Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A rapturous human being

John Haffenden's Empson talk was quite wonderful, by the way. There were all sorts of good things (Christopher Ricks was good too, on the topic of a manuscript poem Empson's family did not wish to release in the collected poems but that has now appeared in the suitable place in the second volume of the biography--it concerns the Empsons' peculiar menage-a-trois way of life--that link's not to the poem by the way, I do not think it's online, but to a nice essay by Frank Kermode on Haffenden's edition of the poems) but the parts that I found most interesting concerned Empson's habit of misquoting.

Empson likened himself to Hazlitt as a (mis)quoter, and there's a clear sense of him seeing himself in the gentlemanly tradition of eighteenth-century readers rather than primarily the modern tradition of scholarship.

(A great quotation from the letters: "The solemnity of modern scholarship is excessive and hampering"!)

Something like 80% of the 1200 or so quotations in one of the books are misquoted: in a letter to the Italian translator, who was objecting to what he found once he started to look into this business of the quotations (I think the particular reference concerned his compression of a spoof poem written by Coleridge, of which he'd left out a line or more of verse), Empson wrote, "It would be bad taste to do research for one's joke and quote accurately."

A good line of Haffenden's, to describe what happens once Empson goes off on one of these quotations and starts to offer rhapsodic and imaginative musings of his own: Empson writes like a rapturous human being...

1 comment:

  1. After the talk tonight I also found myself looking for the poem, and Haffenden's essay seems to be the closest we can get to the text online. Plenty of quotations here, although the execrable website of TLS makes the lineation hard to "unmangle" (an important word when talking about Empson's sex life, it turns out).

    The TLS December 01, 2006
    Three's company
    John Haffenden
    William Empson and "The Wife is Praised",,25360-2489752,00.html

    Not sure if this is subscription only -- if so, I can email / post full text.