William Empson

Poet and non-fiction writer


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Sir William Empson was an English literary critic and poet. Jonathan Bate has remarked that the three greatest English Literary critics of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries are, respectively, Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson, 'not least because they are the funniest'.

Empson's critical work focuses largely on pre-modern works in the English literary canon. He was a great critic of Milton and Shakespeare and published a monograph on the subject of censorship and the authoritative version of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

He was also an important scholar of the metaphysical poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Occasionally, Empson would bring his critical genius to bear on modern writers; Using Biography, for instance, contains papers on Henry Fielding's Tom Jones as well as the poetry of Yeats and Eliot and Joyce's Ulysses.