Empson the Space Man: Literary Modernism Makes the Scalar Turn

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In my essay, I document how the literary modernist critic and poet, William Empson (1906–1984), modeled his theoretical positions in the decades following the Second World War upon precedents found in the English Renaissance poetry of John Donne. After 1955, Empson emerged as a leading skeptic of literary “high” modernism by means of the novel analogy argued in his essay, “Donne the Space Man” (1957): namely, that literary depictions of space in Donne’s early poetry, athwart high Church doctrine, paralleled contemporary skepticism, in Empson’s own time, about interpretive orthodoxies within Eliotic criticism and among the American New Critics. With its focus upon what he calls “space travel,” Empson’s exegesis in “Donne the Space Man” (1957) pioneered what today one may call the scalar turn in literary modernist criticism. In Empson’s case, a scalar criticism endorsed Donne’s search for a more generous plurality of critical worlds and embraced cosmological scale irreducible to the more dogmatic worldview of Christian-inspired theorizations then prevailing. Re-reading the “Donne the Space Man” essay today – and when applying approaches inspired by the phenomenology of the contemporary built environment, object-oriented ontology, and unseen “lifeworlds” – allows for a more meaningful treatment of Empson’s criticism in its historical context, and when using scale as an heuristic to broaden our understandings of cosmologies, near and far, vastly different from our own.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-39
Number of pages15
JournalComparative Literature: East & West
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2017

User-Defined Keywords

  • William Empson
  • spacetravel
  • scale
  • John Donne
  • cosmology


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