William Empson’s Concept of Ambiguity

Empson, a student of IA Richards, in (1930) promulgates a radically new approach to the language of poetry – to the multiple semantic possibilities of individual words, and to the frequent openness of English syntax to more than one construction. The purpose of the “seven types” taxonomy is clarity of thought and not rigidity of classification. Empson’s argument underlies the claim that “the mechanisations of ambiguity are among its very roots.” The book treats poetry from Chaucer to TS Eliot, but its most famous examples are from the 17th century: Shakespeare (Macbeth), Donne (A Valediction Forbidding Mourning) and Herbert (Sacrifice).

Empson’s taxonomy of ambiguity moved from simple ambiguity such as double meaning to outright contradictions. He begins with words that seem to mean several things at once due to similar sounds. In the second type, two meanings merge into one. In the third type, two seemingly unconnected words are given together. In the fourth, alternative meanings combine to confuse interpretation. In the fifth type, there is some confusion that the author has discovered as he went along, and is the result of the author not being able to “hold” the entire work in his head while composing. In the sixth, irrelevance constitutes the ambiguity and the reader has to make a choice. Finally outright contradictions and antagonistic meanings are deployed by the author — which, Empson argues, via Freud, is an indication of a split in the author’s consciousness. Empson argues that words have meanings of many kinds beyond those their authors could conceptualise; meanings that embody drives contradicting the author’s conscious codes, meanings that express psychological and social forces that show up fully only in subsequent development. For his against-the- grain verbal analyses Empson is sometimes claimed as predecessor of deconstruction and notions of a free play of language.


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  1. Literary Criticism and Theory in the Twentieth Century – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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