William Empson in Kunming (and some notes on ‘Aubade’)

I was brought up a Roman Catholic, but during my teens I gradually realized that all forms of Christianity were almost certainly untrue. Christians made huge and unlikely claims and provided almost no evidence to back them up.  But it was Milton’s God, by the poet and critic William Empson, that helped me realize that there was more to it than just Christian claims being unsustainable: the idea of ‘hell’, of eternal punishment, which is central to almost forms of this religion is monstrous and destructive. The true ‘good news’ is that there is absolutely no reason to believe it. ‘Losing my faith’ was a huge stroke of good fortune!

Empson as well as being a powerful anti-Christian polemicist, was a fine although usually obscure poet, but he’s probably best known for his literary criticism, particularly the extremely influential Seven Types of Ambiguity.  One of the nice things about being offered a job in Kunming (Yunnan Province, south west China) in 2007 was being able to think of myself as following in his giant footsteps.

Early in 1937 Empson was offered a three year post teaching at the Beijing National University. While he was making the final preparations for his journey, he heard news of the outbreak of war between China and Japan. He decided to go anyway.
He took the Trans-Siberian to Beijing, linking up there with his old Cambridge supervisor, the distinguished critic I. A. Richards, and his wife Dorothea.
On 27th November 2007 I was guided around some sights associated with Empson’s stay in Kunming by four graduate students.

Empson’s University was forced to flee Beijing because of the Japanese desire to crush any independent intellectual life in China.
In August 1938 it ended up in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, where it stayed until 1946.
On its way down the National University amalgamated with the other great Beijing University, Qing Hua (where Richards had been visiting professor) and with Nankai University to form The National South West Associated University (Lianda).
The main campus of Lianda is now used by Yunnan Normal University (a ‘Normal’ University trains teachers.)

The Normal University has preserved this hut as a memorial to the students and teachers of Lianda…

 

…who, in conditions that British people of my generation can hardly begin to imagine, carried on the intellectual life in China as an act of deliberate defiance of the Japanese invasion and all it stood for:

These people taught and studied with very few books, harassed by Japanese bombs and with almost nothing in the way of material comfort.
Empson voluntarily shared their deprivations, teaching English poetry almost entirely from memory, sleeping on first arrival in Kunming on a blackboard stretched between trestles, and voluntarily accepting a big cut in his salary in line with the sacrifices of his Chinese colleagues.

Empson quickly abandoned his blackboard for lodgings at 78, Bei Men Road.
Although he was a well-known hater of Christianity, by a nice irony he lodged in buildings owned by a missionary society.
Number 78 seems to have been demolished but the similar Number 68 remains.

 This restaurant’s the part of Number 68 that’s in the best repair.

 

My guides managed to get me permission to go up to the balcony:

 

No doubt Empson often stood on a similar balcony looking down on Bei Men Street.

We found a quiet spot near the ghost of Number 78, and I gave a short talk on Empson and Richards in China, followed by a reading of his poem ‘Aubade’.
I’ve read many works of literature at places associated with the writer, but this was one of the two occasions I’ve found most moving: the other was reading ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ at the grave of Empson’s friend Dylan Thomas.

 ‘Aubade’ is a poem about Empson’s early-1930s affair with a Japanese girl called Haru. (Empson taught in Japan between 1931 and 1934.)
It touches on the difficulties of cross-cultural relationships (‘the language problem, but you have to try’) and the problems posed by the coming war in Asia, which already seemed unavoidable.

Empson remains – and will almost certainly always remain – the greatest ever foreign teacher of English in China.
Those of us who have done the job in unimaginably easier conditions should look back with admiration and sometimes astonishment at this great pioneer.

Note. Those who want the best account of his time in Kunming should consult John Haffenden’s excellent biography, William Empson, Volume 1: Among the Mandarins.
 

Some notes on ‘Aubade’

This is probably Empson’s best poem – it’s not as difficult as some of his earlier work but is full of his famous ‘ambiguity’. It was written in Tokyo in about 1933, published in a journal in 1937 and then printed in the slightly shorter version given here in his second book of verse The Gathering Storm (1940).

