Synopses & Reviews
Following the acclaimed first volume, Among the Mandarins
, this is the second and concluding volume of the authorized biography of William Empson, one of the foremost poets and literary critics of the twentieth century.
Against the Christians begins during the Second World War and follows Empson's turbulent years of writing wartime propaganda for the BBC. As Chinese Editor, he organized broadcasts to China and propaganda programs for the Home Service, during which time his friends and colleagues included the prickly George Orwell. The effectiveness of Empson's work for the BBC provoked the Nazi propagandist Hans Fritzsche to call him a "curly-headed Jew"--a charge which gave him enormous satisfaction.
In 1947 he returned to China, where he was caught up in the Communist siege of Peking and witnessed Mao Tse-tung's triumphant entry. "I was there for the honeymoon between the universities and the communists; we were being kept up to the mark rather firmly." He saw "the dragooning of independent thought and the hysteria of the confession meetings." In the late 1940s he also taught in the USA, where he relished the irony of his situation. "My position here really seems to me very dramatic; there can be few other people in the world who are receiving pay simultaneously and without secrecy from the Chinese Communists, the British Socialists, and the capitalist Rockefeller machine."'
From 1953 to 1971 he held the Chair of English Literature at Sheffield, where he engaged more vigorously than ever before in public controversy, being driven by a desire to correct the wrong-headed orthodoxies of modern literary criticism--most notably "neo-Christianity." He acquired massive publicity for his views on the wickedness of Christianity when he published Milton's God in 1961: "The poem is wonderful because it is an awful warning. The effort of reconsidering Milton's God, who makes the poem so good just because he is so sickeningly bad, is a basic one for the European mind." Haffenden presents a full account of the work on Milton, along with analyses of Empson's many other writings on subjects including Marlowe, Donne, Marvell, and Coleridge, and The Structure of Complex Words (1951).
In a full and candid study of the public and private Empson, John Haffenden enables the reader to understand one of the most gifted, eccentric, witty, and controversial figures of our age--a giant of modern literature and criticism.
"John Haffenden has told us more bout William than any biographer as done, or I dare say ever will do, for any modern literary critic, and his two volumes are a grand and noble work."--Paul Dean, The New Criterion
"John Haffenden's labors have been on a heroic scale, even by the standards of devoted biographersThese volumes are exceptionally perceptive and illuminating about Empson's writing and thinkingThis remarkable biography now enables us to reconstruct the core experience of being Empson."-Stefan Collini, The Nation
"William Empson: Against the Christians is even better than Haffenden's first volume, rich in anecdote and scandal, with superb summaries of the difficult later criticism, and honestly affectionate."-Michael Dirda, Washington Post
"Haffenden has given us an Empson we should be arguing about, and arguing with, well into the future."--Peter McDonald, The Literary Review
"Biography is a dominant form these days, and Haffenden's is one of the best."--Fred Inglis, The Independent
"The culmination of a majestic achievement."--Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday
"Magisterial biography. This is a definitive work, brimming with dry humour, acute political and literary analysis and a quiet respect for Empson's defining idiosyncrasies. Resolutely unhysterical, affectionately written and delightfully incisive."--Tim Martin, Telegraph
"His two-volume Empson now ranks, with say, Holmes on Coleridge. McCarthy on Morris, Bellos on Perec, Ellman on Joyce and Wilde: it is one of the great literary biographies. It would be high enough praise to say that Haffenden has equalled the achievement of his first volume; the reality is that he has excelled it."--Kevin Jackson, Sunday Times Culture
"Impressive."--Andrew Motion, The Guardian
"Immense and magnificent biography."--Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
About the Author
John Haffenden is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield. His books include The Life of John Berryman
, W. H. Auden: The Critical Heritage
, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation
, and Novelists in Interview
; and he has edited Berryman's Shakespeare
and several collections by William Empson including Complete Poems
. The first volume of this biography, William Empson: Among the Mandarins
, was published in 2005.
Table of Contents
1. The BBC War
2. The War within the BBC
4. Sounding the South: Kenyon College, Summer 1948
5. Siege and Liberation
6. The New China
7. Changes in China; and Kenyon Again
8. Quitting Communist china
9. Final Reckoning: The Affair of Fei Hsiao-t'ung
10. 'A Mighty Raspberry': The Structure of Complex Words
11. Homing to Yorkshire
12. From Poetry to the Queen
13. Ménage a Trois
14. The Anti-Christian: Milton's God
15. 'They think good literature is a tremendous scolding': From Sheffield to Legon
16. The Road to Retirement
17. Rescuing Donne and Coleridge
18. Roamings in Retirement
19. Faustus: Finale