Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth's week in words: Did William Empson have the first clue what 'bare ruined choirs' meant?

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

I am shocked to find that William Empson, famous for his technique of close reading, was no good at reading at all. A paragraph of his in Seven Types of Ambiguity, concerning one line in Sonnet 73 by Shakespeare, is called a great example of literary criticism. In the London Review of Books, Jonathan Raban wrote recently about how Empson’s book made him ‘learn to read all over again’ in 1961. As for this paragraph, he had been ‘ravished by its intelligence and simplicity’.

The line is ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’. ‘Of course!’ the young Raban exclaimed after reading Empson’s remarks. ‘After all, Shakespeare was born in 1564, barely 20 years after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, whose fresh ruins were scattered around the landscape, as raw and brutal as the bombsites of my own childhood. The totalitarian vandalism of the mad king, as he tried to erase Catholicism from the land, was in plain view, and echoes of the sweet birds’ singing still remained in the ears of the elderly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnet.’

True, but Empson’s famous paragraph (on page two of the book, and familiar to many who never reached the end), contains two blunders. The poet’s comparison holds, says Empson, because ‘ruined monastery choirs’ are ‘made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth’ and ‘because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest’. But ruined choirs are not made of wood.

The word choir in Shakespeare’s day meant what it means now, ‘part of a church where services are sung’. (The synonymous chancel is named not after chanting but after the lattice-work bars, cancelli in Latin, marking it off.)

Empson also foolishly remarks that the ‘Narcissistic charm suggested by choirboys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets’. But no one mentioned choirboys. In a monastery, the choir would have been monks. Choirboys sing in parish churches or cathedrals, which were not left in ruins. Is Empson always this bad?

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