Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

Seven Types of Ambiguity

I'm reading Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson, which I've been meaning to read for years. The cover is adorned with a quote from FR Leavis, but my poetry friend tells me that FRL used to slag off Empson, and commented 'Leavis was a dangerous man to get on the good side of'.

Empson published this at the age of only 24 (apparently he wrote it age 21 - amazing). By this time he'd been chucked out of Cambridge for the heinous crime of possessing a condom OMG. Seven Types is a jolly charming and energetic read. Like Hazlitt and Montaigne, Empson seems to be a modern person, that you feel you would like if you met him. He writes in a sort of sexually unspecific camp style.

Here he is for instance on Samuel Johnson's criticism of 'puns' as namby-pamby:

To relate a taste for puns to the author's sexual constitution, one would have to consider what a variety of notions of manliness have held sway; that curious controversy by which the Lords Tennyson and Lytton, each with conviction and upon clear grounds, denied one another's virility; the tears and swoonings through which that of Troilus was asserted; the later Puritan notion that it is manly to be indifferent to sexuality; the vital and virile rhythm of American music... the precisely similar extravagant gestures by which the Ganymedes and Titans of Michaelangelo express respectively their yielding and their power.

What a sentence for a 21 year old! What a compass!

This is a book about ambiguity in literature, mainly in poetry. That is, a bunch of words which are designed to freight more than one meaning. His seven types are ordered by how much tension or contradiction there is between the two or more freighted meanings. I have read the first two sections:

  • The first type of ambiguity is the gentlest - where a phrase has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning ('Turned out nice again') which are not at odds.

  • The second type is where the phrase contains a genuine grammatical or semantic ambiguity, but the two interpretations are not at odds. One example he gives is Cressida enjoined 'To keep her constancy in plight', meaning both plighted constancy and constancy despite being in plight.


Anyway, this is all very densely argued and I can't do it justice in a quick post.
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