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.
At first, given current critical fashions, this appears to be an untimely discourse; and a departure from those theories of verbal ambiguity and complexity which established Empson’s own literary reputation. However, in a postscript to Christopher Norris’s recent fine book on his criticism Empson insisted, good humouredly, on continuity: ‘I