BF. William Empson
21. The Royal Beasts and Other Works. Edited by John Haffenden. London: Chatto and Windus,
1986. Reprint, Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988.
‘Creative writings’ by Empson, mostly done between
1926 and 1942, most published here for the first time. Includes, along
with work noted below, twelve ‘poems and fragments’ previously
unpublished, five uncollected poems, and miscellaneous prose. The materials
are largely drawn from the Empson papers at King’s College Cambridge
a. ‘The Elephant and the Birds:
A Plan for a Ballet’. Based in large part on the Pali legend of
the Buddha’s incarnation as an elephant, and so not directly connected
to Japanese materials, though much of Empson’s fascination with
and understanding of Buddhism may be traced to his years in Japan; Haffenden
notes Empson’s interest in Buddhist thought and art during his years
in Japan, and suggests that ‘the full story behind the ballet thus
begins at the latest by 1933, during Empson’s period of teaching
at the Tokyo University of Literature and Science’.
b. Miscellaneous. Quoted in Haffenden’s,
Introduction (29). In addition to materials noted below, Haffenden cites
but does not quote a letter from Empson to Waley (see D26), the only indication in the published record of a
correspondence between the two.
1. Manuscript written in Kyoto. Empson
notes that Korean art has been so much assimilated into Japanese art
that it has become ‘a sort of whimsical family joke’.
2. To George Sansom (see D22). Haffenden mentions five Empson letters to Sansom, two undated, one
written at sea in the days after Empson left Japan, the others of 2
September 1934 from Ceylon, 2 October 1934 from Athens, and 11 October
1935 from London. Excerpts quoted are mainly about Empson’s theory
of the ambiguity in Buddhist effigies (see especially 6
and b3 below).
3. From ‘Asymmetry in Buddha
Faces’. In the opening page of his lost book-length study (see
outlines his theory that representations of the face of Buddha combine
incompatible elements of ‘repose’ and ‘active power’
in a ‘startling and compelling’ unity, and demonstrates
that much of the theory that occupied him for more than a decade was
set in motion in Japan. European experts have not often addressed the
subject of the ‘magnificent’ faces, Empson notes, but he
‘had a chance [while] in Japan’ ‘timidly’ to
suggest his theory to Anesaki Masaharu (see BD33),
expecting him ‘to treat it as a fad’. Instead, Anesaki accepted
the idea ‘as something obvious and well known’, and told
Empson to compare the masks of the nô stage for ‘historical
evidence’, for there as in Buddhist iconography ‘the tradition
of the craftsmen has not been lost’, and without question the
faces ‘have been constructed to wear two expressions’.
4. To John Hayward, 7 March 1933.
Empson’s letter written in Japan includes discussion of his passion
for Buddhist images, which he calls ‘the only accessible art I
find myself able to care about’.
5. To T. S. Eliot, July 1937. Concerns
Empson’s manuscript about Buddhist effigies.