Happy Birthday William Empson

One of the foremost literary critics and perhaps the top critic of the 20th century Empson is most famous for his 1930 “Seven Types of Ambiguity” written when he was just 22 years of age.  He appeared bound for academic life when he won a scholarship to Magdalene College Cambridge in 1925.  He studied Mathematics and English and focused on English when he won a Fellowship.

Then disaster.  A servant found condoms in his possession and claimed to have caught Empson with a Woman!  Horror.  That kind of thing was simply unacceptable in Cambridge.  I mean it was all very well to be a homosexual in Cambridge in the 1920’s , but to be in the company of a WOMAN?  He lost his fellowship and moved to the Orient to teach.

Here is a poem from the master.  It is an Aubade, which is a poem set at or celebrating the dawn or the early morning.  This one sounds awfully like he was still cavorting with women.

Aubade; by William Empson

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying half an hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say after two aliens and one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

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Happy Birthday Rupert Brooke

Rupert_Brooke

Described by none other than W.B. Yeats as “the handsomest man in England” Brooke is the quintessential war poet.  A product of Rugby school and Cambridge University, a confused bisexual, steamy good looks, went skinny dipping with Virginia Wolfe, associated with the Bloomsbury set of poets.  He had a nervous breakdown in 1912 and toured the world as part of his recovery process.  He may have fathered a child with a Tahitian woman along the way.

When the first world war began Brookes poems “The dead” and “The Soldier” captured the mood of the nation and brought him to the attention of Winston Churchill, first Lord of the Admiralty.  He was commissioned as a naval officer and sailed for Gallipoli.  He died of an infected mosquito bite before the fleet reached Turkey.  He is buried on the Greek Island of Skyros.

Here is a funnier and less heroic poem from the pen of someone who is way too godlike for his own good.

A Channel Passage; by Rupert Brooke

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing — YOU!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice — heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ‘Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.