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152 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Read & Think Subtly
The prose of the author is delightful: it was originally published in 1930 when better authors had a genteel but sophisticated style. The author's original intention was to set forth a theory of metaphor by distinguishing and analyzing, as the title says, seven forms of (linguistic) ambiguity. He draws the examples on which he exercizes his probative skill mostly from...
Published on February 8, 2001 by HackedHacked

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42 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A dated, self-indulgent writing style obscures the ideas
After reading about this classic in an interview with Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, I bought this book. I confess that I attempted to read it two or three times in the years that followed, but only succeeded in penetrating its first 30 pages before setting it aside. I finally buckled down and read the whole thing this month (and I took notes). I found the experience...
Published on May 25, 2006 by Haruki-San


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152 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Read & Think Subtly, February 8, 2001
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
The prose of the author is delightful: it was originally published in 1930 when better authors had a genteel but sophisticated style. The author's original intention was to set forth a theory of metaphor by distinguishing and analyzing, as the title says, seven forms of (linguistic) ambiguity. He draws the examples on which he exercizes his probative skill mostly from great writers in the English language. But for those schooled after, say, the 1950s it is a wonderful exhortation to read, speak and write with more subtelty than is usually encountered. A corollary of the case he makes is that ambiguity--carefully crafted ambiguity, not ambiguity of the slothful kind--can be very powerful, but it presupposes a precision in reading and writing which is a precondition for well-crafted metaphor. As such it stands for OUR generations as an exhortation to lingusitic sophistication and an implicit disproof that "liberty" goes hand in hand with slovenliness. It certainly does make better readers out of those who go through his book.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gospel, November 29, 2009
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
This is one of the finest introductions to the power of words ever written. I read it when I was the same age as the author, and it etched itself on my mind. I cannot think of a more convincing analysis of how poetry works, beyond the simplicities of rhyme and rhythm. Poetry compresses emotion. It makes the words work hard. That is why it is effective and memorable. A line of poetry contains multiple meanings, which is what I understand by Empson's "ambiguity". Prose attempts to eliminate ambiguity, and the result is legalese, or the writings of the denser philosophers: hopelessly boring, unmemorable, ultimately incomprehensible. This book is a guide. I have kept it with me for the last fifty years.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry in Action, March 22, 2007
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
This book is for people who love words. Not just love them, but have a serious lust for them, who have such a powerful desire to absorb as much as possible that you can't even fully articulate why. What this novel does is help us remember why we love poetry, and the enormous power it can have. That's not to say it can make you like poetry if you don't already have a healthy understanding of it; indeed, in order to read this book I need complete silence and total concentration. This is not a book to read before you go to bed, or while you're at the gym. This is a book to read on your day off, when you can shut off all outside distraction. That seems like a lot to ask, but the rewards are great. After reading this, take another look at your all time favorite works of literary art. Take a look at "Macbeth," or, "The Sun Also Rises," or even, "Fight Club." This book will help you get more depth of meaning than you ever suspected out of these words.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 7 Types of Ambiguity, February 18, 2006
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This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
This is one of the great milestones of twentieth century literary criticism. Published originally in 1930, its relevance has not faded. It is heartily recommended to anyone with an interest in poetry, and is absolutlely essential for anyone working for a college or graduate English degree. It could also be profitably used by younger persons in high school honors English programs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ambiguity is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing, October 8, 2012
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
The art of close reading as a technique to glean meaning from a text involves the use of a myriad of critical reading skills that we like to think are taught in both secondary and higher education. I might have begun the next sentence with, "Alas..." but instead it might be useful to point out that the deficiencies of readers in comprehending texts is not limited to today. In the years following the end of the Great War, students then as now were increasingly slothful in their reading skills. Part of the problem was that the term "ambiguity" had received some bad press. Most readers assume that when they read a text that if they encounter a word, phrase, term, or idea that they deem ambiguous it must be the result of sloppy writing on the author's part. William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity rises to the defense of ambiguity by insisting that the rush to indict it as slothful thinking might just be premature. What, Empson asks, should a reader think if an ambiguous word or idea is deliberately so? Does the mere fact that this word or idea might have more than one meaning suggest that the author does not supply any helpful hints? Empson writes of ambiguity as if it were yet another close reading technique that when judiciously used induces the reader to peek under the patina of that ambiguity to uncover a richness of meaning that might otherwise lie dormant. Other New Critical writers prior to Empson have urged readers to be aware of the presence of ambiguities but mostly in the context of adversely judging the presence of an "organic unity" that might be forestalled by their presence. Ambiguities thus have a definite upside.

