I spent one evening in William Empson’s company, in a manner of speaking. I was Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College, Dublin. One of my colleagues, Norman White, suggested that I might like to invite Empson to read his poems. I might indeed, on condition that Dr. White would do the work entailed: write the letter of invitation, fix the date, fee, the travel, would Mrs. Empson be coming?, the hotel, the meal before the reading, taxis, and so forth. Agreed.
Nothing of the meal stays in my memory, but when Empson and I were taking the short walk from the Montrose Hotel to the campus, he surprised me by these words. Empson: “Do you know much about Andrew Marvell?” I: “Only what everybody knows, I suppose.” Empson: “Do you know much about his housekeeper?” I: “Not a thing.” Empson: “Pity. I think she’s the clue to the whole thing.” Since I didn’t know what the whole thing was, the clue to it reduced me to silence.
This persisted till we reached the lecture hall, where a remarkably large audience of students was awaiting the poet. We worked our way down the many steps to the podium, where I introduced him with my usual formula: “Please welcome our distinguished guest, poet and critic William Empson.” Then I sat down a yard or so from him and thought my duty well enough fulfilled. Not yet. Empson looked at me and asked: “Have you seen my dentures?” I: “No, I’m afraid not, Professor Empson.” Empson: “Perhaps I left them in the restaurant?” I had nothing to say. Empson: “Oh well, perhaps in London.” At this point the top door on the right-hand side of the lecture hall opened and Mrs. Empson entered, accompanied by Gareth de Brun, a familiar literary man well known for being one of the few Dubliners who sported a pigtail. They made their way down the steps to the only two vacant seats in the front row. Empson waited till they were settled before he began.
Introducing each poem, he indicated in a sentence or two the circumstances in which he wrote it: where, when, and in what mood. After the second poem, as I remember, Mrs. Empson called out: “William, you’re very boring.” He let that pass. But after the next poem she called out more formally: “William, you are very boring.” Empson stopped, looked at the audience, and said: “My wife tells me I am very boring.” He then finished the poem, whereupon Mrs. Empson and Gareth de Brun got up and left. Empson continued without further interruption in his “grandee English accent,” as Michael Wood describes it. I recall only one further moment, when a student called out “Give us ‘Aubade,’ Professor.” Empson complied. “It seemed the best thing to be up and go.”
When he had read for more than an hour, I called the evening to a halt and thanked him. The applause sounded as if it would never stop. I handed Empson over to Norman White and went home.