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This article is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Again Like a Dream: William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha Mark Thompson
WILLIAM EMPSON’S AFFINITY for Buddhism was well known; references are scattered through Some Versions of Pastoral, written in Japan (1931–34) while he was also working on The Face of the Buddha, and his version of the ‘Fire Sermon’ stands like an obsidian monument at the front of his Collected Poems: ‘When he is weary of these things, he becomes empty of desire. When he is empty of desire, he becomes free. When he is free he knows that he is free […] ’

In September 1944, Empson asked his publisher to consider ‘a little book about Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture’ with many photographs and only ten thousand words, unless ‘you want more’. Chatto & Windus was cool. Empson said he would try elsewhere. If he did, it was without success; before he took his wife and children to Beijing in 1947, he entrusted the typescript (grown, we now know, to thirty thousand words) to his old friend John Davenport. Davenport gave it to the poet and editor Tambimuttu, who later passed it to a fourth party, Richard March. Davenport meanwhile, raddled by alcohol, forgot what he had done and eventually confessed that he left it in a taxi. Empson bore the blow nobly. The lost work passed into legend. Jacob Empson recalls that his father ‘often talked about The Face of the Buddha’. Rewriting it, however, was out of the question ‘as of course all the illustrations were lost’. Then, a decade ago, it turned up among March’s papers in the British Library.

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