Paul Hamilton

Reading The Self

Using Biography

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Chatto & Windus 259pp £12.95 order from our bookshop

The Art of Autobiography in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century England

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Yale University Press 222pp £10.95 order from our bookshop

Early in the first essay of Sir William Empson’s last book his Chinese expertise comes in handy. He quotes an officiously vague sentence of Emile Legouis on Marvell’s use of mythology and deftly defuses its pretentiousness with his colloquial approval. ‘Excellent, but what can it mean, when translated out of High Mandarin, except that Marvell was able to believe in fairies?’ Fairies, battles with the unfortunately named Tupper over the question of whether Marvell married his housekeeper or not, the populism of the satires, politics, family and the obscure objects of Marvellian desire – all are used by Empson to flesh out his sense of the ‘firm and passionate mental operation’ going on in Marvell’s poems. The basis of all intelligent reading is the author’s intention: the discovery of biographical expression in a poem can renew it for us. Contempt for the author’s intention turns critics into vandals.

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