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This article is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

Empson's Letters John Lyon

 Literary Theory began in nineteen sixty-eight (which was rather early for me). Or too late? In Paris, students were finally throwing off the restrictive and prescriptive shackles of the French explication de texte, but were readers in Cambridge, in Japan, in China, in Sheffield, similarly confined and restrained? Seven types of ambiguity? Even now, something soundeth in mine ears: ‘c’est de trop’, a Franglais voice declares. American academics lumbered towards tenure with those exhaustive and exhausting mono-graphs on, for example, The Pastoral. But such monographs had to contend with the almost casual plurality of the Empsonian news that there were some (among many) versions of the genre. The moral strenuousness or ‘lunatic self-righteousness’ of the Leavises and Leavisites (with all their exclusions and betrayals) was often too priggishly confining to be self-evidently ‘on the side of life’: but by 1940 Empson’s poem – with a perhaps exaggerated confidence in English dentistry – had already told them ‘Your Teeth are Ivory Towers’. Apparently we needed to be more aware of the political implications of our writing and reading practices. After all, hadn’t Dr Johnson declared of Gray’s ‘Elegy’ – though in the context of an appropriately sceptical account of Gray – that it ‘abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’, a particular manifestation of Johnson’s presently notorious commitment to ‘just representations of general nature’?1 Yet Empson by 1935 had isolated the only Gray in ...


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