Autobiography — Richards and Empson

Sometime after a 1973 dinner1 with William Empson, Northrop Frye and William Wimsatt , McLuhan memorialized Empson’s description there of his first encounter with the new critical methods of I. A. Richards.  This would have been 1927-1928, around 6 years before McLuhan himself arrived in Cambridge to study in the English school with Richards.2

When visiting U of T in the spring of 1973 Empson and Frye and  Wimsatt had dinner. It was there that Empson told of days when he had begun supervisions under Richards. He said that he was in the habit of regaling his undergraduate friends after each supervision with a detailed account of what he and they regarded as Richard’s utter absurdity. They would literally roll on the grass, howling with merriment as the crazy psychological and linguistic ideas were reviewed. Empson said it was more than a year before he began to detect some sense in I.A.R.3

McLuhan described his own first impression of Richards in a contemporary letter to his mother on January 18, 1935:

Richards is conducting mass experiments in the criticism of prose extracts this term. He hands out sheets with the extracts, and gives us 20 minutes. He produced a huge volume by this method using poems, and made the “great” discovery that nobody admired or was repelled from anything for any “good” reason. I have some doubts about the method of giving one poem of any person as a test. A really cultivated taste might hit the nail most all the time, but uncultivated people can enjoy many things in a volume by one writer, where the merits of his craft  and ideas and feelings are permitted to permeate the consciousness from 1000 different angles. Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society.4

It is noteworthy that McLuhan’s experience with Richards replicated Empson’s. Empson quickly went from the “utter absurdity” of Richards to the writing of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a classical text in ‘practical criticism’.5 Similarly, what McLuhan here calls “ghastly atheistic nonsense”, the contrast between “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” and “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality” was close to what was to become in his work the contrasts of inclusive vs exclusive structures and of electric form vs print. And McLuhan, too, would go on to “regard all experience as relative to certain conditions of life (…) and yet (…) wished to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism.”

Perhaps Richards may be seen as a proto-structuralist for whom ambiguities were the key to unlocking the underlying laws expressed in texts and (as another Richards student, F. R Leavis, would explore before McLuhan) in the environment generally. The fertility of his insights may be judged from the range and extent of the work to which it led in his students.

Notes McLuhan made for his 1938 essay, ‘The Cambridge English School’, show how far he had revised his opinion of Richards by this time6:

Dr. Richards improved the instruments of analysis [at the English School], and has consolidated and generally made accessible the contribution of Coleridge — a contribution which had been obscured by a mass of academic criticism. (…) “The one and only goal of all critical endeavours (…) is improvement in communication” 7 (…) Dr. Richards has been a pioneer in the training of sensibility (…) Today, language, the indispensable mode of thought, is in danger from an organised cynicism which insists on exploiting the stupidity of the Many (…) modern advertising, in itself, presents an utterly irresponsible force exploiting language for the deception, or rather coercion, of the Many (…) And advertising is only one of the forces that are disintegrating [our] medium of expression, and destroying the major means of effective communication among men. (…) Dr. Richards and others at the English School, in advocating a strenuous and practical criticism, have welcomed the warning of Mr. Pound in his vigorous book How to Read: “Has literature a function in the state, in the aggregation of humans, in the republic, in the res publica? (..) It has (…) It has to do with the clarity and vigour, of ‘any and every’ thought and opinion. It has to do with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself.” 8

The published essay cites Leavis from Scrutiny9 and concludes in his vein: 

In view of the generally recognized collapse of serious standards of living, of taste, and of judgment, it has become almost impossible for an individual to find his bearings amidst the hubbub of cheap excitements today. The attainment of genuine critical judgment was never so difficult, or so rare. If in view of this situation alone, the Cambridge English school might easily vindicate its insistence on the rigorous training of sensibility. And literature, properly considered, remains one of the few uncontaminated sources of nutrition for impulse and the education of emotion. With the failure of the external environment to provide such nutrition, or anything except confused sensations, it has become the major instrument of education.10



  1. This must have been in the first weeks of January.  McLuhan mentions the dinner in a letter to Muriel Bradbrook from Jan 12, 1973 (Letters 462) and to Hugh Kenner from Feb 2, 1973 (Letters 464).
  2. Empson was gone from Cambridge by the time McLuhan arrived, having been expelled for possessing prophylactics. Later he would be knighted.
  3. McLuhan’s note was written on the fly-leaf of his copy of Some Versions of Pastoral by William Empson (1935) as recorded here and here.
  4. McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 18, 1935, Letters 50.
  5. As footnoted in his Letters, 462n3, McLuhan recorded reading Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in his diary for December 30, 1935 and January 4, 1936,  — “Found it excellent”.
  6. In a letter 25 years years later to Bascom St John, McLuhan brings Richards together with Freud: “Much of the significant work of our time, whether it be that of Freud or I.A. Richards in criticism (…) has indicated a very wide breakdown of communication between individuals and between societies.” (June 15, 1964, Letters 302)
  7. McLuhan here cites Richards from Practical Criticism, 1929: “the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication”.
  8. Cited from McLuhan’s papers in the National Archive Canada in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 365-366, n33.
  9. “A serious interest in literature starts from the present and assumes that literature matters, in the first place at any rate, as the consciousness of the age. If a literary tradition does not keep itself alive here, in the present, not merely in new creation, but as a pervasive influence upon feeling, thought, and standards of living (it is time we challenged the economists’ use of this phrase), then it must be pronounced to be dying or dead. . . . Practical criticism of literature must be associated with training in awareness of the environment — advertising, the cinema, the press, architecture, and so on — for, clearly, to the pervasive counter-influence of this environment the literary training of sensibility in school is an inadequate reply.” (For Continuity, 1933 — a collection of Leavis essays from Scrutiny).
  10. ‘The Cambridge English School’, Fleur de Lis, 1938.

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