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 Includes, along with work noted below, twelve ‘poems and fragments’ previously unpublished, five uncollected poems, and miscellaneous prose.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 (22).

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 (see 29) 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 29) Empson 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.



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