William Empson on Chinese poetry

The selection below is from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. He’s writing about comparative adjectives which do not say what their noun is to be compared with, and he uses two lines of Chinese poetry in his explication which not only captures the precision of Empson’s writing and critical sense, but offers one of the best primers on how to approach the concision of Asian poetical use of ordinary language pushed to heighten meaning. Empson taught in Japan, Beijing and Kunming, before spending the rest of his teaching career in Britain.

william empson

“Not unlike the use of a comparison which does not say in virtue
of what the two things are to be compared is the use of a comparative adjective which does not say what its noun is to be compared with; since all adjectives are in a sense comparative, this source of ambiguity is a sufficiently general one. In particular, 
it is the chief source of euphuistic conceits and the paradoxes
 cultivated in the 1890s, which give a noun two contradictory 
adjectives and leave it to the reader to see how the adjectives
are used. I shall give an example from one of Mr. Waley’s Chinese translations, to insist upon the profundity of feeling which such a device may enshrine.

‘Swiftly the years, beyond recall.

‘Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.’

“The human mind has two main scales on which to measure time. 
The large one takes the length of a human life as its unit, so that 
there is nothing to be done about life, it is of an animal dignity 
and simplicity, and must be regarded from a peaceable and fatalistic point of view. The small one takes as its unit the conscious 
moment, and it is from this that you consider the neighboring 
space, an activity of the will, delicacies of social tone, and your 
personality. The scales are so far apart as almost to give the
 effect of defining two dimensions ; they do not come into contact 
because what is too large to be conceived by the one is still too 
small to be conceived by the other. Thus, taking the units as a 
century and the quarter of a second, their ratio is ten to the tenth 
and their mean is the standard working day ; or taking the smaller
 one as five minutes, their mean is the whole of summer. The
re pose and self-command given by the use of the first are contrasted with the speed at which it shows the years to be passing 
from you, and therefore with the fear of death; the fever and
 multiplicity of life, as known by the use of the second, are 
contrasted with the calm of the external space of which it gives
 consciousness, with the absolute or extra-temporal value attached 
to the brief moments of self-knowledge with which it is concerned,
 and with a sense of security in that it makes death so far off.

“Both these time-scales and their contrasts are included by these 
two lines in a single act of apprehension, because of the words 
swift and still. Being contradictory as they stand, they demand 
to be conceived in different ways ; we are enabled, therefore, to 
meet the open skies with an answering stability of self-knowledge ; 
to meet the brevity of human life with an ironical sense that it is 
morning and spring time, that there is a whole summer before 
winter, a whole day before night.

“I call swift and still here ambiguous, though each is meant to
 be referred to one particular time-scale, because between them
 they put two time-scales into the reader’s mind in a single act of 
apprehension. But these scales, being both present, are in some
 degree used for each adjective, so that the words are ambiguous
 in a more direct sense ; the years of a man’s life seem swift even 
on the small scale, like the mist from the mountains which
  gathers a moment, then scatters; the morning seems still even 
on the large scale, so that this moment is apocalyptic and a type 
of heaven.

“Lacking rhyme, meter, and any overt device such as comparison, these lines are what we should normally call poetry only by 
virtue of their compactness; two statements are made as if they 
were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relations for himself. The reason why these facts should have been
 selected for a poem is left for him to invent; he will invent a 
variety of reasons and order them in his own mind. This, I
 think, is the essential fact about the poetical use of  language.”

 

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