Thursday, June 01, 2006

Lines Composed on the Occasion of First Seeing a Photograph of William Empson

O respected man of letters
Definer of ambiguities
What satanic operation left
Thee with hairs like these?
The moustache makes as much sense
As a moustache ever can
But that thing emerging from your neck
Can it have been born of man?
Did you cultivate a beard
That then grew tired and weak
Soon relinquishing its grasp
Of your chin and of your cheek?
And did that mass of fluff slide down
And settle upon your throat?
Or did it simply grow there wild
Like the rump-hair of a goat?
I realise you’re a learned man
At least you were until you died
So why ever did you get a ‘do
From which all would turn and hide?
Yet I still admire your writing
(I like the prose more than the poems)
And surely you must rank quite high
On anybody’s list of favourite gnomes
I have read your Seven Types
And The Structure of Complex Words
And will now seek out your later work:
How to Grow Nesting Material for Birds


Peter said...


Lucy Tartan said...

Poor William.

James Bradley said...

"But Empson felt he could rely on her [his mother, Laura] and she later stood by him when he got into trouble in Cambridge. She had a sense of humor, too: after seeing his first attempt at a beard, while he was an undergraduate, she offered him £10 if he would get rid of it, and he complied. (It is a pity that she didn't renew her offer later, when he grew one of the most unsatisfactory beards of his time, a straggling appendage which began below his jawline and looked like a false beard that had slipped.)
John Gross, 'The Genius of Ambiguity', The New York Review of Books, Volume 53, Number 5, March 23, 2006