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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Eng 1401

William Empson papers

Papers of the British poet and critic, William Empson, including his correspondence, manuscript compositions, biographical material, photographs, clippings, and correspondence and compositions of others.


  • 1811-1996
  • Majority of material found within 1911-1984

Language of Materials

Collection materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material.
Conditions Governing Access Most of this collection is not housed at the Houghton Library but is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. Retrieval requires advance notice. Readers should check with Houghton Public Services staff members to determine what material is offsite and retrieval policies and times.

As of completion of end-processing in September of 2001, all MS, fMS, and pfMS items were shelved at Houghton and all bMS shelved at the Depository.


25 linear feet (64 boxes, 1 portfolio box, and 47 volumes)

Empson's letters to publications, many of which were published, are here listed in Section II with his other letters rather than with his compositions.

The arrangement of Empson's other compositions in this collection is based on the arrangement of the manuscripts when they came to this library and reflects both his own way of working and the history of the collection after his death in 1984.

Using Biography, Essays on Shakespeare, Faustus and the Censor, Essays on Renaissance Literature (vols. 1 and 2), Argufying, The Royal Beasts and Other Works, and The Strengths of Shakespeare's Shrew have all been published since Empson's death in 1984. As their prefaces testify, all but the last three were planned by their author, who worked on rewriting and revising most of the critical essays gathered in those collections from well before his retirement from the University of Sheffield in 1971 until his death. The work of revision not only entailed producing multiple new drafts, it also often meant gathering and annotating early drafts as well as printed copies of previously published pieces. This habit of writing by rewriting was a longstanding one: for the four books of criticism published during his lifetime, Empson would often annotate manuscripts of already printed articles in the process of reworking them into chapters of the longer works. Many of his poems had also been published separately before being gathered into the several collections, and his revisions were often made directly on the earlier manuscript or printed page.

In general, where Empson had grouped parts of early manuscripts with the later ones in the process of rewriting and rethinking, those earlier items have been left with the sheets of the later projects that absorbed them. When possible, the earlier articles or speeches are identified by title.

Sections IV.A (Poems, Stories, Plays) and IV.D (Shorter prose pieces) contain pieces, many previously published, some of which were collected by Empson or his editors into books. For the items in these sections, information is here given about first publication when known and about publication in one of the posthumous collections, but the items themselves are arranged alphabetically by individual title rather than by the collections within which they may have appeared. In these sections will be found items gathered by John Haffenden in: Argufying Essays on Literature and Culture (1987), The Royal Beasts and Other Works (1986), and The Strengths of Shakespeare's Shrew Essays Memoirs and Reviews (1996).

In Sections IV.B and IV.C., books of criticism published during the life of the author or planned by him are arranged chronologically by first publication, and items are grouped according to their eventual appearance in the book-length work, by contents or chapter order within the book, with all or parts of earlier writing on the same topic included when it is clear that Empson was using those sheets in the process of later writing. Full information about first publication of items in IV.B can be found in Frank Day, Sir William Empson: an annotated bibliography (New York and London, 1984). Empson had planned a book on Marlowe, of which the various reworkings are here included with the only part of it that has been published.

The journals and notebooks (IV.E) contain notes on reading, some class notes, notes for BBC programs, a few draft letters, draft passages for essays or speeches, occasional journal entries recording thoughts, and occasional drafts of poems, plays, stories. Loose sheets in the notebooks or grouped in folders in this section of the collection include a few typescripts, but most of the writing in this section is in Empson's hand. Contents of any one book are eclectic: the very partial characterization below is far from complete.

Section IV.F contains only printed items without textual revisions: offprints with Empson's revisions are grouped with his manuscripts.In section V, Compositions by others, printed items with significant annotations are grouped with manuscripts in section A, but many of the offprints in section B include signed inscriptions to Empson.

Biographical / Historical

Empson (1906-1984) was a British poet and literary critic. His book, Seven types of ambiguity (1930), helped lay the foundation for the critical school known as the New Criticism.


Arranged into the following series:
  1. I. Letters to William Empson
  2. II. Letters from WE
  3. III. Other letters
  4. IV. Compositions by WE
  5. A. Poems, Stories, Plays
  6. A1. Poems
  7. A2. Stories and Plays
  8. B. Books of criticism published during Empson's lifetime
  9. B1. Seven types of ambiguity
  10. B2. The structure of complex words
  11. B3. Milton's God
  12. B4. Coleridge's verse: a selection
  13. C. Posthumous collections planned by Empson
  14. C1. Using biography
  15. C2. Essays on Shakespeare
  16. C3. Faustus and the censor
  17. C4. Essays on Renaissance literature, vol. 1
  18. C5. Essays on Renaissance literature, vol. 2
  19. D. Shorter pieces
  20. E. Journals and notebooks
  21. F. Printed articles by Empson
  22. G. Clippings collection (by Empson and others)
  23. H. Visual material gathered by Empson
  24. V. Compositions by others
  25. A. Manuscripts
  26. B. Print
  27. VI. Biographical material
  28. VII. Miscellaneous items from Empson's library
Please note that item 9 was inadvertently omitted from this finding aid.

Physical Location

Harvard Depository

b, f, pf

Immediate Source of Acquisition

85M-65. Manuscripts purchased with the Amy Lowell fund from Lady Hetta Empson, Studio House, 1 Hampstead Hill Gardens, London NW3 2PH, England; received: 1986 January 6.

85M-64. Item (1215) books, purchased with manuscripts, from Lady Empson; received: 1986 January 6.

86M-107. Items (858) and (859) purchased from Lady Empson; received: 1987 April.

93M-4. Items (888), (890)-(891), (893), (895)-(904) purchased from Lady Empson; received: 1993 September 1.

90M-28. Item (570) purchased with the Amy Lowell fund from Ted M. Hoffmann, Darenth House, Shoreham, Sevenoaks, Kent TN14 7TU; received: 1990 December 1.

91M-33. Item (759) presented by Jacob Empson, Department of Psychology, The University of Hull, Hull, HU67RX; received: 1991 November 8.

93M-188. Item (563) presented by George Watson through Cristopher Ricks, Department of English, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, Mass. 02215; received: 1994 April 1.

96M-28. Item (856) presented by John Haffenden, Department of English Literature, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN; received: 1996 September 16.

97M-61. Item (736); received: 1997 December 23.

2007M-31r. Letter ca. 1939 in item (369) presented by Andrew Roberts, 8b Lancaster Drive, London NW3 4HA, England; received: 2007 November 26.

General note

A portion of this collection is shelved offsite at the Harvard Depository. See access restrictions below for additional information.

Processing Information

Processed by: Elizabeth A. Falsey
Link to catalog
Empson, William, 1906-1984. William Empson papers, 1811-1996: Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, literary and performing arts archives, and more. The library's holdings of primary source material are managed by an expert staff and shared with scholars, students and the public in the reading room.

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