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Just a Smack at Auden -- William Empson

(Poem #1311) Just a Smack at Auden
 Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
 What is there to be or do?
 What's become of me or you?
 Are we kind or are we true?
 Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall I build a tower, boys, knowing it will rend
 Crack upon the hour, boys, waiting for the end?
 Shall I pluck a flower, boys, shall I save or spend?
 All turns sour, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall I send a wire, boys? Where is there to send?
 All are under fire, boys, waiting for the end.
 Shall I turn a sire, boys? Shall I choose a friend?
 The fat is in the pyre, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall I make it clear, boys, for all to apprehend,
 Those that will not hear, boys, waiting for the end,
 Knowing it is near, boys, trying to pretend,
 Sitting in cold fear, boys, waiting for the end?

 Shall we send a cable, boys, accurately penned,
 Knowing we are able, boys, waiting for the end,
 Via the Tower of Babel, boys? Christ will not ascend.
 He's hiding in his stable, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall we blow a bubble, boys, glittering to distend,
 Hiding from our trouble, boys, waiting for the end?
 When you build on rubble, boys, Nature will append
 Double and re-double, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall we make a tale, boys, that things are sure to mend,
 Playing bluff and hale, boys, waiting for the end?
 It will be born stale, boys, stinking to offend,
 Dying ere it fail, boys, waiting for the end.

 Shall we go all wild, boys, waste and make them lend,
 Playing at the child, boys, waiting for the end?
 It has all been filed, boys, history has a trend,
 Each of us enisled, boys, waiting for the end.

 What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend?
 No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end.
 Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,
 Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.

 Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
 Not a chance of blend, boys, things have got to tend.
 Think of those who vend, boys, think of how we wend,
 Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
-- William Empson
While I enjoy Auden's poetry very much [1], I can't deny that he's very
easy to criticize. His poems often seem too glib, too easy; there's
always the nagging feeling that behind the perfect construction and
beguiling rhythms there's (whisper it!) not a lot of depth. The Emperor,
we suspect, has no clothes.

The Empson, on the other hand, is usually so swaddled in robes of
learning and sophistication that he's lost to the general view. His
poetry is erudite, complex, and subtle. While he can -- and often does
-- exhibit the same command of prosody that characterizes Auden, he
equally often chooses to build dense layers of meaning into his every
word, until his poems become puzzles for the reader and the critic to
solve. They're nowhere near as accessible as Auden's finest works;
indeed, they don't even try to be.

It's no surprise, then, that Auden was the most popular poet of the 20th
century, while Empson remains obscure and cultish. Did it rankle? I'm
not sure. Empson was certainly idealistic enough not to care overmuch
about the comparison, but there are times (especially when reading
today's poem) when one senses a definite hint of "I can do everything
Auden does, but I choose not to" in his work. It's the classic
opposition of depth and width: Empson champions the former quality, but
acknowledges (even while parodying it) the power of the latter.

All analysis apart, I do love the way today's poem skewers Auden's
style. It's all there: the use of a refrain, the slightly condescending
tone allied with indecisiveness and moral drift, the repetition which
seems poised at any moment to descend into gibberish, the sheer
_banality_ of it all. Beautiful, simply beautiful.


[1] It was not always thus. See the commentary to Poem #677.

[On Empson and the Cambridge poets]

.. [the] Elizabethan-Metaphysical fashion naturally dominated the next
period of 'Cambridge poetry' and marked it off sharply, at any rate in
style, from the Georgians. Its most characteristic writer was beyond any
doubt William Empson. His poetry has even less of the superficial local
colouring than that of Brooke ... But in all other ways he seemed, at
the time (and in retrospect too) to be exactly and admirably the
expression of the time, as well as being almost violently himself. The
literary atmosphere was set chiefly by I.A. Richards, whose lectures on
practical criticism were drawing vast, almost evangelical audiences and
educating them in the reading of 'difficult' poetry, in the
understanding of images in which intellectual and emotive elements were
fused. Empson was able to give this fashion a creative turn, partly
because he just happened to be able to do it, but partly, perhaps,
because he had read mathematics (very creditably) before he took the
English Tripos. 'Long words' and scientific notions that others had to
garner carefully and consciously for their images to him came entirely
naturally: they were familiar to him not merely because he wanted to use
them in poetry - he used them because they were already familiar. And
the impact of his poetry was strengthened by his criticism, for
preliminary studies of the book that later came out as Seven Types of
Ambiguity were being published in the same magazines that published his
poetry. Taken together, they established a powerful and coherent, if
limited, literary position.

