Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

William Empson: Ignorance of Death


.



Mann, aus dem Fenster springend [Man Jumping From a Window]: Gerhard Richter, 1965, graphite on paper, 35.5 cm x 27.8 cm
(Gerhard Richter Art)



Then there is this civilising love of death, by which
Even music and painting tell you what else to love.
Buddhists and Christians contrive to agree about death

Making death their ideal basis for different ideals.
The Communists however disapprove of death
Except when practical. The people who dig up

Corpses and rape them are I understand not reported.
The Freudians regard the death-wish as fundamental,
Though "the clamour of life" proceeds from its rival "Eros."

Whether you are to admire a given case for making less clamour
Is not their story. Liberal hopefulness
Regards death as a mere border to an improving picture.

Because we have neither hereditary nor direct knowledge of death
It is the trigger of the literary man's biggest gun
And we are happy to equate it to any conceived calm.

Heaven me, when a man is ready to die about something
Other than himself, and is in fact ready because of that,
Not because of himself, that is something clear about himself.

Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,
And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,
It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.


William Empson: Ignorance of Death, from The Gathering Storm, 1940






  Mädchen am Strand [Girls on the Beach]: Gerhard Richter, 1967, graphite on paper, 25 cm x 32.8 cm (Gerhard Richter Art)



20.9.1985: Gerhard Richter, 1985, graphite on paper, 21 cm x 29.7 cm (Gerhard Richter Art)



20.9.1985: Gerhard Richter, 1985, graphite on paper, 21 cm x 29.7 cm (Kunsthalle Emden, Emden, Germany)



28.2.1986 (1): Gerhard Richter, 1986, graphite on paper, 21 cm x 29.7 cm (Gerhard Richter Art)



28.2.1986 (2): Gerhard Richter, 1986, graphite on paper, 21 cm x 29.7 cm (Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland)



28.2.1986 (3): Gerhard Richter, 1986, graphite on paper, 21 cm x 29.7 cm (Gerhard Richter Art)

15 comments:

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

WE's ruminations next to GR's drawings,
"a mere border to an improving picture"
-- thanks.

8.30

grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green of leaf on branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

in which vista, so that one
single time is itself

besides that painting, “out
of date,” pictures of

grey white of fog reflected in channel,
circular green pine on tip of sandspit

manik sharma said...

Tom,
Reminded me of this ..

And maybe Awe the road to life ..and life the road to death..i fear and i wonder ...i fear i wonder too much and i wonder why this fear ?? Death on every road is anew...and the blankness an antique thought...Somehow both coexist in the same moment....i guess..Brilliant poem ..

ACravan said...

This is just fabulous -- words and images. One is tempted to say (since it's supposed to be the highest form of compliment) that it should have its own television series. (I know that's a weird thought.) It's propitious to read this because Empson's been on my mind for the last week or so -- the memory of first reading Empson here and then reading a person's remarks about Empson recently. (I believe it was a composer.) Anyway, this clarifies things a little and it made me smile a lot. Curtis

ACravan said...

It is the trigger of the literary man's biggest gun/
And we are happy to equate it to any conceived calm.

All the lines of Empson's poem are wonderful, but I really love this one.

Curtis

TC said...

Curtis,

Swell idea that (the series). "Six Feet Under" broke the ground here (as it were).

Wooden Boy said...

I love Empson's very English plainness. There could be no better case for "making less clamour" than this poem.

To be blank and unashamed of it; the world would be a more peaceable place, less of the hive chatter to bear, if more people could live with this.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"Liberal hopefullness"
becomes one's bread and butter
in the Sandwich Islands
beauty fearsome all around.

Let's talk about this.
Let's not. Instead look
and look and look until
zero that's
love to you and me
landscape.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Would I die for poetry?
Do I have a choice in this?

doesn't this happen already
each night entering
the dream world
and then eventually waking
up to the squinty sun
and its tiny or huge guns

departuredelayed said...

Tom,

Your site never fails to stop my cold in my tracks. The words from my head I'd never said are in the poem and the images I could only dream are on the page.

As I've said in the past, I am allergic to the romanticism of death. Empson, I think, gets it right.

Sandra said...

"Softly I lay my right hand upon you, you 'ust feel it,
I do not argue, I bend my head close and half envelop it,
I sit quietly by, I remain faithful,
I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor,
I absolve you from all except yourself spiritual bodily, that is
eternal, you yourself will surely escape,
The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious.

The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions,
Strong thoughts fill you and confidence, you smile,
You forget you are sick, as I forget you are sick,
You do not see the medicines, you do not mind the weeping friends,
I am with you,
I exclude others from you, there is nothing to be commiserated,
I do not commiserate, I congratulate you."
W.Whitman

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Prepared blank
I draw with a small charcoal
and see a man jump out
his window
also women
in the sun
forget society's
little black books

drawing and seeing
the blank page
is shocking
light there already
what will you make
of their modern lines

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

The poem plain but not simple and above all not ambiguous next to GR's haunting drawings--brilliant collaboration.

Wooden Boy said...

I love the blank that Empson feels set against the blank of the paper in your poem, Susan. I'm thinking about the life studies years ago at college in a whole new way.

larry white said...

Where the magnificent Empson seems least ambiguous or blank is in the penultimate stanza. Given the time.

Hopefully apropos, from the WWI warm-up, Mary Butts (from her mid-1920s novella, "Imaginary Letters"):

Give bread and drink
To soap: even to prayers,
for the surprise it prepares.
Give scent, give fire
Everything to restore,
You will not find it a bore.

Hang out a wire from the stars
To the Banks, for a friend,
Notice where it will end.

It will not end where you think.
You have set something going.
DO NO TAKE TO DRINK.

A sailor has a parrot
A barman has a bar.
The human heart is unpredictable
LIKE GOD.

Restore life
To its capacity for beauty
That sounds
An order to make pleasure out of duty.
BUT,

Watch the surprise in your eyes
Waiting for the moon to rise
A surprise moon for the wise moon,
the sight for sore eyes.
A lean moon for the serene moon of peace.
CULTIVATE PLEASURE IN SURPRISE.

When
You set a feather in a cap
A feather in another's cap
(A feather in Russia's cap)
If the cap slips the moon flits
If the cap sits the moon flits

IF THIS CAP FITS, PUT IT ON.

Sandra said...

Heaven me, when a man is ready to die about something
Other than himself, and is in fact ready because of that,
Not because of himself, that is something clear about himself."
...interesting thought!