Prose from Poetry Magazine


William Empson and Geoffrey Grigson on climbers, criticism, and the morality of rudeness.

The influential British poet, critic, and editor Geoffrey Grigson (1905–1985) published a “Letter from England” in the November 1936 issue of Poetry in which he disparaged the work of Dylan Thomas, C. Day Lewis, David Gascoyne, F.R. Leavis, and others; though he praised a number of writers including W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood, Grigson wrote that he mostly found “a jelly of mythomania, or self-deception, careerism, dishonesty, and ineptitude.” The “scarcest quality among young English writers,” he wrote, was “integrity.” The piece triggered a vigorous correspondence between Grigson and the estimable William Empson.

Dear Sir:

Somebody ought to explain about Grigson, when he introduces himself to a new circle of readers, as he apparently did in the November Poetry. The trick of being rude to everybody is, of course, paying journalism of a certain kind, but in Grigson it also comes from the one honest admiration discernible in him, for the work and methods of Wyndham Lewis. However, Grigson shows no sign of having any theoretical basis to be rude from, which Lewis has plenty of; nor has Grigson any capacity in poetry himself; published partly under an assumed name, Martin Boldero, his stuff has been pathetic. This of course need not stop him from being rude to good effect, and he has a good journalistic nose for what he can safely be rude to. But it is annoying to have him call people “climbers” when no other brickbat seems handy. Grigson himself is the only climber in the field. Not that a climber is anything very shocking; but he has got himself a comfortable job as critic by nose and noise alone. He may have published some decent criticism which I have not read, but in his magazine he does not so much as pretend to give reasons for insulting people. (He has not attacked me; I had rather a sharp review in his paper from someone else, but that was criticism all right.) Of course apart from this “climber” talk it is a good thing to have someone making a lively noise, but someone else, as he points out, ought to say Boo.

The coxcomb bird, so talkative and grave,
Who from his cage calls cuckold, whore, and knave,
Though many a passenger he rightly call,
You hold him no philosopher at all.

W. Empson
January 1937

To the Editor of Poetry:

You observe: say one word about writers in England, stick in one millimeter of pin, and out come petulance and squeal, for that is all that Mr. Empson’s letter is made of. “The trick of being rude to everybody.... paying journalism of a certain kind.... a good journalistic nose for what he can safely be rude to.... a comfortable job as critic by nose and noise alone”—very neat, very delicate, but wouldn’t Mister Empson have used your space a little more sensibly, in replying to my “Letter from England”? Is there or is there not, a remarkable inertia masquerading in England as activity? Do English writers, or do they not, form defensive fronts of the fifth-rate? Do David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas and F.R. Leavis and Michael Roberts, and Herbert Read, and Day Lewis, et al., deserve, or do they not deserve, the things I said about them? Mr. Empson, ranging himself with the Sitwells as an English gentleman, might have stood up for his friends, if he had had anything to write beyond innuendoes and exaggerations about New Verse. For must the reason for insult always be stated? Can it never be obvious? And does not “nose” contradict “everybody”? Mr. Empson is right; I am not rude (if he must have the word) from “any theoretical basis.” I attempt to be rude—a typically inert theorizer and poetical pasticheur of Mr. Empson’s kind would scarcely see it—I say, I attempt to be rude from a moral basis, a basis of differentiating between the fraudulent and inert and the active, genuine, and desirable. The inert verbalism in which Mr. Empson deals may not be fraudulent, but it has always, if Mr. Empson would care to know, struck me as quarter-man stuff so unreadably trivial that it is not worth insulting or attacking.

Geoffrey Grigson
May 1937

To the Editor of Poetry:

The important thing here seems to be the anti-intellectual stuff. I wouldn’t want to deny that it lets Grigson put up a case; in fact, that is the danger of it, that it will defend anything. For instance, it is a bad thing to be a quarter-man, but it is a great sign of being a quarter-man if you strut about squaring your shoulders and seeing how rude you can be. And it is necessary to make your final judgments “on a moral basis,” but if you haven’t done some thinking first, your moral intuitions will as like as not be mistaken and harmful. If you set out to forget simple truths like these it gets easy to be proud of yourself for being manly and moral.

The anti-intellectual line can be a useful defense for valuable things; a man like D.H. Lawrence had a right to it. But as to whether the fifth-rate (not that I agree about who is fifth-rate) form defensive fronts—they do, they do; and this is one of their fronts.

William Empson
May 1937

“Letter to the Editor” by Geoffrey Grigson and reprinted by permission of David Higham Associates. “A riposte to Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘A Letter From England,’ January 1937” and “A response to Geoffrey Grigson, May 1937” by William Empson. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.
Originally Published: April 2nd, 2012

Sir William Empson, professor of English literature at Sheffield University for nearly twenty years, "revolutionized our ways of reading a poem," notes a London Times writer. The school of literary criticism known as New Criticism gained important support from Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on...

British poet, critic, and editor Geoffrey Grigson grew up in Cornwall, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. With his first wife, Frances Galt, Grigson founded the Modernist poetry magazine New Verse, which championed the work of poet W.H. Auden. In his poetry, Grigson frequently engages themes of history, the natural...

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