suggested that “straight could mean ‘tightly together’ as well as ‘at once’” (Argufying, p. 159), which Holloway considered inept, because Marvell was writing about the ocean, which couldn’t be conceived of as straightened or narrow. Empson responded that this opponent thought that “if you are told the mind is like the sea, you ought to make pictures of the sea in your head and forget all about the mind” (Argufying, p. 166, n. 5), whereas a large part of Marvell’s point had been that the mind is paradoxical: wide and narrow all at once. It’s vast, but you can find things in it instantly. So, in Empson’s view, Holloway’s concentration on “the image” had blinded him to Marvell’s paradoxical implication. Conversely, it could be argued that Empson’s lack of mental images enabled him to “see” what Marvell had been up to.

That’s an unusually clear example (because Empson is, by implication at least, describing his own approach). Though it is less clear, there may be an analogous process behind some examples of his criticism that other commentators have found least persuasive. The very first example he discussed in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) drew attacks, not least from F W Bateson (see Haffenden’s vol. 1, pp. 280–1). Empson quoted line 4 (alone) of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”) and drew out a long list of associations that he said the phrases evoked, culminating in:

… and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons … must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 21)

My conjecture is that, if Empson had been able to picture the leafless, quaking boughs, outlined against the late autumnal twilit sky, that visual image might well have distracted him from the “sociological and historical” ideas that he discerned behind Shakespeare’s line. Of course, I can’t be all that confident in this because — as always — I can’t imagine myself sharing the point of view of someone capable of visualizing like that.

My other example comes from early in his next critical work, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). In the first essay, Empson quotes a single stanza of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, the one beginning “Full many a gem of purest ray serene …”, on which he comments:

… eighteenth-century England had no scholarship system or carrière ouverte aux talents. This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which he would not try to alter it … By comparing the social arrangement to Nature he makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved … this tricks us into feeling that he is better off without opportunities. (Some Versions of Pastoral, p. 4; emphasis and ellipses added)

This is different from the examples above from Shakespeare and Marvell, because the critic is working against the poet, explicating for us not so much what is implied by the verse as what the verse seems calculated to distract our attention from. The poem’s effect is to ease us into acceptance of a set of social relations which are not only unjust but avoidably so. But at the same time, paradoxically, it expresses a significant and inevitable truth:

… it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste, even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. (p. 5)

Once again, if Empson had been able to allow himself to picture the lowing herd, the rural gravestones, to imagine (visually) the village-Hampden standing up to the little tyrant of his fields, might he not have failed to notice the real but abstract socio-political context (as presumably many readers of the poem have done)? It’s impossible to say, but it’s hard to avoid asking the question, unanswerable though it may be.

Even if I can’t point to any particular example of Empson’s criticism and say that it has been shaped by his aphantasia, or how that shaping occurred, I’m in no doubt that the lack of a visual imagination inevitably has some effect on the ways one reads and reacts to poetry. Some aphantasics say they never read fiction, partly because they find descriptions of characters or places offputting. Recent research has found that people with aphantasia are more likely to work in scientific, technical or mathematical fields. Of course, Empson initially studied Mathematics at Cambridge, and he maintained an interest in science throughout his life.

In the mid 1990s I had an experience reading poetry which made sense to me only 25 years or so later, after I had learned of the existence of aphantasia. I was studying for a degree in English as a mature student, having gone back to college in my 30s. At the beginning of Part III of The Waste Land, “The Fire Sermon”, T S Eliot wrote:

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.

The seminar leader was making a point that I didn’t understand about these items being somehow present, even though the lines seemed literally to deny this. Usually, I was on the same wavelength as this seminar leader said but not this time. To say that the river carried none of these, while at the same time asserting the opposite, seemed to me to be trying to have it both ways, and I couldn’t see the point of that. It was an insignificant issue but I found it bewildering. Why insist that something was there when it clearly wasn’t? Years later, I concluded that the seminar leader was suggesting that to list these things, even in the context of saying that the river did not bear them, was going to call them to mind, to evoke a (visual) image of the debris. Of course it didn’t occur to him to spell this out because it would never have occurred to him that, for some of us, nothing was ever going to evoke a visual image.

Works cited

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), 3rd ed, Pelican, 1972, rpt 1977;

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), Hogarth Press paperback, 1986;

Empson, William. Argufying, Hogarth Press paperback, 1988;

Haffenden, John. William Empson: Vol. 1, Among the Mandarins, Oxford, 2005;

Lennard, John. The Poetry Handbook, Oxford, 1996.

In the next post, unless something else comes up, I’m going to write about Wilkie Collins again. It’s past time I did. I previously wrote about his Armadale in conjunction with Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, more than 2 years ago.