Empson looks at a wide swath of writers like Shakespeare, Pope, and Donne to examine how each uses carefully crafted ambiguities not unwittingly to mislead a reader but purposefully to guide that reader into a thematic fork in the road, one which points to an unwanted destination even as the other leads to the Holy Grail of poetics: the organic unity that all New Critics insist is the one and only correct interpretation. The seven linguistic potential detours is a possible Road Less Traveled By and in Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson invites the reader to decide for himself which fork to take.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ambiguity a Pun on Life, October 29, 2010
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This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
I thought that William Empson is one of the best writers of his time and now. I have not read book like this one. This book really goes through the English language and the creative uses of ambiguity. Anyone and everyone should read this book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simply brilliant., September 10, 2012
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This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
My God, is this book ever brilliant. I am astounded and dismayed that Empson wrote this book when he was 23 -- what have I been up to? It's one thing to be a Keats (dies at 24) and just have a gift for language / an ear for verse; it's another thing entirely to have the kind of scholarship PLUS attunement that Empson demonstrates.

The text is really an object lesson in criticism in the strictest sense: his formulations about literature are both incredibly nebulous and terribly specific, and the organization is a bit of a disaster, but the readings are breathtaking: he does things with passages that make you despair of ever being so good. That's what this book is for, I think: learning to read well as a scholar.

Also, an amusing historical tidbit that he was kicked out of Cambridge after this was written (or rather, Magdalene College) because he was caught (by a porter?) with prophylactics in his room and possibly "in flagrante delicto" with a young lady. Absurd.
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42 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A dated, self-indulgent writing style obscures the ideas, May 25, 2006
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Haruki-San (Oakland, CA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
After reading about this classic in an interview with Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, I bought this book. I confess that I attempted to read it two or three times in the years that followed, but only succeeded in penetrating its first 30 pages before setting it aside. I finally buckled down and read the whole thing this month (and I took notes). I found the experience generally frustrating, though the book does contain a fair amount of interesting information.

The problem for me is that Empson's writing is seasoned with dated witticisms like "...the honest majority who were prepared to fight in the streets [against the invading hordes of psychoanalysts] either learned fire-watching technique or drilled with the Home Guard." That's on page viii. Unfortunately, those sorts of glib apostrophes continue throughout the book, appearing on almost every page, interrupting and derailing the thread of deeper content I was looking for.

If one is prepared to take a casual stroll through Empson's impulsively mapped neighborhood of "ambiguity," and isn't overly concerned with clear exposition regarding the distinctions between the "types" (actually it seems more like a spectrum of ambiguity that he describes, ranging from the simplest to most complex), then I can recommend this book. It's best taken casually, since it is written that way.

It is "written well," as an earlier reviewer observed, but for those of you who are looking to get a clear grasp of the varieties and interrelationships between different ambiguities, the "beautiful" writing will only get in the way. To me, this is a classic case of a self-indulgent style compromising a really good idea.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars SPANISH EYES or MOON OVER NAPLES, July 29, 2013
This review is from: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Paperback)
After digging so deep for the treasure, following the old charts, in between Caribbean tides or similes for them, that would flood the workings; William Empson, held up his golden doubloons of ambiguity for a while; but all seven were soon reburied by him in the famous book he chose to call "Seven Types of Ambiguity". As a record of his interminable and ultimately vain labours the book deserves to be credited. It is unlikely that another will revisit the place.

