When Byron claimed that letter-writing was "the only device for combining solitude with good company", he was wrong: reading letters can work, too. William Empson's are excellent companions. A poet and critic whose work helped establish the way literature is read and written about today, Empson never forgot the solitary conversation involved in sending and receiving words. The letters in this collection are full of their writer's particular situations: the brilliant student in 1920s Cambridge, afterwards a jobbing writer in London; professor of English in Tokyo, then Peking; broadcasting alongside George Orwell for the wartime BBC; further teaching in China and the US, a chair at the University of Sheffield from 1953 until 1971, and continued publishing until his death in 1984. John Haffenden is right to emphasise, in his introduction, the remote circumstances of much of his subject's writing: in "university digs, bed-and-breakfast establishments, squats, monasteries, hostels, huts, and basements". But Selected Letters also brings to light a lesser-known quantity: Empson's friendships. He never sounds more desolate than when lamenting that "it is no use writing from Japan . . . one tends to write a special correspondent letter and copy it out to people". The thought of letter-writing without a particular addressee in mind is unbearable.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure these letters provide is enjoyment of Empson's style, or rather styles. He began his career as an enfant terrible, with the verbal fireworks of Seven Types of Ambiguity and the conceptual somersaults and syntactic knots of his first volume of poems. Later, as an éminence grise, he would pose as "one of the old buffers". Yet neither the undergraduate magazine editor's relish ("do send along your Hopkins article, it would be rather a smack at Richards if we got somebody to say something quite different") nor the elderly harrumphing ("Sir - The ideas of Mr Grigson about verse have long seemed to me very odd") could belong to anyone else.
And these voices, however specifically addressed, invite general applause, reflections, laughter. Haffenden has, happily, picked up his subject's footnoting habit, and the book is almost worth its price for the anecdotes in small print. The Little Book of Empsonian Insults will surely be along soon - Empson sent what T S Eliot called "the most insulting letter I have ever received" - and will range from prissy rebuke ("it seems to me you are unusually bad at estimating other people's intentions, below normal there in fact, so that nursing a sheer theory you needn't even try at it is shockingly bad for you") to plain rant ("the only hope for you is to promise yourself that you will never publish vast heaps of dirty cheating Heaven-raping totally meaningless . . . personal claims . . . in future"). But Empson is rarely graceless, and even when he might have been expected to splutter - after a cleaner found condoms in his college room and reported him, losing him his first academic post and all hope of a career in Cambridge - his poise is admirable. "You wanted to be the first, I remember, to tell me I had been given a Bye-Fellowship," he wrote to his former supervisor I A Richards, "and I want to be the first to tell you it has been taken away again."
Readers who have dipped into Empson's writing before will be struck by a strange familiarity: not in the reprints from long-archived Correspondence pages, but in the places where Empson riffs on a sentence just recognisable from his published criticism, or when a phrase cited in a previous introduction or note to his work is shown in its original setting. This brings out another strength of Empson's smart-casual style, as what felt like a well-turned epigram is revealed as a finely tuned criticism. Describing anti-intentionalism as "the print-centred or tea-tasting approach" is witty, but be-comes a biting assessment when addressed to an ex-student and followed by "is what you are preening yourself upon".
These double takes reshuffle Empson's oeuvre, but not, perhaps, as his editor expected. The book feels less like "a new volume of critical writing" - as Haffenden claims - than a much-needed supplement, adding valuable context to existing works while subtly changing their status. Argufying (1988), a posthumously collected compendium of essays with generous excerpts from the letters, now feels rather less, well, argufying; certain quarrels' antagonistic tail-ends, only glimpsed there, are fully visible here.
As the second volume of his biography is forthcoming, and Selected Letters covers Empson's entire life, Haffenden can't help being a bit of a tease. The second half of this book was always going to invite reading through the lines in advance of the full story. Haffenden's introduction, however, takes advantage of this position to offer a bit of what-the-butler-saw. Remarking upon the scarcity of family letters in his volume, he quotes an apparently humdrum note from Empson to his wife, Hetta, and then deadpans:
[it] was written just two days after . . . Hetta had given birth to a child, Simon, by her lover . . . I must admit that when I first came across the blank note . . . I thought it must be referring to something routine - perhaps an operation for varicose veins? - and almost passed over its huge significance.
It is, as Haffenden describes another letter from Empson, "a tease, a bribe, a cliffhanger".
This near miss, though, indicates a problem for selectors of letters, and Empson's in particular. Although he performs few cuts, and no censorship, Haffenden has removed some "extraneous or trivial matter". However, a critic whose letters struggle so manfully to work out what exactly D H Lawrence's couples were doing in bed is not one for whom much "matter" can safely be decreed "extraneous". Like Francis Bacon's correspondent who "would put that which was most material in the postscript, as if it had been a by-matter", some of Empson's best material is throwaway: his description of Lady Chatterley's Lover as "like a daydream about a limerick" is like two mirrors facing one another. Deciding about "trivia" is harder still. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Empson points out that linguistic quibbles often go straight to the matter: joining a wartime correspondence in the Spectator about conscientious objectors, he insists rightly that "the merely verbal part of this controversy is not trivial", as pacifists want peace, while a pacificist is "in favour of being 'pacific', wherever possible". In such delicately balanced situations, an extra syllable can amount to a different world-view. As Empson's poem "Courage Means Running" puts it: "The operative clue in seeking treasure/Is normally trivial".
Deborah Bowman is a research fellow at Clare College, Cambridge