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Seven Types of Ambiguity

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  354 Ratings  ·  24 Reviews
Revised twice since it first appeared, it has remained one of the most widely read and quoted works of literary analysis. Ambiguity, according to Empson, includes "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." From this definition, broad enough by his own admission sometimes to see "stretched absurdly far," he ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published January 17th 1966 by New Directions (first published 1930)
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The Western Canon by Harold BloomIlluminations by Walter BenjaminAspects of the Novel by E.M. ForsterWhy Read the Classics? by Italo CalvinoThe Curtain by Milan Kundera
Works of Literary Criticism
23rd out of 241 books — 47 voters
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. SebaldLabyrinths by Jorge Luis BorgesJourney to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand CélineLast Evenings on Earth by Roberto BolañoThe Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
Best New Directions Books
171st out of 213 books — 124 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,456)
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Marilyn Moreau
Feb 05, 2013 Marilyn Moreau rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, criticism
Originally purchased after reading a short story by Shirley Jackson about a character's ambiguous actions to it, this book became something I was determined to read through. Fascinating, mentally stimulating, and engrossing, even if you have to chain yourself to a wall to read it. Best comprehended reading in a windowless room, devoid of all but a desk, chair, and lamp, for uninterrupted 3 hour intervals.
Apr 06, 2008 Steven rated it liked it
Although many of the examples from 15-19th century poetry that Empson analyses seems hopelessly dated—it always amazes me that the Romantics were that romantic—his close attention to words and their various meanings is a good wake-up call. A reminder to pay closer attention to word choice. I won't pretend that I studied this book that closely, but I have found it great for browsing. Just picking up it up and reading a dozen pages, thinking about the multifaceted ways that words can be used. Alre ...more
Tad Richards
May 27, 2009 Tad Richards rated it it was amazing
Still dense, still hard to tell exactly what separates one type from another, still brilliant.
Sep 17, 2015 Dan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Empson argues that ambiguity is a central device of poetry, and that it distinguishes poetry from other forms of writing. For him, writers such as William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and John Donne regularly employed the ambiguities of sense and syntax as a way of giving expression to highly complex ideas. Most of the book is analysis of examples as Empson supplies multiple readings of words and phrases from various poems in order both to define the different types of ambiguity and to substantia ...more
Jan 23, 2012 Timothy rated it really liked it
I found this book to contain much sensitive analysis and a pleasant style, but I traversed it with the sense that I lacked the patience and refinement to take much away from it. Ultimately, the ending cheered me and serves as a better review than anything I could write:

"I should claim, then, that for those who find this book contains novelties, it will make poetry more beautiful, without their ever having to remember the novelties, or endeavor to apply them. It seems a sufficient apology for man
Mike Gowan
Feb 09, 2014 Mike Gowan rated it liked it
Recommends it for: poets
Recommended to Mike by: Lewis Turco
I recall that I got this book because it was referred to (and summarized) in Lewis Turco's book "The New Book of Forms." It has been on my shelf for years. I pulled it down and found where I stopped reading on page 78.

This is about half the way through the second type of ambiguity where two or more meanings are resolved into one. That type of ambiguity is the most fun to try to work with in a sonnet form, for me, anyway, so I think I got what I needed from the book.

But looking at it again, now
Mar 27, 2008 Meghan added it
Everybody knows there's seven types of ambiguity...or do they? there? Huh? As far as literary criticism goes, Empson's book is actually an enjoyable read.
Warren R.
Apr 27, 2015 Warren R. rated it it was amazing
Under the false guise of literary criticism, William Empson has produced a true comic masterpiece, a book of enormous intellectual energy and verbal wit, which is closer in spirit and "atmosphere" to the impractical, rambling novels of Sterne than to the grave Practical Criticism of I.A. Richards.

At the same time, Empson puts forward his thesis about "ambiguity" in poetry, which actually is not that ambiguous and nonsensical, if you could just stop laughing for a second (which you couldn't possi
Was it just me, or were the examples chosen far too few and far too unclear? The space at the beginning of each chapter should have been the place to lay out exactly what is in question. A few homely examples from the then-present day and age would have made the concept solid. Instead, the key words in his examples are often so arcane that a modern person is immediately strained to search for any meaning on the face of them at all, never mind competing ambiguities!

