BF. William Empson
9. The Gathering Storm. London: Faber & Faber, 1940.
The only important book of poems in English to address early mid-century Japanese militarism. In addition to poems noted below, others, most notably Ignorance of Death, include reference to Empson’s interest in Buddhism. Empson’s own notes about individual poems, sometimes quite detailed, follow the text. Incorporated into 14. Reprints AUBADE, with eight lines omitted (see 7).
a. The Fool; The Shadow; and The Small Bird to the Big. Empson’s notes following the poems say they were written by ‘Miss C. Hatakeyama’, and Empson claims only to have ‘polish[ed] up her . . . English’, without adding ‘a metaphor or thought’. The verses are fully Empsonian in their convolution and wit, however. Miner (A25) wrote in 1958 that if Miss Hatakeyama and Empson were indeed two people, then they were ‘both . . . inspired by the same Muse, who is not named Simplicity’. Empson’s only further published note about C. Hatakeyama was that she had ‘nothing to do with the Aubade poem’ (7). No critic of Empson’s verse so much as offered a guess about her identity until Peter Robinson uncovered the remarkable tale in 2002, and Chiyoko Hatakeyama (1902-1982), or her image at least, came to the cover of the Times Literary Supplement, seventy years after her poems were written and sixty-three after they appeared in The Gathering Storm. See Peter Robinson, ‘Very Shrinking Behaviour: William Empson’s Poetic Collaboration with C. Hatakeyama’, TLS, 18 July 2003; ‘Chiyoko Hatakeyama’s Correspondence with William Empson’, Yearbook of Miyagi Gakuin for 2003 (July 2004); ‘C. Hatakeyama [Trans. W. E.]’, PN Review 160 (Nov.-Dec. 2004); and Eigo Seinen, October 2003 (in Japanese). Further images may be found at the web site of the Department of English Literature at Tohoku University, here ().
b. The Beautiful Train. Nine lines that reverberate far beyond their brevity. The train of the title is identified in a parenthetical note as ‘a Japanese one, in Manchuria, from Siberia southwards, September 1937’, and Empson’s longer note, written in London three years later, establishes more fully the setting and occasion: ‘This was when I was going to a job in China a few weeks after the outbreak of the Chinese war. The [poem] is about a surprised pleasure in being among Japanese again, though the train itself was beautiful after the Russian one all right. What I abhorred or rightly felt I ought to abhor was Japanese imperialism. They have got themselves into a tragically false position, I think; the Chinese with their beautiful good humour were always patient when I told them I was more sorry for the Japanese than for China.’ Empson’s route on the journey is worth noting. He travelled east via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would have taken him as far as Chita, in the Siberian frontier, then via the Chinese Eastern Railroad south-east through Manzhouli (see c) and Japanese-occupied Manchuria to Harbin. Gardner and Gardner (27) have him travelling on to Vladivostok, but if he did he would have had to backtrack to Harbin to transfer to the Japanese South Manchuria Railway (Jpn.: Mantetsu), upon which the ‘beautiful train’ ran. The Gardners’ assertion that the Chinese Eastern Railroad was Russian-owned is inaccurate. It was Russian-built, but sold to Japan in 1935 as the Russians withdrew north and west before the advancing Imperial Army, and so Empson would have been on Japanese trains from Chita southward. On the South Manchuria Railroad from Harbin he would have travelled south and west, through Mukden (now Shenyang) toward Peking, and surely would have known that this railroad itself had been a driving force behind Japanese aggression in Manchuria. It was on these tracks in a suburb of Mukden in the autumn of 1931 that a group of Japanese officers detonated explosives with the intent of derailing the Dairen Express, setting in motion the so-called Manchurian incident, which gave the Imperial army a pretext for seizing Mukden and occupying the country. The railroad was the major lifeline of the occupying forces, and later facilitated the full-scale invasion of northern China, late in the summer of 1937, just before Empson set forth from London. By the time he arrived in Peking to take up his position at the National University, the city had fallen and the university had been appropriated by the Japanese secret police as an examination headquarters for political and military inquisition. Large sections of the universities at Tsinghua and Nankai had been destroyed, the student gymnasium at the former turned into a stable. The ‘beautiful train’, then, cannot be separated from Japanese militarism. Empson’s poem is ultimately about the ambiguity of beauty and aggression, as well as his own ambiguity toward the Japanese, his ‘pleasure’ in being in their company again and his despair at their ‘tragically false position’ in China and, later, throughout East, North, and Southeast Asia. He ‘loves’ what he ‘abhors’, the Japanese train, which like a Spanish dancer he remembers from childhood is ‘so firm, [yet] so burdened, on such light gay feet’, as it ‘lopes for home’ in the occupied Chinese capital.
