Thursday, June 16, 2011
Number 188: William Empson "Arachne"
Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves;
Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems;
Earth's vast hot iron, cold space's empty waves;
King Spider walks the velvet roof of streams;
Must bird and fish, must god and beast avoid;
Dance, like nine angels, on pinpoint extremes.
His gleaming bubble between void and void,
Tribe membrane, that by mutual tension stands,
Earth's surface film, is at a breath destroyed.
Bubbles gleam brightest with least depth of lands
But two is least can with full tension strain,
Two molecules; one, and the film disbands.
We two suffice. But oh beware whose vain
Hydroptic soap my meagre water saves.
Male spiders must not too early be slain.
-- William Empson
Hap Notes: There is no way to over estimate William Empson's (1906-1984) contributions to poetry as we now know it. I think there are two essential texts for really understanding how to closely read poetry: Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age and Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, and of those two, Empson's is the most crucially important. Empson's brilliant analyses make you smack your forehead with astonishment and scratch your head with puzzlement but above all he teaches you HOW to THINK as you read a poem. Everyone who has seriously read a poem in the last 75 years owes Empson. No kidding. He is a revelation, still.
Hard to believe that the young math whiz (his math professors were quite crestfallen when the young Empson chose English over math at Magdalene College, Cambridge University) eschewed the subject for literature, as his talent for Maths (as they call it in the U.K.) was considerable. His tutor in English was I.A Richards, the man who practically invented English Literature as a discipline for study. The young Empson told Richards about his theories of close reading and Richards said to go ahead and write about it. Empson published Seven Types of Ambiguity when he was 24. His ideas spawned the "New Criticism" (which he actually didn't care all that much for) and were nourished by his visits to Robert Graves and Laura Riding (ah ha, now you see the method to my madness, eh?)
Empson had an odd and extraordinary life which I would love to talk about but today's poem is a typically rich mine that takes a bit of excavation. We owe it to Empson to apply his instructions for reading to his own work so his somewhat sensationally strange life will have to wait for another post.
Just a few brief remarks before we start. If you've ever said, "All this explication is useless, it's the "mood" of the poem, the way it makes you feel," Empson would agree with you with one caviat: WHY does it make you feel? What is the poet doing that creates that feeling? What words is he/she using and why and how do they create that mood? If you can't answer that, you aren't thinking about the poem – it only hits the surface of your consciousness like the verse in a Hallmark greeting card. A good poem, he says, should be able to stand up to your scrutiny. If it cannot, it's a piece of cardboard on a stick. His analyses of passages of Shakespeare and John Donne (his personal favorite I think) reveal worlds within worlds in just a few sentences of text. It's breathtaking and enriching.
First off who is Arachne? Possibly you have read Ovid's Metamorphoses, if you have not here are the translated Arachne passages if you are interested; www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph6.htm The story, in a nutshell, is that Arachne is a weaver of great skill, so great she feels she cannot be compared to anyone, even Athena (Minerva) could not equal her. Athena gets more than a little leaked off about this, the upshot of which is a weaving duel between the two (there' s way more in the story- but I'm encapsulating here). Athena weaves a glorious tapestry with remarkable "warning" scenes in the corners. Arachne weaves a tapestry of great beauty but it depicts the Gods doing the most reprehensible acts; Leda and the Swan, Europa with the Bull, Danae and the shower of gold etc.
This tapestry so offends Athena, as beautiful as it is, that she teaches a little lesson to Arachne about speaking prideful truth to omnipotent power. She rips up Arachne's tapestry, hits her on the head with the weaving tool and turns her into a spider where she is doomed to constantly weave and have her works easily destroyed. Athena says "Vain girl, since you love to weave so very much, why don't you go and spin forever."
Now let me add what Empson said about his poem, the caves of man are thought of as by the sea to escape land predators. "Man lives between the contradictory absolutes of philosophy, the one and the many etc. As King Spider Man walks delicately between two elements avoiding the enemies which live in both. Man must dance etc. Human society is placed in this matter like individual men, the atoms who make up its bubble."
There is a lot of surface tension in this poem. The water cannot make the bubble of the world without the soap and vice versa. The interpersonal relationship in this poem is always hanging by a thread.
As for the nine angels, well, you know the old saw about the futility of arguing about incorporeal angels being able to dance on the head (or point) of a pin, yes? Nine could be a variety of things, the nine different distinct angels, the nine forms of grammar ( the verb, the noun, the adjective, the participle, the conjunction, the article, the pronoun, the preposition and the adverb), the nine fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control.)
Here's my current favorite and I think Empson would delight in this; nine is a Motzkin number (the number of ways of drawing non-intersecting lines on a circle.) I don't know that Empson knew this since he and Motzkin were contemporaries, but it delights me anyway.
Empson left this poem out of his 1959 recording of his collected works. He said, "It's a boy being afraid of a girl, as usual, but it's boy being too rude to girl. I thought it had a rather nasty feeling, that's why I left it out."
I'll let you play with the poem, now. Empson was a great lover of crossword puzzles and it would not be amiss to say he enjoyed a poem the same way and he would say, why have a puzzle if there is no answer to it? Empson was not above thinking that a poem posits opposites or questions that can be reduced down no further, too. That poetry may be an expression of the irreducible. BUT he'd ask you what in the poem leads you to think that.
I love that "velvet roof of streams" line, too, don't you?
Here's a good Empson quote:
". . . the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. And anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get the opportunity."
You can find more Empson here: www.poemhunter.com/william-empson/