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Close Reading and William Empson
James Guetti

Note: Phillip Hatcher (a lover of horses and a hatcher of schemes) is the hero of Action (1972), a novel by the late James Guetti who also wrote three highly original books of literary criticism: The Limits of Metaphor (1967), Word Music (1980), and Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience (1993).

At the end of the novel Hatcher has given up teaching English in New Jersey and is heading south to follow the horses north during the next racing season: "Hatcher leaned over the wheel, driving straight as on a track for the end of one turnpike and the beginning of another. With the brown landscape flowing past him, he stared fixedly out at the limits of the road. "

What are the limits of the road? In spite of any effort to view them fixedly, they are in one way infinite, in another absurdly narrow, in still another circular. In these ways roads are like words and words are like poetry, "fossil poetry, " in Emerson's phrase. It is in all these ways that William Empson sees language and James Guetti sees Empson in an essay written sometime in the 1980s.

When I first encountered it, a little more than thirty years ago, close reading was implicated in the directions for writing college English papers. We were asked to re-read cretain passages from a text, and then questions — usually about the possible meanings of words and phrases — were posed. After that, always, there was this sort of direction: "Now look more closely at the passage. What can you now say about . . . ? What more can you make of . . . ?"

Thus this "close reading" was in the first place a re-reading, a re-reading made urgent by that "Now" and presuming a different result from whatever un-close reading that had occurred before. Having re-read with the assignment's questions in mind, one was enjoined to say "more," to make something of the text that, presumably, one had not made before.

Of course what more one could then make of it, what one could say "now," was determined by the fact that questions had been asked, questions about the implications of words. The re-reading of the passage was accompanied by, and perhaps even a function of, a demand for articulated sense. Such a demand was new to most of us, and probably none of us had ever encountered anything like it outside the classroom. So it seemed an artificial and an academic procedure. It was not something that one necessarily did when one read novels and poems, but only when one studied them.

But the assignments I am describing implied, and our instructors would frequently express, a counter-claim. Close reading would not only make us better readers, but it would also show us what was really happening when we were reading, inside the classroom or out. Re-reading while pressing for articulated intelligibility would result both in more sophisticated reading and in an awareness of what we did when we read anytime, an awareness of what reading really was.

The second part of that claim was hard to take then, and it may still seem so now. For the sort "reading" that those assignments demanded did not seem "real" to us, or to give us a closer view of what we normally did when reading. What they required was forced extrapolation and extension, doing more, going farther. The direction to "look more closely" at a text was in fact an injunction to widen its context, even to take it somewhere else, and then to say that it had been there all along. In this way "close" reading was not close at all: it was inventive reading, extravagant reading, far reading.

Without re-reading and thinking about those questions, one's story of his encounter with a text might have been quite different. Questions like "What happens when you read this?" would often have been answered with "Nothing happens." And that answer would not necessarily have indicated imaginative lassitude:

But now just read a few sentences in print as you usually do when you are not thinking about the concept of reading; and ask yourself whether you had such experiences of unity, of being influenced and the rest, as you read. — Don't say you had them unconsciously! Nor should we be misled by the picture which suggests that these phenomena came in sight "on closer inspection." If I am supposed to describe how an object looks from far off, I don't make the description more accurate by saying what can be noticed about the object on closer inspection.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, New York, 1968, p. 70)

It might be objected here that Wittgenstein is talking about a special case of reading, that of merely recognizing the words: "I am not counting the understanding of what is read as part of 'reading' for purposes of this investigation: reading here is the activity of rendering out loud what is written or printed" (PI, 62). But this objection may only hold momentarily, for elsewhere he has remarked that even the activity of apprehending language with understanding seems similarly empty or characterless: "Does something always come into my head when I understand a word?" (Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Chicago, 1980, I, p. 34; hereafter RPP). And again: "If I compare the coming of meaning into one's mind to a dream, then our talk is ordinarily dreamless" (RPP, 48). And again: "Suppose you do have a particular experience when you understand, how can you know that it is the one we call 'understanding'?" (RPP, 61).

This idea that even reading with understanding may seem rather an inactivity than otherwise, not a describable experience but an automatic sort of thing, was associated for us students, quite mistakenly, with another: our notion that even, and perhaps especially, the deepest sorts of understanding must be mute. Thus picky questions about one's reading a passage from Moby-Dick were both irrelevant and intrusive. I felt that I understood the text all right, and that my understanding was beyond or at least different from any questions I could, or could not, answer about it. So that when the opponents of English studies — this was just after the Beats and just before the Hippies — would say, sitting cross-legged on the grass, "Ah, man. Don't talk about it. Don't analyze it. That kills it," they struck a responsive chord, despite the fact that they themselves would then go on to "talk about it" in ways that seemed incoherent or boring or both.