So much was clear on the surface. But there were deeper resonances with
the spirit of the place and age that escaped notice, because he himself
played them down, partly from what looked like a fastidious sense of
intellectual privacy, partly through a habit of irony often carried to
the point of mannerism. But he was, after all, President of the
Heretics, the Cambridge society that most obviously embodied the
radical-rationalist tradition of the pre-war days. By training and
intellectual capacity, moreover, he was aware, in a much less dilettante
manner than most of his contemporaries, of the fact that G.E. Moore and
Wittgenstein were lecturing in the University, as well as I.A. Richards.
So that both his poetry and his criticism, though almost deceptively
purely 'literary', moved in a real intellectual and moral world, clearly
grasped, even when the grasp was ironically concealed. The most obvious
outward sign of a serious concern for the conduct of life was his
capacity for mordant social observation, for pin-pointing the more
significant quirks and follies of human behaviour. And closely allied
with this was a superb command of colloquial English, so that among the
'difficult' lines and the scientific images there were astonishing
pieces of simply musical writing.

        -- Hugh Sykes Davis,

[On today's poem]

A fine example of political double-talk is given in Just a Smack at
Auden, in which William Empson emulates the authoritarian tone of
Auden's The Orators. Empson's speaker addresses his listeners 'boys,'
and in spite of his autocratic tone, he asks 'the boys' numerous banal
questions that show speaker's indecision, for example: 'Shall I pluck a
flower, boys,/ Shall I save or spend?'[29] This aspect of the poem is
another textual reference, this time our scope of reading Just a Smack
at Auden is broadened by T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock, in which the speaker assumes an authoritarian tone by stating
at the beginning: 'Let us go then, you and I,'[30] and then asks his
reader a number of prosaic questions that resemble Empson's lyric even
in the regularity of the rhythmic, iambic verse. As he says for example:
'Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?'[31] Both poems
stress the inability of a self to make a decision, or judge reasonably
in the modern society; notwithstanding whether one is a leader or a
commonplace man like Alfred Prufrock, they are exiles in a society that
lacks domesticity.

        -- Marek Helman,

60 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anustup Datta said...

A very cruel poem, Thomas - worse than just a parody. And whatever Empson
left undone (or merely hinted at), you have accomplished in your note. A
splendid bugger has been buggered, once again - he must be turning in his

Perhaps you should spare a thought for the superb craftsmanship that's so
natural and effortless as to seem "glib". A basic characteristic of poetry
is that it is meant to be read aloud, or recited - sounds and words are as
important as meanings, a fact that the neo-metaphysicals often forget. Their
chosen guru, T S Eliot, never did - his poems, though layered with complex
overtones of meanings, have wonderful "sound". (The last lines of Prufrock
that have been mocked here are worth every poem that Empson wrote in his
life.) So too for Auden - the sounds and the rhyme flow spontaneously,
making it a pleasure to read and hear.

Empson is the antithesis to "natural" poetry - he is basically a critic, not
a poet, and a mathematician to boot. He revels in critical analysis of words
and meanings - taking on Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Marvell and Gerald
Manley Hopkins impartially; "natural" poetry - one without seven types of
ambiguity - one suspects was not good enough for him. Read the villanelle of
Poem 202, for instance, it is dense and obscure and clouded with meaning -
good to puzzle over, but far from being good to read. So stiff and painful
in construction - it creaks in every joint. In my book, it is bad poetry.

Anyway, nil nisi bonum and all that.


vivian eden said...

Just to say thanks -- an especially good "read" today.


Ian Baillieu said...

Given the status of the author, I don’t criticise Minstrels’
selection of the Empson poem as worthy of discussion and
assessment, but presume that doesn’t mean that assessments
have to be positive.

The poem fails a criterion often applied to things artistic,
that each part should make a necessary contribution to the
whole. If a stanza of ‘Just a Smack at Auden’ were omitted
in transcription, would anyone notice or care (save perhaps
some obsessive tallying the words that rhyme with ‘end’)?
The poem’s main problem, however, is that it is boring.
Unredeemed by its initially seductive sing-song style, it
goes nowhere. As one vacuous stanza succeeds another, any
hope the reader has of poetic revelation rapidly dies. I
could hardly wait for the end. Is that the point? If so,
it is an intellectualism far removed from the pleasure of

I agree with Anustup’s opinion about the comparative merits
of T.S. Eliot. It is hard to understand how anyone with a
poetic ear could detect in the Empson poem the slightest
significant resemblance or reference to Prufrock. The
quoted comments (which incidentally don’t seem to be
available any longer at the website cited) of Marek Helman,
whoever he is, strike me as woefully inadequate in their
characterisation of the Prufrock masterpiece, and misleading
in their suggestion that the Empson work in some way
emulates or gains meaning from it.

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