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On Empson
Michael Wood

Hardcover | 2017 | $22.95 | £18.95 | ISBN: 9780691163765
224 pp. | 4 1/2 x 7
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400884742 |
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Are literary critics writers? As Michael Wood says, "Not all critics are writers—perhaps most of them are not—and some of them are better when they don't try to be." The British critic and poet William Empson (1906–84), one of the most important and influential critics of the twentieth century, was an exception—a critic who was not only a writer but also a great one. In this brief book, Wood, himself one of the most gifted writers among contemporary critics, explores Empson as a writer, a distinguished poet whose criticism is a brilliant literary performance—and proof that the act of reading can be an unforgettable adventure.

Drawing out the singularity and strength of Empson's writing, including its unfailing wit, Wood traces the connections between Empson's poetry and criticism from his first and best-known critical works, Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral, to later books such as Milton's God and The Structure of Complex Words. Wood shows why this pioneer of close reading was both more and less than the inventor of New Criticism—more because he was the greatest English critic since Coleridge, and didn't belong to any school; and less because he had severe differences with many contemporary critics, especially those who dismissed the importance of an author's intentions.

Beautifully written and rich with insight, On Empson is an elegant introduction to a unique writer for whom literature was a nonstop form of living.

Michael Wood is professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University and the author of many books, including Yeats and Violence, Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton). He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. He lives in Princeton.


"Michael Wood's reflections on Empson celebrate his unusual genius, focusing on the wit and nuanced thinking of both his criticism and poetry. Wood is the best expositor of Empson's poetry to date, and this book is a fine exhibit of Wood's own brilliance as a critic."--Paul H. Fry, author of William Empson: Prophet Against Sacrifice

"On Empson is a work of learning, reflection, grace, and wit. It will be the go-to volume for anyone who wants to get a sense of William Empson's career and why it matters. Michael Wood celebrates Empson as a writer and a thinker, deftly showing how his prose and poetry join in a single enterprise. Those coming new to the work will find this an invaluable guide; and already confirmed admirers will delight in Wood's subtle account of one of the great literary figures of the modern period."--Seamus Perry, University of Oxford

"It's thrilling to experience Wood's mind at work on Empson's, and Empson's mind at work on Wood's. Wood's style is engaging and his readings of Empson's prose and poetry are clear, compelling, persuasive, and fresh. I enjoyed On Empson from first page to last."—Lisa Rodensky, Wellesley College

Table of Contents:

1 Empson’s Intentions 1
2 The Strangeness of the World 26
3 Large Dreams 55
4 The Other Case 82
5 All in Flight 113
6 Sibylline Leaves 143
7 The Smoke of Hell 171
Acknowledgments 201
Abbreviations 203
Bibliography 207

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Michael Wood:


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    File created: 3/7/2017

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