Empson Documents

Scope and Content

Doxcuments relating to Sir William Empson (1906-1984), poet, academic and critic

Administrative / Biographical History

The collection consists of a small number of documents relating to Sir William Empson (1906-1984) when Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield, and to Raymond G.T. Southall, a Lecturer in the Department. It comprises four of Empson’s appointments diaries for the 1960s, and twelve letters written by Empson to Southall, largely on administrative matters, together with one reply by the latter, during the years 1962 to 1969. The one exchange of letters relates to certain points of disagreement between them on aspects of Shakespearean and other drama of the period.

Sir William Empson, Kt., was born at Howden, Yorkshire, on 27 September 1906 and educated at Winchester College (1920-1925) and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he wrote an early version of his first major work Seven Types of Ambiguity (published 1930). Whilst at Cambridge he also contributed poems to both the Cambridge Review and Cambridge Poetry 1929. On graduating Empson was elected to a research fellowship at his College, but was then deprived of it as a consequence of a breach of the regulations operating in the moral climate of the time. From 1931 to 1934 he was Professor of English Literature at Tokyo University of Literature and Science (Bunrika Daigaku), where he wrote a second major critical work, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). After spending the next three years in London he was appointed Professor of English at Peking University, but on his arrival there found that the University had been forced to move away by the Japanese invasion, and he made his way to Kunming where the University had temporarily re-established itself. In 1939 he returned to Britain, where he worked on Allied propaganda at the BBC during the war years, serving as editor of the BBC monitoring department, 1940-1, and Chinese editor in the Far Eastern Section, 1941-6, marrying in 1941. In 1947, with his wife and two sons he returned to China as Professor, Western Languages Department at the National University in Peking until in 1952, when, with the Korean war still in progress and all other foreigners having left the city, the family decided to return to Britain. In 1951 he published a third major work of criticism, The Structure of Complex Words. Empson was appointed Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield in 1953, a post which he held until his retirement in 1971. In 1976 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and was knighted in 1979. He was honoured with the award of Hon. D. Litt. by the universities of East Anglia (1968), Bristol (1971), Sheffield (1974) and Cambridge (1977). He died in London on 15 April 1984.

Empson’s Collected Poems was published in 1955, a further edition following in 1985, and in 2001 Complete Poems, edited by John Haffenden, appeared. Other poetry includes Poems (1935) and The Gathering Storm (1940), and other publications include Milton’s God (1961), edited with D. Pirie, Selected Poems of Coleridge (1972) and, posthumously, Using Biography (1984).

Dr Raymond G.T. Southall was appointed Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Sheffield in 1962, and was a Senior Lecturer when he left to become Professor of English at University College of New South Wales, Australia, in the session 1973/4.


By category

Access Information

Available to all researchers, by appointment

Acquisition Information

Donated by Professor John Haffenden, 2002

Other Finding Aids


Archivist's Note

Description prepared by Jacky Hodgson

Conditions Governing Use

According to document