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This review is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

RELATIVELY CLOSE The Complete Poems of William Empson edited by John Haffenden (Allen Lane) £30.00

William Empson is not a god. We know this because he does not dissolve as we make our advances. For all their riddling and allusion, when we cease turning over his kaleidoscope poems we are left with the poet and his tangible, mortal condition.

Conversely, 'The god approached dissolves into the air.' So begins 'Doctrinal Point', in which magnolias and the laws of physics are benignly resented for the self-containment of their development, for their evasion of the doubts and despair afflicting human beings. It is teasing verse, placing its own form and argument in jeopardy, rhyming itself almost to death as it mocks divine self-containment; the 'Point' is wilfully made, a deliberate misapplication of natural, theological and human criteria to each others' business. There's a serious theme underlying these games, though: being mortal would not be such a trial if life wasn't full of reminders that other, less troubled modes of being exist. Perhaps the ultimate irony of 'Doctrinal Point' is that without such cues humans would seem more divine, simply by virtue of not knowing any different. In 'This Last Pain', one of Empson's more immediately digestible (and celebrated) poems, the point is made to tickle priests and philosophers alike:

This last pain for the damned the Fathers found:
'They knew the bliss with which they were not crowned.'

[ ... ]

'What is conceivable can happen too'
Said Wittgenstein, who had not dreamt of you; ...


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