I think there's definitely a l
Thaisa Frank
Jun 08, 2012 Thaisa Frank rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful book for the writer who is interested in the nuances of langauge and words. Empson wrote this book in 1930 and it has the somewhat antiquated, detailed, self-referential, hesitant, over-explaining style of a British academic (athough Emspon wwas American) who probably started to read the classics at a young age. (In some ways his tone reminds me of the British language philosophers and empiricists of the 40s onward.)

Empson believes that the richness of ambiguity belongs to po
Jul 29, 2015 Lysergius rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting an stimulating look at the presence and effects of ambiguity in poetry. Calling up various currents in literary critical trends such as the rediscovery of the metaphysical poets and the insights of Freud, Empson teases apart a number of examples to reveal the seven types of ambiguity.

It actually makes for interesting reading, since the examples he draws on are varied and often obscure. His method is to show that ambiguity results in a number of alternate readings of the text, whic
Aug 18, 2009 Kent rated it really liked it
Shelves: comps
I can't help but comment on this in light of the push against Tony Hoagland's argument about the "skittery poem of the moment." While I can admit my own exhaustion with poems that seem interested in using a limited bag of tricks (and tricks here intended in a pejorative sense), I think there are times when Hoagland doesn't honor the poems he criticizes with the ambiguous intent that is inherent in any good poem. That may be why this book by Empson resonates with me--because it advocates vaguenes ...more
Hypocrite Lecteur
May 05, 2016 Hypocrite Lecteur rated it liked it
"a true sense of the strangeness of the mind's world"
John Cutler
Jun 11, 2014 John Cutler rated it liked it
Shelves: academic
New Criticism at its best, but a bit of a slog.
Apr 16, 2008 Missyanna01 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really liked this book. I have read some reviews that describe it as wordy and redundant, but it was sull of descriptions of people and situations that I can easily imagine. There is psychology, the use of the excesses in life to get by and yet at the end boy meets girl, loses girl gets girl back, but then a new boy meets a new girl and that is left ambiguious. Good 600+ page read.
May 22, 2007 Steven is currently reading it
This has been sitting on the various incarnations of my bookshelves for a decade. I kept it around for the two most amazing dedications I have ever received, something of a benediction on the way out the door from graduation...chosen for the title.

It's about time I opened its pages and see if the content is as appropriate a gift as the cover was back then.
Oct 24, 2014 sologdin rated it it was ok
Shelves: literary-theory
early US formalism. displays the normal new criticism focus on textual 'complexity,' here the 'ambiguities,' but for author these complexities are an index of the writer's mind, which is something about which mature new criticism does not care--probably a nostalgia for earlier author-oriented writings.
Jan 23, 2011 Kristin rated it liked it
I liked this about as much as one can like a book on analyzing poetry from the 1930s: not too much. I understand that this is an important text in the development of literary analysis, but the misogyny and antiquated attitudes make it hard for me to access the book.
Oct 21, 2007 Lars rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Poetry lovers/haters.
This book helped me overcome my fear of poetry. It also put at my disposal the adjective "empsonian", an excellent modifier for the noun "ambiguity".
Jim Elkins
Oct 09, 2012 Jim Elkins rated it it was amazing
Shelves: english
This is "reviewed"--used, I take in in Empson's spirit--in my book "Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?"
Aug 15, 2011 Alex rated it liked it
I skimmed it for argument, which shouldn't be how one goes about reading such a book.
Feb 04, 2010 Jessica rated it really liked it
still not sure how i feel about this one...
Aug 19, 2015 Mark marked it as to-read
Shelves: 1_tbr, 2015-possibles
COCC PN 1031 .E4 1953 but musty
Paul Bond
May 13, 2012 Paul Bond rated it it was ok
Shelves: reviewed
A reliable substitute for Propofol.
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Sir William Empson was an English literary critic and poet.

He was widely influential for his practice of closely reading literary works, fundamental to the New Critics. Jonathan Bate has said that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, "not least because they are the funniest".

Empson has been styled a "critic of genius" by
More about William Empson...

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