Tuesday 27 September 2016

Sunday Poem: William Empson - Missing Dates

Anthony Cronin's personal anthology

Anthony Cronin

Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin
Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

William Empson was one of the most remarkable poets of the twentieth century. He was also quite a remarkable man. He was lecturing in Peking during the Sino-Japanese war when the authorities decided to evacuate the university to Nanking.

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Unfortunately they left without textbooks but Empson was able to re-create the entire text of Shakespeare's Coriolanus for his students to study.  When he came here in 1982 for the Joyce Centenary, I chaired his lecture in the Mansion House. But he was suffering from the early stages of dementia and was not always sure of where he was or why.

In the middle of a brilliant lecture about Ulysses he suddenly left the stage. I sat on in hopes until he as suddenly returned and continued as brilliantly as before. His critical books - Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral - were hugely influential in academia, and his verse, distinguished by compression, complexity, wit and irony, became unexpectedly influential in the 1950s when all the poets of the day, but mostly those associated with what was called The Movement, were Empson imitators.

Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month's desires;

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag-hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.

The complete fire is death. From partial fires

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

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