It would be easy for a reader who was encountering Empson for the first time to wonder what on earth this critical performance was about and why these ragged relics - the second part of a two-volume edition of his miscellaneous writings on Renaissance literature - were being presented with such thoughtfulness and scrupulous care. About half of the present volume's contents have been previously published, from a 1956 essay on The Spanish Tragedy, through essays from the Sixties on Volpone and The Alchemist, to a pair of reviews. None of this is close to the level of Empson's major work. To the uninitiated these pieces will, I think, often seem cranky and arbitrary, skirmishing with enemies who have long since vanished, condescending to the views of 'lady students', and assuming a virtually direct access both to the mind of the maker and to the responses of the original audience. The hitherto unpublished pieces - a letter to a colleague who had ventured to disagree on a point of interpretation, an unfair and largely tedious drubbing of a critical essay on Volpone, and unfinished essays on The Duchess of Malfi and A Midsummer Night's Dream - pose even more of a problem. For apart from the repetitions that would certainly have been eliminated in a finished version, these pieces - especially the crucial long essay on the Dream - indulge in speculations that seem, well, zany.
LRB 20 October 1994 | PDF Download