(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.
One of the two 'important' villanelles written in the twentieth century , 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. thomas.  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 [Assessment] 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 [Links] There's an _excellent_ essay on critical reactions (over time) to Empson's poetry and his (highly influential) critical theories at [broken link] http://www.btinternet.com/~j1837c/jbc/empson.html 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, http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/glossary/headerindex.html