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Missing Dates -- William Empson

(Poem #202) Missing Dates
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
-- William Empson
One of the two 'important' villanelles written in the twentieth century [1],
Missing Dates is fairly representative of William Empson's work as a whole:
dense, carefully constructed, honest to the point of harshness, complex and
intellectual, almost frightening in its intelligence, but still passionate in
its adherence to truth. Many of the same adjectives could be used to describe
his character and his critical writings; indeed, his status as the foremost
literary critic of his time seems assured.

Which is not to say that he'll ever be a popular poet, or even a well-liked one.
Empson's poems, though not intentionally obscure in the manner of, say, Geoffrey
Hill's early work, nevertheless make the reader 'work' to understand them; his
astonishingly wide range of reference and allusion does not make the task any
easier. As a poet's poet and a critic's critic he ranks among the very best;
that's quite enough for me.


[1] the other, of course, being Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good
Night, minstrels poem #38; you can read more about this wonderfully intricate
poetic form at poem #38


Like Eliot before him and Donald Davie after him, Empson has an equal reputation
as a poet and a critic. The passionate intelligence of  his poetry has something
in common with the work of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, though
Empson is more perversely obscure than Donne ever was, and much less directly
concerned - on the surface at least - with his own experience. Empson has
himself spoken of the 'puzzle interest' of poetry, though one feels that this is
in part said with his tongue in his cheek for the sake of shocking readers out
of their preconceived ideas. Unlike Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, the notes
which Empson prints in the back of his Collected Poems are of considerable value
in elucidating the imagery and intention behind some of his poems.

In recent years Empson's reputation has come increasingly to depend on his
tough-minded and yet not uninvolved attitude to life, which has come to be felt
as a sort of moral touchstone. This may in part be due to his open opposititon
to established Christianity. It is certainly also due to his (as it now seems)
more perceptive attitude to the problems of the 1930s than the group of poets
who centred round Auden. Empson himself was teaching in the Far East in the late
1930s and saw more of the upheaval caused by war than poets who seemed to write
more directly about it in Europe. His work was a major influence on the
counter-revolutionary poetry of The Movement in the 1950s.

[Missing Dates] is one of Empson's most characteristic and powerful ones.
Whether one takes it mainly about politics, or mainly about private life, it
conveys a kind of doomed grandeur. Even the inversion in the first of the two
refrain lines seems unobtrusive in the context of the whole poem's even,
dignified delivery.

    -- George MacBeth


There's an _excellent_ essay on critical reactions (over time) to Empson's
poetry and his (highly influential) critical theories at
[broken link]
Strongly recommended.

[More Stuff]

For the significance of Empson's criticism is this: his criticism is an attempt
to deal with what the poem "means" in terms of its structure as a poem. To sense
its importance, one must recall what the critic in the past has attempted to do:
either he attempted to find the goodness of the poem (and its status as poetry)
in terms of its prose argument - and in terms of the "truth" of what was being
said - and thus made poetry compete with philosophy or science; or else he tried
to find the poetry in the charm of the decorative elements - in the metrical
pattern, in the sensuous imagery, etc.

    -- Cleanth Brooks

Ambiguity: A nonpejorative term for the capacity of language to sustain multiple
meanings. Also called plurisignation or polysemy, ambiguity arises from what
William Empson calls "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for
alternative reactions to the same piece of language." In literary parlance,
ambiguity is not a mistake in denotation to be avoided, but a resource of
connotation to be exploited. In Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Empson argues
that the richness, complexity, and concentration of literary language derives
from the seven types of ambiguity he discusses. The notion that ambiguity is the
root condition of all literary discourse, a notion that arises from I. A.
Richards's distinction between the scientific (referential or denotative) and
the poetic (emotive or connotative) uses of language, is an integral aspect of
the New Critical view that irony, paradox, and tension are definitive aspects of
the work of art.

    -- Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown
Glossary of Literary Theory,

41 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mike Farman said...

To me it seems as if the images in this villanelle are too generalized to impart sufficient meaning. Surely good poetry should home in on the specific. If I understand what Empson is saying, he says it all in the first 3-line stanza, so the rest appears redundant. But perhaps I'm missing a lot. The poem is fascinating, in spite of everything, and in spite of the clumsy inversions and forced rhymes. I would very much like to see a detailed analysis by someone with greater insight than I seem to possess!

Mike Farman.

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Anonymous said...

I read this poem today and loved it!

What I took from it (before reading any analysis or context) is that it is about the poetic form being 'kill[ed]' off or at least poems losing meaning once they've entered the mind and when they are overanalysed. He uses all the imagery of death and poison, the progression of ideas almost mimicking disease running through one's veins/body.

In all, the poem almost seems like an epitaph (especially the last quatrain) of all poetic literature (or maybe just Empson's works).

There's a lot I thought about, but its best to leave it as it is; a very rich and powerful piece of work.

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