Empson is the first analytic critic to apply the principles of I.A. Richards on the nature and function of language consistently and with gusto to particular passages of poetry. The objections raised in his Seven Types of Ambiguity are still valid. James Smith points out that Empson’s analyses are interesting only as revelation of the poet’s or Empson’s ingenious mind. He complains about the vague nature of ambiguity. While it is possible to show that Empson’s method often leads to critical irresponsibility as pointed out by Elder Olson in his ‘William Empson, Contemporary Criticism and Poetic Diction’, Empson is one of the sharpest and the most sensitive of modern critics.
Seven Types of Ambiguity presents the different kinds of ambiguity or ‘types of logical disorder in the order of increasing distance from simple statement and logical exposition. In the essay, ‘The Seventh Type of Ambiguity’, Empson takes up the seventh type of ambiguity which, to him, is ‘the most ambiguous that can be conceived’. It ‘occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity are the two opposite meanings defined by the context so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind’.
Empson provides Hopkins’s The Windhover as an example of poetry to convey an indecision and reverberation in the mind. Though I.A. Richards has excellently written about it, Empson’s analysis adds to his. Hopkins became a Jesuit and burnt his early poems on entering the order. There may be some reference to this sacrifice in the line : ‘Buckle! AND the fire that that breaks from thee then’.
According to Empson, Hopkins conceives the active physical beauty of the bird as the opposite of his patient spiritual renunciation. The statements of the poem appear to insist that his own life is superior, but he cannot decisively judge between them; he holds both with agony in his mind. The phrase ‘My heart in hiding’ implies that the life of the windhover is more dangerous than the life of renunciation which is the more lovely as evidenced in the last three lines of the poem.
The word ‘Buckle’ admits of two tenses and two meanings: ‘they do buckle here’, or ‘come, and buckle yourself here, ‘buckle’ like a military belt, for the discipline of heroic action and ‘buckle’ like a bicycle wheel, ‘make useless, distorted and incapable of its natural motion. The word, ‘here’ in the line : ‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here’ may mean ‘in the case of the bird’, or ‘in the case of the Jesuit’; the word, ‘then’ in the next line means ‘when you have become like the bird’ or ‘when you have become like the Jesuit’. ‘Chevalier’ in the third line of the sestet personifies either physical or spiritual activity; Christ riding to Jerusalem or the cavalry men ready for the charge; Pegasus or the windhover. Thus in the first three lines of the sestet, Empson says, we have a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites – where two things that are incompatible are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both. The last three lines of the sestet convey the conflict more strongly and more beautifully.
After analyzing Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, Empson interprets George Herbert’s The Sacrifice as a poem having conflicts though the business of this doctrinal poem is to state a generalised solution of them. The speaker in this poem is Jesus Christ. As interpreted by Empson, the speaker is speaking with pathetic simplicity, an innocent surprise that people should treat him so, and a complete failure to understand the case against him:
They did accuse me of great villainy
That I did thrust into the Deitie;
Who never thought that cry robberie;
Was ever grief like mine?
The word ‘rased’ applies to the two opposite operations. Moreover, the refrain (a quotation from Jeremiah) refers to the wicked city of Jerusalem, abandoned by God for her sins and not to the Saviour. There is a fusion of love of Christ and the vindictive terrors of the sacrificial idea in his advice to his deal friends not to weep for him, for, because he has wept for both, they will need their for themselves. (In his agony, they abandoned him):
Weep not dear friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were blood, the while you slept
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept
Was ever grief like mine?
The stress of the main meaning is on the loving – kindness of Jesus. But the last verse contains as strong and simple a double meaning. As per the evaluation of Empson, in this verse, Christ may wish that his own grief may never be exceeded among the humanity he pities; he may incidentally wish that he may be sure of recognition and of a church that will be a sounding board to his agony. Empson gives this double meaning as just a possibility though it may sound blasphemous. A memory of the revengeful power of Jehova gives resonance to the voice of the merciful power of Jesus:
‘Herod in judgement sits, while I do stand
Examines me with a censorious hand’.
‘me’ is made to ring out with a triumphant and scornful arrogance. It implies that he will be far more furious in his judgement than his judges.
Empson quotes a few more stanzas from George Herbert’s doctrinal poem and brings out the conflicts and contradictions in the poem. He quotes specific examples from the poem to prove that the supreme act of sin is combined with the supreme act of virtue in the person of Christ. The final contradiction presented is found in the lines :
‘Lo here I hand, charged with a world of sin
The greater world of the two . . .
as the complete Christ; scapegoat and tragic hero;
loved because hated; hated because god like;
freeing from torture because tortured;
and torturing because merciful.