Seven is the number of types of ambiguity that William Empson announced in the book he published in 1930, aged just 24, winning immediate and lasting recognition as a pioneer—or vandal—in literary criticism. It is also the number of chapters in his successor volume, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). A third book, The Structure of Complex Words (1951), varied the pattern a little, including, as well as literary studies, a set of theoretical chapters that run—by Michael Wood’s reckoning—to seven. In truth, Empson’s first count remained unconfirmed, even in Seven Types of Ambiguity itself: an object-lesson in the irony that was a central preoccupation of his critical writing and his poetry. As for the rest, he was after all a mathematician who loved pattern, a poet skilled in rigorous prosodic schemes—someone with a bent for what he called ‘trick-work’. There is no reason to grant the number seven any special significance, beyond remarking, perhaps, that human cultures have counted so many things in sevens—the days of the week, the stages of life, oak groves, brides and brothers—and that the word itself is then an exemplary growth in the linguistic ‘shrubbery’ that Empson came to see as more important in our ordinary processes of interpretation and judgement than what he called ‘official’ knowledge. Here and now, however, in Wood’s book of seven chapters, the symbolism is surely unequivocal: it is an emblem of affiliation, or attachment.

The reader approaching On Empson for the first time does well to begin with its publishing context. The book was commissioned for a series named Writers on Writers, in which Empson is preceded by Arthur Conan Doyle, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden and Susan Sontag. This is a miscellany suggesting enthusiasm as a governing consideration rather than any impersonal continuity of theme or field. Its authors, whatever their practical association with the academy, are projected as ‘writers’, not scholars. Of course Wood has been a career academic with a distinguished institutional record in Britain and the us, and literary interests extending from Yeats to Nabokov, as well as writing for and (especially) about film over many years; the generic term ‘scholar’ would not be misapplied here. But the design of the occasion calls for another kind of performance, and this is not the place to look for a conventional monograph. ‘The Empson I would like to conjure up in this book’, he says, and the choice of verb is already a declaration, ‘is a writer, both as a critic and a poet’—not because he practises in more than one mode, that is, but because of the way he inhabits both, in ‘a long intimacy with language, a feeling that you have to care for it and can’t go anywhere without it’. Wood’s book is an introduction to this Empson, and a highly appreciative one: ‘celebration’ is a recurring word in the jacket copy, as is ‘wonderful’ in the prose of the book itself.

For all its relative brevity in the range of commentary on Empson—John Haffenden’s biography, at the far end, comes out just short of 1,500 pages in two volumes—Wood’s study offers a comprehensive sweep across the writings, including two detailed chapters on his strange, haunting poetry, with its syntactic compressions and transpositions, and learned analogies pursued in the manner of his acknowledged master, John Donne. Empson was as precocious in this as he was in the interests that led him to Seven Types of Ambiguity, earning himself a place in two of the defining anthologies of the time, Michael Roberts’s New Signatures (1932) and Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936)—in which his allowance of poems, it happened, was seven. But the major emphasis necessarily falls on the critical prose, and in particular the three books Empson had written by the early 50s, the point at which he settled to live and teach in England, after significant spells in Japan and China.

The encounter is one of performances as much as or more than abstracted ideas. The Empson manner is bluff, matter-of-fact, ‘grand casual’, in Wood’s happy phrase, and radically awkward. He acknowledges the poetic in its customary setting, but only to announce an analytic move against the ‘irritation’ of ‘unexplained beauty’; the judgement of value, which is commonly thought to be the primary business of the critic, ‘comes either earlier or later’ than the work on which he himself was bent, ‘whose object is to show the modes of action of a poetical effect’. Disdainful of imagistic and symbolist poetic programmes, believing that poetry belongs to a common world of debatable statement and counter-statement, he is committed to ‘puzzling’ and to the morality of ‘argufying’, as he would say—not merely engaged but disputatious where need be. His attitude in writing Seven Types of Ambiguity, he explained, ‘was that an honest man erected the ignoring of “tact” into a point of honour’. The manner comes with a social history: Empson was the Winchester-educated son of Yorkshire gentry, and elements of the old common touch mingle in his personal register with schoolboy usages and ingrained habits of hyperbole and euphemism that contribute to the effect of a form of sociability not quite at ease with itself.

