Seven Types of Ambiguity
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Seven Types of Ambiguity

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  233 ratings  ·  17 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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Steven
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
Still dense, still hard to tell exactly what separates one type from another, still brilliant.
Marilyn Moreau
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.
Dan
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
Timothy
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...more
Mike Gowan
Feb 09, 2014 Mike Gowan rated it 3 of 5 stars
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...more
Meghan
Mar 27, 2008 Meghan added it
Everybody knows there's seven types of ambiguity...or do they?...is there? Huh? As far as literary criticism goes, Empson's book is actually an enjoyable read.
Thaisa Frank
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...more
Kent
Aug 18, 2009 Kent rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
Gabriel Oak
New Criticism at its best, but a bit of a slog.
Missyanna01
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.
Steven
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.
Kristin
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.
Lars
Oct 21, 2007 Lars rated it 5 of 5 stars
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
This is "reviewed"--used, I take in in Empson's spirit--in my book "Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?"
Alex
I skimmed it for argument, which shouldn't be how one goes about reading such a book.
Jessica
still not sure how i feel about this one...
Paul Bond
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
More about William Empson...
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