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William Empson: Let it go

Let it go

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
 The more things happen to you the more you can’t
  Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
 The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
  You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

Empson said it’s “about stopping writing.” Then later, he said about it:

Reading that poem feels like baby-watching an imbecile child, oozing at every hole and playing with itself incessantly, and trying to attract attention by untruthful cries of pain.

It might be if it weren’t so…ambiguous.

Addendum: As mentioned by nnyhav, here is Empson’s (amazing) Villanelle:


It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.


  1. The Collected Poems includes Empson’s commentary on many of the works, though not this one, but the last paragraph of “The Fire Sermon”, with which he fronts the collection, may suffice:
    “When he is weary of these things, he becomes empty of desire. When he is empty of desire, he becomes free. When he is free he knows that he is free, that rebirth is at an end, that virtue is accomplished, that duty is done, and that there is no more returning to this world; thus he knows.”

    Let it go may not stand on its own feet, but it is clearer (as is the later assessment) in the context of earlier works, such as Missing Dates and Villanelle (what is it about that form that seems so amenable to loss? eg Auden, Bishop, Dylan Thomas)[1] and the “colder lunacies” of The Teasers.

    [1] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/collections/145.html

  2. Thanks Dave. The Villanelle is possibly one of the best examples of the form ever, and if my fingers hadn’t been so lazy I might have quoted it. It’s so well done.

    Oh, I just found a copy online. I’ll post it.

  3. i’m very glad to see that you like empson. he has been called a ‘great minor poet’. i would simply say that he wrote great poems.

    i don’t like his villanelle, but only because i don’t like villanelles. ‘chinese ballad’, though, is one of my favourite poems in the world.

    • I don’t like villanelles either, but here I make an exception. I would put Empson up against the very best the 20th century has to offer, but then again, my tastes in poetry are very eccentric. My top 20th century English-language poets are probably Yeats, Riding, Empson, Kees, Jones, and Bronk, putting me far outside anything resembling a canon.

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