An ambiguity, Empson states, means something "very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful". He uses the term in an extended sense and concentrates on any verbal nuance, however slight, which "gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language".
The joy of ambiguity as a critical concept is that it allows the reader to find subtleties in the text which open out like a secret laby-rinth below the printed words. To adapt Eliot's lines on the Treaty of Versailles, poems are revealed to have "many cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues". Tracing what Empson terms "the machinations of ambiguity", we enter the intricate, devious world of the imagination with its multiple ironies, its trembling light and fluid playfulness. Here w e find "thevery roots of poetry".
Many of the critics Empson influenced took this concept to mean that what counted above all was "close reading" or "practical criticism" - the minute, painstaking analysis and dissection of image and phrase. Empson's teacher, I A Richards, published a famous and influential critical handbook called Practical Criticism in 1929, and for several generations critics minutely dissected poems and plays, sometimes even novels. Marvell's lovely, witty, estranging couplet in "The Garden" - "Annihilating all that's made/To a Green thought in a green shade" - drew armies of intricate analysts to discover whole universes in its grain of sand. Hostile to biography, historical experience and ideology, this critical practice eventually became so imploded and self-serving that it collapsed. Texts ceased to be richly ambiguous and were now deconstructed into abysses of contradictions where nothing added up. Everything was decentred, ideologically produced, somehow routinely manufactured and dead or random and botched.Literature became a scrap-heap of cultural artefacts, authors became "producers", and the world turned into a series of discourses shaped by innumerable concerted conspiracies. Everywhere voices were raised against the "hegemony of canonical texts" and against those critics who still persisted in trying to tease out their hidden meanings.
Yet in Empson's application of the concept of ambiguity and his brilliant, helter- skelter interpretation of Shakespeare's line, the parenthesis "(the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism)" compresses a powerful historical sense. Until he threw in that reference to Henry VIII's destruction of the monasteries, how many readers understood the specifically Catholic sense of desecration that the line carries? This is an image of the crucifixion which expresses a tragic sense of loss, abandonment and violent destruction. His flesh hangs on his skeleton like dead leaves or like Christ's body on the cross - how perfectly Shakespeare fuses the images of body/tree, body/cross, body/church. And how strangely the agony of being hopelessly in love becomes a cry out of the English Catholic experience of martyrdom and persecution. Shakespeare is writing in code because the state is Protestant: this hard historical fact, Empson is suggesting, is the reason why his language and imagery are so multilayered, Ovidian, shifting, and involve so many complex machinations. The term "machinations" insists that imaginative language is inescapably political, however hard subsequent critics tried to remove art from the real world of human struggle and suffering.
Empson also published poetry, and he succeeded in making several generations of students into poets of the text who knew how densely charged literary language can be. Among the poets he influenced, the present poet laureate, who also studied English at Cambridge, worked for ten years on an enormous study of Shakespeare which insists that his Catholicism was deep, committed, tragic and heroic. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being Ted Hughes argues that Shakespeare in his plays and poems witnesses the "prolonged savage persecution and threatened extermination of the old catholic tribe". If we ignore the tribal texture of feeling in Shakespeare's bare ruined choirs, we are left with a lyric which reduces emotion to the merely private and personal, and so denies that solidarity or identification with historical experience which is such a crucial part of our existence as social beings. There is such a thing as society, Shakespeare, Empson and Hughes tell us, and this is what it feels like when an oppressive state in the name of reform starts to tear things apart.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold, When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day, As after sunset fadeth in the West, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed, whereon it must expire, Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
William Shakespeare: Sonnet 73
To take a famous example, there is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling in "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang", but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because theyinvolve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare's feeling for the object of the Sonnets, 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, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, 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. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.
William Empson: Seven Types of AmbiguityReuse content