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This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

Hugging an Exotic Kind of Goat Mark Thompson

When William Empson was preparing his last book, Using Biography (1984), I looked things up in libraries for him and read drafts when he wanted to put them out of reach. This minor service was repaid, life-enhancingly, by wide-ranging talk over meals or while walking on Hampstead Heath or in Kew Gardens. He bridled at deference, and concession to his years was rebuffed.

Looking at the animals in Golders Hill Park, he said, 'I was once hugging an exotic kind of goat at Whipsnade when it began to nibble my beard. I was very angry. It was a betrayal of love, do you see?' The poised comedy of such remarks, witty in a way that put him inside and outside his own experience, struck me as wholly his own. 'The strange-ness of the world' (one of his touchstone phrases) was confirmed and parried by the strangeness of Empson.

By that time - it was 1983, Empson's seventy-seventh summer - John Haffenden's research was underway. Empson wondered how he would manage. For his previous subject, John Berryman, had come with a trove of letters, diaries and drafts, 'but no one in my family keeps such things, any more than I do,' Empson commented with finality.

Now we have the first volume, taking the story up to 1940, when Empson returned to Britain from his second stint of teaching in the Far East. Luckily, he was wrong about the personal papers: his ...


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