It is an irony of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity that it finds the definition of ambiguity itself somewhat elusive. That title makes it sound like the author already knows what he’s looking for, but Empson figures out what he means by the term as he goes along. In the revised edition, he starts with this: “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” (The first edition defines ambiguity in the negative, relative to prose.) Already in that phrase “alternative reactions” there is enough room to drive a truck through. Interestingly, though, in laying store by the way real readers respond or could respond, and not by self-contained features of the text, Empson skews toward the empirical, communal, and provisional, and away from the purely analytical. For one of the core books of the New Criticism, this is an out-of-character approach. I wondered briefly why Empson did not do the opposite and identify instances of passages giving no room for alternative reactions, as on the face of it this would seem to allow for more definiteness. When I tried to identify a few such instances, the answer became evident quickly: in order to show the presence of ambiguity under his definition, it is enough to give two or more readings for a passage. In order to show the presence of clarity, you have to supply the reading and show that no other readings exist. Since this task is practically impossible, clarity seems doomed to be a comparatively wishy-washy concept. Literature has played a trick on us: clarity is murky, and ambiguity is clear. But clarity’s virtues are so taken for granted that the question of how those virtues might be demonstrable seems like it ought to be within reach.
more from D. H. Tracy at Poetry here.