That there are SEVEN types of ambiguity might have been an impressive thesis, especially written at the age of 22. It could have laid the foundations for a new type of literary criticism; so that a neophyte, just "up" to Oxford might be impressed, as I am to this day, by the university lecturer who might recite, like an alphabet, the twelve labours of Hercules. The truth is however, that ambiguity is ambiguous itself, and it is made clear in the book, that there are as many types of ambiguity; as there are, in the wild, countless and therefore nameless varieties of hawkweed.

By offering so few types, and by his labours making them all pointless to differentiate, Empson, amazingly has secured a critical reputation. In this precocious masterpiece of unintelligibility he has given us the very essence of ambiguity: two things at the same time. First he managed to bluff his way to the end; but second, there is the unfortunate evidence of the debauching of his own literary instrument. Empson has provided the university syllabus compiler with a controversial book that has been in print since 1937; but also has provided our basis for understanding the mercy of Empson's own complete withdrawal from the writing of poetry itself in 1940; for this which we must be grateful.

When Empson came to revise his own book sixteen years after publication he wrote "I was surprised there was so little of the book I should prefer to change." In one of the footnotes he appended to clarify his original position he says (Page 70) "Effects worth calling ambiguous occur when the possible alternative meanings of word or grammar are used to give alternative meanings to the sentence." Ambiguity, the basis of metaphor, one of the currents that move within poetry and proof of its very nature, is the way that the words of poetry often say two (or more) things at the same time. The word "move" in that last sentence ("one of the currents that move") can describe the flow of a current; and at the same time the word can be acknowledging that ambiguity can "move" those of us reading the poetry. If you mess with it for long enough, like Empson, there will be other ambiguities. You may divine that those currents can by themselves, each one, with no assistance from outside, "move", or move about.

Empson is more mathematician than poet. He measures and counts, where those who accept poetry intuit and feel their way.
Here is a passage from the chapter on the seventh type of ambiguity, page 197.

"If `p and -p' could only be resolved in one way into: `If a=a1, then p; if a=a2, then -p,' it would at least put two statements into one. ... But it is evident that any degree of complexity of meaning can be extracted by `interpreting' a contradiction; any xa1 and xa2 may be selected, that can be attached to some xa arising out of p; and any such pair may then be read the other way round, as `If xa = xa2, then p; if xa = xa1, then -p.' The original contradiction has thus been resolved into an indefinite number of contradictions: `If a = xay, then p and -p,' to each of which the same process may be applied."

Few students on earth capable of being exercised by the paroxysms of this critic will be any the wiser, after tackling this book. Every page has examples of Empson's prophylactic obscurity and obfuscation. A man who purports to be one who is making literature easier to understand is unaware that the soil is falling over his head.
Untranslated Dante, snatches from Dryden and the sonnets; along with Marlow and Pope make for very heavy weather.

Here is a SIMPLE example of an ambiguity in poetry; which of the seven types it might be, I hesitate to confirm. Here it is:

Blue Spanish Eyes.

This ambiguity, short and sweet, was crooned by Al Martino. I heard it, too young to know that the eyes of girls in Mexico (Spanish eyes) are never blue; the eyes are brown. In the sixties the words were broadcast so often in so many ways by the BBC and the corruptible Northern Dance Orchestra that it became impossible to experience them again. However, years later, I saw the aging Martino at The Fairfield Halls in Croydon. Blue also means "sad". I was certainly a late arrival in the poetry lobby where they are talking of Michelangelo. Did I think, as I stood there, of that name? "Fairfield"? No. One of the crowd, I just blundered in; but I listened this time to the words from afar. The idea that brown eyes could be "blue" is the gold that is at the heart of poetry; the truth that words are magic. Crystal Gale was not ambiguous at all when she sang: "Don't it make my brown eyes blue?"

The real ambiguity is that not one of the singers of "Spanish eyes" knew the girl herself; they were just earning a living. As an example of the fourth type of ambiguity, the music used to be known as "Moon Over Naples".

Empson would have improved his work if he'd followed the quotation style of "The Friendship Book of Francis Day", published just a year later. Frances Day (with an "e") appears on YouTube with William Empson to the right, just behind her, on clarinet. This is a coincidence not an ambiguity.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, December 7, 2014
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Seven Types of Ambiguity
Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (Paperback - January 17, 1966)
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