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A History of Ambiguity$
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Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691167954

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691167954.001.0001

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The Combination Room

The Combination Room

(p.364) Chapter Ten. The Combination Room
A History of Ambiguity

Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Princeton University Press

This concluding chapter reviews William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book about ambiguity in lyric poetry, but one that rejects the dominant concept in previous analyses of that subject, namely, artificial ambiguity. Its innovation was to adopt instead a form of inspired ambiguity, one made possible by the earlier invention of dramatic irony, and also, on another front, by the Freudian unconscious. Indeed, Empson was working with a structural analogue of inspired ambiguity, in which the two voices in a verse are not God and man but conscious and unconscious, or else conflicting desires or ‘forces’ in the author's mind. The chapter then considers in fuller detail three structuring concepts in Seven Types, embodied in three key words, each related to an idea that extends back through and beyond Freud. The first, ambivalence, is psychological; the second, primitive, is anthropological; and the third, hypocrisy, is ethical. All three are closely related, and by triangulating them, one may see with greater clarity what Empson brought to the traditions he inherited.

Keywords:   William Empson, ambiguity, lyric poetry, artificial ambiguity, inspired ambiguity, Freud, ambivalence, primitive, hypocrisy

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