Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Against the Christians
As gleaned from the second volume, Against the Christians, of John Haffenden’s biography of William Empson:
As a girl, Hetta Crouse (later Empson) taught herself to urinate forwards standing up.
The text, all twenty-six stanzas of it, of ‘Praise of the Wife’, Empson’s paean to troilism, the 'love with three corners' ('I loved you in bed with young men, /Your arousers and foils and adorners /Who would yield to me then'.)
He expressed his passing disapproval of his wife giving birth to a child out of wedlock by downgrading his usual epistolary salutation from 'Dearest Hetta' to 'My Dear Hetta'.
His idea of keeping a friendship in good repair was endless cheerful hectoring, disagreement and needle. He once sent T.S. Eliot ‘the most insulting letter which I have ever received.’
Despite the covers of those old purple Hogarth Press editions of Seven Types of Ambiguity etc, Empson’s beard was indeed once attached to the front of his chin, before taking up residence exclusively underneath it.
Speaking at the 1982 Joyce centenary celebrations in Dublin, Empson was incoherent and inaudible, wandered offstage at one point for five minutes, and frequently appeared not to know where he was.
During an ill-starred year at Penn State, Empson 'once, for some minutes, watched my neighbour's door lamp through my telescope, thinking it Venus', reports Paul West.
Outside the pages of Haffenden's book, a friend tells me his wife was once interviewed by Empson in Sheffield from underneath a desk from which he at no point emerged, before, during or after.
Another Empson story I've heard, I can't remember who from, is his interruption of a poetry reading he was giving with the words 'I've set my beard on fire', as indeed he had, with his outstretched cigarette holder. Perhaps this was the bushfire that sent the shrubbery into that retreat below his chin.