In the Bill Brandt portrait which adorns this first volume of a two-part life, William Empson reclines, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, looking presentable but somehow unfamiliar. What is missing, of course, is the beard – that great outgrowth from under the jaw-line that seemed to separate the sage’s head from his body, and made its wearer resemble nothing so much as the kind of exotic hermit who might bask half-way up a sacred mountain. Among the Mandarins is Empson before the beard (he was successfully bribed out of an early beard-attempt by his horrified mother); even so, following its subject up to the grand age of thirty-two, the book is a portrait of Empson the sage, the object of admiration and awe for his own generation of literary intellectuals in England.
When asked to define the critical method, one of T S Eliot’s coldest (and funniest) responses was that it was just ‘to be very, very intelligent’. He might have been thinking of the young Empson: from his schooldays onwards, Empson had a way of astonishing all who came in contact