William Empson

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Sir William Empson (27 September 1906 – 15 April 1984) was an English literary critic and poet.

He was widely influential for his practice of closely reading literary works, fundamental to the New Critics. Jonathan Bate has said that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest".

Empson has been styled a "critic of genius" by Sir Frank Kermode, who qualified his praise by identifying willfully perverse readings of certain authors; and Harold Bloom has stated that Empson is among a handful of critics who matter most to him, because of their force and eccentricity. Empson's bluntness led to controversy both during his life and after his death, and a reputation in part also as a "licensed buffoon" (Empson's own phrase).

His best-known work is almost certainly his first: Seven Types of Ambiguity, first published in 1930.

Contents

Education

Empson was the son of Arthur Reginald Empson of Yokefleet Hall, Yorkshire. His mother was Laura, daughter of Richard Mickelthwait J.P., of Ardsley House, Yorkshire. He was a first cousin of the brothers John and Richard Atcherley

Empson first discovered his great skill and interest in mathematics at his preparatory school. He won an entrance scholarship to Winchester College, where he excelled as a student and received what he later described as "a ripping education" in spite of the rather rough and abusive milieu of the school: a long standing tradition of physical force, especially among the students, figured prominently in life at such schools.

In 1925, Empson won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge and achieved a double first in Mathematics and English in 1929. His supervisor in Mathematics, the father of the mathematician and philosopher Frank P. Ramsey, expressed regret at Empson's decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, since it was a discipline for which Empson showed great talent. I.A. Richards, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson's first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:

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