c. Manchouli. Again, brief lines—six in this case—that have remarkable resonance. Manchouli was a small frontier town on the Chinese Eastern Railroad near the conjunction of Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. Empson passed through on his journey through Japanese-occupied territories to Peking in the autumn of 1937 (see b). The speaker here finds it ‘normal, passing these great frontiers, / That you can scan the crowds in rags eagerly each side / With awe; that the nations seem real; that their ambitions / Having such achieved variety within one type, seem sane’, but realises as well that it is a ‘false comfort’ that may be ‘extracted’ from the word ‘normal’. The depth of the poem is discernible only with understanding of its historical context. What was ‘normal’ in Manchouli when Empson saw the town, as throughout occupied Manchuria, north and east China, and the whole of Korea, was Japanese occupation and domination. The ‘crowds in rags’ would have included refugees from the Tôa shinchitsujo, the ‘new order in East Asia’, which was being enforced with considerable rigour south, east, and west of Manchouli by the Japanese Imperial Army.
d. China. A verse evocation of the strengths of China written while Empson was with the national universities in exile during Japanese occupation. By the time he arrived at Peking to take up a teaching position at the National University the city had fallen and the universities were closed (see b above and 10). Students had been advised to reassemble at Nanyue (see e), nine-hundred miles south-west of the capital, where, for a term, according to Empson’s note for Autumn in Nan-Yueh, ‘the Arts Departments of the Combined Universities were housed’. How Empson got to Nanyue is not recorded in print, but he did, and after a term fled with the exiled universities a further eight-hundred miles west to Kunming on the Burma Road. Gardner and Gardner (27) note that the ‘punctuated lines’ of the poem ‘give the impression of sketches and thoughts jotted down while on the move’, and suggest that it was written during this later flight. The work confronts the Japanese aggression in two brilliant metaphors. First, in the opening line, a dragon, the traditional symbol of China, has ‘hatched a cockatrice’, the creature from classical legend, part snake and part cock, that can kill by its breath or its glance, suggesting along with more obvious connotations that Japanese civilisation grew from the Chinese. Later, in the closing stanza, the metaphor for the invader becomes that of the ‘liver fluke of sheep’, the parasite living inside a host that ultimately becomes part of the host: China, the metaphor suggests, can absorb the Japanese invaders, since they have been born from her, and are ‘as like . . . as two peas’. The line of thought might be traced in part to the work of Empson’s friend George Sansom (see D22), which returns repeatedly to the idea that China historically has absorbed invaders and remained essentially unchanged. Empson’s note, written from the perspective of 1940, acknowledges that the poem is mistaken about this, and about another point as well: ‘The two main ideas put forward or buried in this poem now seem to me false . . . . [These] are that the Japanese and Chinese are extremely alike, since the Japanese are merely a branch of the same culture with specialised political traditions, and that China can absorb the Japanese however completely they over-run her.’
e. Autumn on Nan-Yueh. Empson’s longest poem was written during autumn term 1937 while he was with the exiled Chinese universities at Nan-Yueh (Nanyue), while the Japanese Army advanced west and south through the country (see d). The work is propelled by metaphors of flight, in keeping with the flight of the universities and the Chinese army from Peking south as the occupying army advanced, and by the constant knowledge that further flight might soon be necessary, as indeed it was. References to the war, direct and indirect, occur throughout, especially in stanza eleven, about ‘the men who really soar’, the Japanese pilots, whom ‘we think about . . . quite a bit’ because Ministers of the Kuomintang are present in Nanyue and ‘the place is fit / For bombs’. The stanza closes with reference to errant bombs in the ‘next town’: ‘The railway was the chore / . . . [but] The thing is, they can not / Take aim. Two hundred on one floor / Were wedding guests cleverly hit / Seven times and none left to deplore’. The poem speculates brilliantly about Empson’s role in all this and continues for more than two hundred lines.