My notes offer some interpretations that are controversial – critics disagree as to many details.

The general sense is clear: Empson and his Japanese lover are woken by an earthquake, and she says she must go back to the house where she is employed as a nanny, as the child might also have been woken up. This raises for Empson the issue as to whether or not his relationship can survive: the earthquake becomes a symbol of the coming war between Britain and Japan, a war that would make his marriage to a Japanese citizen difficult or even dangerous..

I’ll give the complete poem and then the text accompanied by my notes in brackets.

Aubade                                               

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say  after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

Aubade    {= dawn song. In this genre the poet laments the fact that the coming of dawn forces him and his lover to end their night of passion. The most famous example in English is in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.}                                          

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake. {We = Empson and his lover, a young Japanese woman who worked as a nanny for the German Ambassador in Tokyo. She should have been looking after his child, but had left the house to spend the night with Empson. Behind this line is a hidden joke: lovers in the past are meant to have asked each other, ‘Did the earth move for you, darling’ – in other words, ‘Was sex wonderful?’ The phrase became a half-joking cliché, but in this poem sex is followed by a literal earthquake}
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake. {Symbolically we could say that the first quake was the Japanese attack on Manchuria, the ‘bigger quake’ that Empson fears is coming is all-out war in the Far East.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.  {The first time we meet this refrain it has a simple and obvious meaning: as there’s an earthquake it seems best to get out of the house.}

And far too large for my feet to step by. {The quake seems to large for him to avoid the dangers it creates.}
I hoped that various buildings were brought low. {He hopes that what is bad about the old order will have been destroyed by the quake – perhaps he means specifically the headquarters of Japanese militarism.}
The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {1) This is a sexual pun: it’s hard to move fast when you have an erection! 2) It also means: maybe we should stand our ground and not try to flee the quake}

 It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test. {The cautious tourist notices what the guide does in a new situation. Here the guide is Haru, who is much more familiar with earthquakes than Empson.)
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No. {Empson believes that the Japanese advice is to go into the garden when there’s a quake – Haru says it isn’t. I’ve been told of an occasion on which Empson made fun of the idea that The Garden was a nightclub – but then why the capitals ?}
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.{Haru says no – she’ll go back to the Ambassador’s and he should go back to bed.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. (Haru thinks it’s best she should leave.)

The language problem but you have to try. {Communication between people from different cultures and who speak different languages is difficult, but you have to try to overcome these difficulties – in other words, he doesn’t want her to go and he’ll confront what he suspects is the real issue: that she wants to leave his bed.}
Some solid ground for lying could she show?  {1) can she show him a safe place to lie down to get his ‘healthy rest’, given that the after-shocks of the earthquake will soon be shaking the ground? 2) what lie is she going to tell when she gets back if the Ambassador has discovered she’s missing? 3) Empson suspects she is lying to him – so why? 4) ‘can you show me  a safe place for us to have sex’ – Haffenden’s preferred interpretation.}

The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

{She should stay.}

None of these deaths were her point at all. {People regularly died in Japanese earthquakes, but Haru wasn’t worried about that possibility.}
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know. {She’s worried that the child would also have been woken by the quake and when she didn’t come in response to his tears he would know she had left the house and she’d get into trouble – this is Empson’s own explanation, but some online sources wrongly claim ‘he’ is her husband or father.}
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call. {He asks her to come back in half an hour – or maybe to have sex with him quickly.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {But she goes.}

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

{Three difficult lines: John Haffenden in his fine edition of Empson’s poems points out that the primary meaning of ‘threat holds below’ is ‘gap created by the earthquake’ (p.321), so the second line is something like ‘until you have assessed  the continuing threat from the earthquake’, but he acknowledges the possibility of sexual meanings too: ‘I slept without dreams and wish I could remain unconscious until you understand the nature of my sexuality which you now feel threatens you’