The question that I want to pursue here, then, is whether there may indeed seem anything "real" or "natural" about close reading. About its academic usefulness there can be no question, for it has become indispensable both to our classroom behavior and to our scholarly procedures. The habit of turning the reading of a poem into a discussion of "meanings" and "ideas," which has long been the custom in English classes, receives enormous support from close reading: or at least from a rule derived from extravagant forms of it, which claims that the closer one looks at literature, the more meanings one sees, the more ideas one has, the more one can say. And if we did not spend our classroom time working out the implications of a text, phrase to phrase and line to line, what would we do: go back to theme and plot, or gossip about the writer's life? Upon what, furthermore, in writing literary criticism, might we base our ideas, if not upon a more or less conscientious effort to derive them from a "closer" look a the text?

But the question here, again, is whether what has become business-as-usual in literary studies has any nonacademic application or relevance. We behave in class as if reading always involved talking about reading, or even talking back to reading, but is that the way it is? What legitimizes "close reading" outside the special employments of literary studies? That question — which seems all the more important given the lengths to which we have recently seen close readers go — may be initially approached by observing one of the first and best of such readers at work.

We seldom hear his name these days, but it would be hard to imagine anyone better at talking about his reading — talking in response to his reading — than William Empson. In the following passage from Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: New Directions, 1966), which, to exhibit his capability, I want to quote at length, Empson is arguing against "atmospheric" literary critics, who would maintain that "verbal analysis" is unnecessary, that the sense and feeling of poetry is something just to be absorbed wholesale. What Empson is most concerned with, as always in this book, are ambiguities, in the present case "devices of particular irrelevance," our awareness of which, as he argues, is the source of all "atmosphere":

Macbeth, in these famous lines, may easily seem to be doing something physiological and odd, something outside the normal use of words. It is when he is spurring on his jaded hatred to the murder of Banquo and Fleance.

Come, seeling Night
Skarfe up the tender Eye of Pitiful Day
And with thy bloddie and invisible Hand
Cancel and teare to pieces that great Bond
That keepes me pale.

Light thickens, and the Crow
Makes Wing to th' Rookie Wood.

Good things of Day begin to droope, and drowse,
While Night's black Agents to their Prey's doe rowse.
Thou marvell'st at my words, but hold thee still;
Things bad begun, make strong themselves by ill:
So prythee go with me.

The condition of his skin (By the pricking of my thumbs Something wicked this way comes), the sense of being withdrawn far within his own flesh (like an old lecher, a small fire at his heart, all the rest on's body cold), the sense that the affair is prosaic, it need not be mentioned, and yet an occasional squawking of the nerves (Hobbididance croaks in Tom's belly), in short the whole frame of body, as I read the lines, is lit up and imposed upon the reader, from which Macbeth lashes his exhausted energies into a new, into the accustomed, readiness for murder.

I have tried by these almost irrelevant quotations to show how much work the reader of Shakespeare is prepared to do for him, how one is helped by the rest of his work to put a great deal into any part of it, but this seems to explain very little. Various similar sound effects or associations may be noted; there is a suggestion of witches' broth, or curdling blood, about thickens, which the vowel sound of light, coming next to it, with the movement of stirring treacle, and the cluck of the k-sounds, intensifying a suggestion, too, of harsh, limpid echo, and, under careful feet of poachers, an abrupt crackling of sticks. The vowel sounds at the end make an increasing darkness as the crow goes forward. But, after all, one would be very surprised if two people got the same result from putting a sound-effect into words in this way.

It is safer to point out that rooks were, in any case, creatures of forboding:

Augurs, and understood Relations, have
By Magot-Pyes, and Choughes, and Rookes, brought forth
The secret'st man of Blood;

that Macbeth looked out of the window because Banquo was to be killed after dusk, so he wanted to know how the time was going; and that a dramatic situation is always heightened by breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially if some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside. But to notice this particular pathetic fallacy you must withdraw yourself from the apprehension of its effect, and be ready to notice irrelevant points which may act as a clue. I believe it is that the peaceful solitary crow moving towards bed and other crows, is made unnaturally like Macbeth and a murderer who is coming against them; this is suggested by the next lines, which do not say whether the crow is one of the good things of the day or one of night's black agents (it is at any rate black), by the eerie way that light itself is a thickening, as a man turns against men, a crow against crows, perhaps by the portentous way a crow's voice will carry at such a time, and by the sharpness of its wings against the even glow of a sky after sundown; but mainly, I think, by the use of the two words rook and crow.

