William Empson first swam into my ken in 1930-31 while I was reading for honors in the English School at Oxford. I cannot remember how I first heard of him: perhaps through his association with I. A. Richards, whose work I had discovered on my arrival at Oxford in the autumn of 1929.

I devoured Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism and his Practical Criticism. I was fascinated with what he had to say about the workings of language, and though I did not like his positivism and his psychologistic vocabulary I had to admit that he was telling me more about the inner workings of poetry than I had ever heard anyone tell before.

In the excellently selected open-shelf English literature room in the Bodleian Library, I easily located Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and sat down to read it. But I made the mistake of starting at the first page to read the book through. I...

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