Wood’s conversational tone is different. The prose is feline, by turns quick and slow, focused but alert to what might turn up along the way, prizing subtlety. In this too there is a history, one less squarely social—though Wood marks his distance from the ‘grandee’ Empson—than professional. The decades of devotion to close reading, as brilliantly practised by Empson and hardened into doctrine and pedagogy by the New Critics—of whom he was by fierce avowal not one—nurtured a widespread habit in Anglo-American literary criticism of fictioning the critical presentation as a process of discovery, the written record of a naked encounter between reader and poem. Wood’s modus operandi shares in this tendency, and projects it a stage further. ‘All along [Empson] has been doing what good critics do’, he tells us at one point: ‘trusting his own sense of the words and the writer’s gift’. And the encounter is not only bare; it is live, as if streamed from the classroom. Empson was capable of ending a chapter with a list of the texts he had meant to discuss but must (now, so to speak) leave aside; Wood’s performance is similarly staged. ‘I want to glance at . . .’, ‘I want to pause over . . .’, or, taking leave of the real temporality of reading a printed book, ‘a month or so ago I was trying to work out . . .’ This is critical writing modelled as interaction in real time.

It makes for a style of discussion in which qualifications seem at times more in evidence than substantive claims. But what is clear, nevertheless, is the centrality—or rather, to take an active metaphor, the unceasing pressure—of the idea of ambiguity in Empson’s thinking, as it extends its range from (some) poetry to language use generally over the twenty-odd years between Ambiguity (Empson’s own familiar name for his first book) and The Structure of Complex Words, with a corresponding procedural development from the verbal analysis of local or small-scale effects to a concern with entities of a quite different kind and scale. Wood begins with a passage from the first book, in which Empson analyses four lines from Macbeth, balancing his case on a single word. Some Versions of Pastoral, in contrast, takes a whole literary mode as its object, and with a minimal outline characterization for guidance (the work of the form is ‘putting the complex into the simple’), proposes new instances of pastoral and a sketch of its modern development. At the heart of the book, as Wood rightly judges it, is the trope of irony, which marks the uncertain relation of the speaking subject to what is said—and in particular a long analysis of the double plot and the ‘double irony’ that Empson himself was inclined to claim as ‘somehow natural to the stage’. Like its predecessors, Complex Words returns to canonical literary texts; and it presents its linguistic inquiries as serving the interest of literary criticism: ‘even a moderate step forward in our understanding of language would do a great deal to improve [the pursuit], and in any case to improve our general reading capacity.’ But the throwaway closing phrase points to a rather different balance of interests and priorities. Here was an untilled field of semantic inquiry: the ‘rich obscure practical knowledge’ that, as Wood too benignly puts it, ‘language holds in trust for us’, the ideo-affective ‘shrubbery’ of everyday communication.

It is in good part by conventional licence rather than any more stringent test that Empson is called a ‘critic’. Compared with his Cambridge contemporary Queenie Roth and the teacher she married, F. R. Leavis, he came both earlier and later than the critical moment itself. His work in its textual detail is often redolent of philological styles rather than the ingenious feats of close verbal analysis for which he is best remembered. And for all his distrust of general theories, it was towards such conceptual horizons rather than the more common pursuits of the mid-20th-century literary critic that his main intellectual energies were normally directed. He was out of tune with the anti-intentionalism of the New Criticism, without ever venturing a considered critique of it or upholding a coherent alternative, as Wood shows; the late essay collection Using Biography, which he lived to see nearly into print, was a gathering of disparate studies with no general framing material bar a snorting reference to ‘the Wimsatt Law’ forbidding critical recourse to the life and its recorded purposes. The exception to this constitutional pattern was itself exceptional in the critical field: his decades-long crusade against ‘neo-Christian’ critics and their conforming fellow-travellers in the academy. Beginning early, with unorthodox readings of poems by George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a defence of a sceptical John Donne against the High Church Eliot, and continuing up to the time of his death in an egregious, unfinished reinvention of Marlowe’s Faustus, Empson’s war reached its greatest intensity in Milton’s God (1961), a work single-mindedly devoted to the thesis that ‘the reason why [Paradise Lost] is so good is that it makes God so bad’.