Rooks live in a crowd and are mainly vegetarian; crow may be either another name for a rook, especially when seen alone, or it may mean the solitary Carrion crow. This subdued pun is made to imply here that Macbeth, looking out of the window, is trying to see himself as a murderer, and can only see himself as in the position of the crow; that his day of power, now, is closing; that he has to distinguish himself from the other rooks by a difference of name, rook-crow, like the kingly title, only; that he is anxious, at bottom, to be at one with the other rooks, not to murder them; that he can no longer, or that he may yet, be united with the rookery; and that he is murdering Banquo in a forlorn attempt to obtain peace of mind. (18-21)

Already, in the section immediately following the first quotation from Macbeth, Empson is beyond my reading. The range of quotation that he brings to bear, as if without thinking about it at all, seems both to generate and to justify an extraordinary intensity and complexity of response, so that his image of the passage seems for the moment even brighter than the passage itself.

He calls these quotations — all the Shakespeare that he applies to Shakespeare — "almost irrelevant," though perhaps justified by "how much work the reader of Shakespeare is prepared to do for him." But they show as well how much work Empson is willing to do for Shakespeare. And this interweaving of Empson and Shakespeare, which is both the motive for and the executed form of Empson's own sentences, makes Empson, at least at moments here, a wonderful writer himself.

This artfulness of Empson's criticism makes the question of its "relevance" complicated. In the next paragraph, discussing sound effects, his responses may at first seem clearly extravagant, idiosyncratic overreactions: "there is a suggestion of witches' broth, or curdling blood, about thickens . . . . " Still we may recognize that his ear is extraordinarily responsive, especially considering that he is so often determined not to privilege "sound effects." And we may return ourselves to the passage to hear that "cluck of the k-sounds" that we missed the first time through. But we are probably still behind Empson, a little winded, when he takes the rest of our breath away: " . . . intensifying a suggestion, too, of harsh, limpid echo, and, under careful feet of poachers, an abrupt crackling of sticks." What? Harsh and limpid? Poachers? Where is Macbeth here, or Macbeth? What world is this? What is he talking about?

We may feel that it does not matter. Evidently it has something to do with this scene from the play. Or at least it began as a meeting of Empson with Shakespeare. And it seems just wonderful. At moments such as this the "relevance" of Empson's reading to our own may be doubtful; but its relevance to Shakespeare, even in the waywardness of its brilliant impressions, is clear. For, first, it is concentrated upon and devoted to the poetry, and, second, it is beautifully done. Who cares, then, if "one would be very surprised if two people got the same result from putting a sound-effect into words in this way"?

Empson's progress continues almost as exciting throughout the passage I have quoted, despite the liabilities that so much explicating, paraphrasing, and translating may constitute for writing. This is partly because we continue to expect to be surprised by his impressions, whose extravagance is harnessed by their genuineness and immediacy — "the portentous way a crow's voice will carry at such a time, and by the sharpness of its wings against the even glow of a sky after sundown" — and partly because, whether or not we accept the extended implications for Macbeth himself of the "subdued pun" between "rook" and "crow," the intensity of Empson's concentration together with the expressed particularity of his mind makes these implications seem to follow.

One also has confidence in his taste, his judgments about what to consider most. If, at more distance from Empson's prose, I doubted his version of the psychological significance of "rook-crow" for and about Macbeth — and I do — I do not doubt that Empson has his finger on the pulse of this sequence from the play. "Light thickens, and the Crow/Makes wing to th' Rookie Wood" are the crucial lines, and it is those two words, "rook" and "crow," that seem fundamental to their action. I myself would want to do more with the effect of repetitions here, and perhaps, by reversing an idea of Robert Frost's, think about the force of similar significances crossed against dissimilar sounds, but with the assonance of "Rookie Wood" still making everything, all decision, seem foregone, bitter and complacent, ominous and finished, at the same time. Then one could note how the outstanding poetic strength of the two lines in question renders everything else in the passage irrelevant, both by crystallizing Macbeth's mind-bent and, paradoxically, by efficiently setting him and the action of the play aside in favor of Shakespeare's display of his poetry. But, again, even if one can do something different with the force of these lines, they are the ones that Empson centers and whose weight he proves.

Of course the air of Empson's close reading is not always so heady. There is in Seven Types a very great deal of laborious grammatical analysis, and continual, insistent translation from word to word to word. But such mechanical procedures are often relieved, as I have suggested, by Empson's wonderful image-making. And they are interspersed with judgments remarkable in their boldness and sharpness, whether we agree with them or not:

There is no need to be so puzzled about Shelley. (viii)

In the last two lines [Peacock] is not concerned to be thinking, to decide something or convince somebody; he makes himself a cradle and rocks himself in it . . . (22)

The poem beats, however rich its orchestration, with a wailing and immoveable monotony, for ever upon the same doors in vain. (36)

All language is composed of dead metaphors as the soil of corpses . . . (25)

. . . an interest in rhythm makes a poet long-winded . . . (31)

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