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Empson, William

Entry updated 11 August 2018. Tagged: Author, Critic.

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(1906-1984) UK literary critic, theorist, poet and author, perhaps the most brilliant (and cantankerous) British thinker about literature in the twentieth century, most famously for Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; rev 1947), published just after he was stripped of his degree and normal academic career by Cambridge University for a sexual misdemeanour (a condom was discovered in his rooms), and for Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), whose analysis of "Christ and scapegoat" as a liminal Antihero necessarily subtends considerations of the transgressive role in general of Fantastika in literature. This examination of the Pastoral in literature includes a study of the Alice books by Lewis Carroll.

Empson is of some though not significantly direct sf interest for the novella-length but incomplete "The Royal Beasts" (written circa 1937; in The Royal Beasts and Other Works coll 1986), an Apes as Human Satire, which features a non-human non-simian tribe (or civilization), distinguished in part from Homo sapiens through enjoying the benefits of oestrus (see Evolution; Sex). Wuzzoo, the protagonist, comes to legal blows with the British Empire in his attempts to deny that his people are human, and therefore subject to Slavery. The tale is marked by confused debates on the part of the Christian church regarding the extent of Christ's remit (see Religion). The status of potential inhabits of Mars is brought into the fray; in later years, in "Donne the Space Man" (Summer 1957 Kenyon Review), Empson suggested that John Donne (1572-1631) expressed with some directness a belief that rational beings could inhabit other planets: a suggestion transgressive of traditional Christian belief in the planetary exclusivity of Christ's incarnation. Empson was knighted in 1979. [JC]

Sir William Empson

born Howden, near Goole, Yorkshire: 27 September 1906

died London: 15 April 1984

works (highly selected)


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