William Empson, volume 1: among the mandarins, by John Haffenden

A scholar gypsy
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In the great biography boom, the London-and-Oxbridge intelligentsia have been served surprisingly well and have sold in unexpected profusion. Bloomsbury came first, of course, but since then Keynes, Russell, Wittgenstein, Berlin, Leavis, Iris Murdoch and Herbert Hart have been recreated as the heroes of gripping tales of intellectual courage, all flavoured with sufficient sexual liveliness to give them salt and savour.

Now John Haffenden has added the poet and critic William Empson to this great roll-call. It makes a cracking yarn, the dazzling fireworks of Empson's originality adding bright colours to the intellectual scenery. His terrific conviviality, breezy concupiscence, downright domestic squalor and signal honesty and generosity of mind add a new sort of character to the tradition.

Partly a figure out of Greene and Waugh, partly out of Dostoyevsky, with not a little from Kipling and Wodehouse, Empson was born into a minor Yorkshire landowning family. He went to Winchester and Cambridge, where precocious distinction at maths dissolved into a passion for literature. Having been granted a college scholarship in order to pursue what was confidently expected to be a brilliant career in English, he was formally expelled, in a frenzy of upper-class Grundyhood, for being found in possession of contraceptives.

While still an undergraduate, under the guidance of I A Richards, he had written the first essays towards his astonishing classic, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a study presaging and transcending all that has more recently been written about the million petals of meaning in every utterance. The book set new standards for the close reading of texts, and became a model of the alliance of gaiety and seriousness which was Empson's signature.

At the same time he published short poems which, in their no less intense compression and allusiveness, not only showed modern poetry how to learn from the rediscovery of John Donne, but announced the advent of a British challenger to Eliot.

Flushed with success, and a lot of drink in the pubs of Fitzrovia, Empson advanced towards his next, no less audacious book, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). The sedate academic ring belies its theme: to enlist unexpected classics - Alice among them - as types of "proletarian literature", by which Empson meant a subversive pastoralism whose children and peasants reclaim the good land for truth and social justice.

He was always a staunch defender of the noblest ideals of socialism, though quite without the lockjawed self-righteousness those beliefs caused in others. In search of work rather than the Marxist paradise, he went by way of Japan (1931 to 1934) to China in 1937, just as the Japanese invaded. The Chinese evacuated universities to the hills.

Empson lived and taught under the bombs and barrages, untroubled by privation, brave, uncomplaining, admiring the doughty Chinese, teaching the literature he knew by heart. This volume ends as, after mountain-crossing odysseys, Empson escaped to Vietnam and came home in 1940 to join the BBC.

Haffenden's amazingly detailed narrative makes a rare old page-turner. How did he compile so full a record? Empson left copious papers in what I recall from my own slight acquaintance as being a squalid basement flat. But Haffenden has gone far beyond these to every small review and minor memoir.

Haffenden allows his gusto for the life too great rein. But he has a giant subject, and does it lavish justice. At the end of 700 pages, and a mere 34 years, he has also done much to restore power and presence to a necessary ghost in our history: the English adventurer-scholar, reckless, careless of appearances, brave, generous, utterly serious about the life of the mind, and extremely funny.

Fred Inglis is writing the biography of R G Collingwood

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