I think it might also mean ‘until you see if the future is really going to be as bad as you think’ – and this might be the immediate future, as Empson’s house is on a cliff the Ambassador’s residence is presumably ‘below’ his, so the threat is of discovery and punishment for her night away, or it might mean the general future of Japan

 So ‘below’ might mean: 1) the future which is now hidden; 2) Empson’s genitals 3) the unconscious mind 4) the part of the city below the cliff ; 5) the gap created by the quake).}

Tell me again about Europe and her pains, {He now thinks back to Europe and why he left it.}
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains. {Everyone there suffers some time or another.}
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row {Tell me all about the Depression, in which only those with the worst characters are prospering.}
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains. {‘The swine’ lose out in real terms even if they make money – they kill themselves spiritually in order to make money.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {It seemed best to leave Europe.}

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky. {So he came to Asia – a new way of life and new lovers.}
Only the same war on a stronger toe. {But found the war he knew was coming in Europe was already present there – the Japanese attack on Manchuria began in 1931.}
The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {So it’s a waste of time trying to flee war – you might as well stay where you are.}

 Tell me more quickly what I lost by this, {What did I lose by leaving Europe?}
Or tell me with less drama what they miss {‘more quickly…with less drama’ – than in the previous rather rhetorical stanza.)
Who call no die a god for a good throw, {Die = dice; people who refuse to ‘pray’ to the dice to give them the numbers they want. This line either refers to Empson himself in which case it means ‘I have nothing to lose by being honest and accepting that a relationship with a Japanese woman won’t work’ or it refers to the British ex-pats who told Empson and other new arrivals: ‘Don’t marry a Japanese woman as we’ll be at war with Japan in ten years’. If the line refers to Empson, refusing to call the dice a god is positive – it means ‘being honest’; if it refers to the ex-pats it’s more ambiguous: ‘they’re realistic but maybe it’s good to deceive yourself in questions of love’ .

However, Haffenden likes the suggestion of another commentator that ‘die’ means sex – orgasm used to be called ‘the little death’ and ‘a good throw’ means a satisfactory sex act. The line would then mean something like ‘what do we lose if we like sex but don’t make a god out of it?
Who say after two aliens had one kiss {Empson and Haru – technically Haru was not an ‘alien’, but the line means ‘we were always alien to each other even when kissing – perhaps because of ‘the language problem’ – the difficulty of cross-cultural relationships.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {The refrain now means ‘most people would advise me to leave Haru not to marry her and perhaps they’re right’.)

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.

{Multiple ambiguity!   1) ‘male sexual desire (risings = erections) is stimulated by contradiction = cultural difference’; 2 ‘male sexual desire is stimulated by arguments’ – e.g. Haru ‘contradicting’ him as to what they should do when woken by the quake; 3) ‘In my case a sexual relationship has come out of  ‘contradiction’ of the advice not to have an affair with a Japanese woman’. 4)‘Marx was right – it is social contradictions that lead to revolutions’. The fourth meaning is a general comment on the world political situation that makes their love so precarious}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

{In addition to the previous meanings the line now also means: ‘That’s why I had or at least wanted sex with Haru – ‘up’ means ‘erection’ again and ‘go’ now also suggests ‘begin sexual activity’.}
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

{Haffenden in his biography of Empson claims that this last line means that Empson decides he has to leave Haru.  This is certainly what happened in real life, but it’s hard to see how not ‘flying’ means ending the affair, so my own interpretation is different: ‘Haru agrees to sex and that means she doesn’t go home and they shouldn’t abandon their relationship’. This would mean that the ‘we’ refers to Empson and Haru. ‘Up’ would mean something like ‘have an erection because I’m ready for sex now’ or ‘her reply made me have an erection’} or even ‘my reply to all this and to Haru was to have an erection’).

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2 Comments

Filed under Christianity, religion, Travel - China, William Empson, Writers

2 responses to “William Empson in Kunming (and some notes on ‘Aubade’)

  1. David

    Very interesting exegesis of an intriguing poem. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Nineteen Eighty-four in Chinese | Ibisbill’s blog 鹮嘴鹬的博客

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