“This ambiguity is another example of a growing problem with mathematical notation: There aren’t enough squiggles to go around.”*

*Jim Blinn, computer scientist.

From: the Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature:

Seven Types of Ambiguity

A critical work by W. Empson, published 1930, rev. 1947, 1953; one of the most enjoyable and influential offshoots from I. A. Richards’s experiments with practical criticism.

Empson uses the term ambiguity ‘in an extended sense’, to refer to ‘any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language’. The first, or simplest, type of ambiguity he defines as simple metaphor, ‘a word or a grammatical construction effective in several ways at once’. The second occurs ‘when two or more meanings are resolved into one’ (as by ‘Double Grammar’ in Shakespeare); the third consists of two apparently disconnected meanings given simultaneously, as in a pun, or, by extension, in allegory or pastoral, where reference is made to more than one ‘universe of discourse’; the fourth occurs when ‘alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author’ (with examples from Shakespeare, Donne, and G. M. Hopkins); the fifth consists of what Empson calls ‘fortunate confusion’, with examples from Shelley and Swinburne, suggesting the possibility that 19th‐cent. technique is ‘in part the metaphysical tradition dug up when rotten’; the sixth occurs when a statement in itself meaningless or contradictory forces the reader to supply interpretations; and an account of the seventh, which ‘marks a division in the author’s mind’, is accompanied by quotations from Freud and illustrations from Crashaw, Keats, and Hopkins.”

From Wikipedia:

In 1925 Empson won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read Mathematics, gaining a first for his Part I but a disappointing upper-second for his Part II. He then went on to pursue a second degree in English, and at the end of the first year he was offered a Bye Fellowship. His supervisor in Mathematics, Arthur Stanley Ramsey, expressed regret at Empson’s decision to pursue English rather than Mathematics, since it was a discipline for which Empson showed great talent.

I. A. Richards, the director of studies in English, recalled the genesis of Empson’s first major work, Seven Types of Ambiguity, composed when Empson was not yet 22 and published when he was 24:

“At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing [in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, 1927] with the unpunctuated form of ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’ Taking the sonnet as a conjuror takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended by ‘You could do that with any poetry, couldn’t you?’ This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, ‘You’d better go off and do it, hadn’t you?’ “.

From the website of the Poetry Foundation:

“…Hudson Review contributor Roger Sale believes that the book has been too harshly judged in many reviews. He writes, “Most discussions have picked on its least interesting aspects, its use of the word ‘ambiguity’ and its ranging of the ‘types’ along a scale of ‘advancing logical disorder.’ But these matters are really minor. … The book, [Empson] says, is not philosophical but literary, and its aim is to examine lines Empson finds beautiful and haunting. … But in at least fifteen places Empson shows that the aim of analysis is not so much understanding lines as uncovering whole tracts of the mind, and the book is studded with the right things said about a poet or an historical period.” In fact, concludes Robert M. Adams in the New York Review of Books, “Already certain passages of Empsonian exegesis.  … have attained classic status, so that the text can’t be intelligently considered without them.  … I think he had, though in lesser measure, Dr. Johnson’s extraordinary gift for laying his finger on crucial literary moments; and that alone is likely to ensure him a measure of permanence.”…”

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