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This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Unstated Empson
Looking for Traces of the Chinese Poetic Tradition
Diana Bridge

‘twittering ghosts’


Months ago, reading a review of William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha in the pages of this magazine (PNR 232), my eye was caught by an excerpt from the book that should have been Empson’s third but was eventually published seventy years after it was completed. Empson wrote of a ceramic luohan (saint or sage in the Buddhist pantheon) observed at the Royal Academy in 1935, that the figure ‘seemed…so much alive that it turned the people looking at it in the London Exhibition into twittering ghosts’. In his review, Mark Thompson suggested that Eliot’s ‘twittering world’ stood behind Empson’s response and connected it to the language and ambience of Burnt Norton. Empson’s China background brings up a possible additional source.

Empson used the arresting phrase when revising the manuscript of his book in the 1940s, after his return from China. He had spent the years 1937-1939 teaching English literature at National Peking University, when the war with Japan had necessitated the university’s relocation to Changsha and Kunming. Empson had taught in gruelling conditions and mostly from memory. It was his prodigious memory that made me wonder whether the combination of ghosts and twittering might have had a relationship, direct or subterranean, with the last two lines of the Tang poet Du Fu’s famous poem, ‘Ballad of the Army Carts’. In the prose translation by Empson’s friend David Hawkes, these lines read: ‘The new ghosts complain and the old ghosts weep, and under the grey and dripping ...


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