Books: Scratching at Beauty

MILTON'S GOD (280 pp.)−William Empso−New Directions ($5).

Ever since Shakespeare wrote the sonnet They That Have Power to Hurt, people thought they knew what it meant. But in 1935 a young British critic named William Empson told them they did not. The sonnet, he announced, contains 4,096 possible meanings. He then presented some of them by showing the sonnet's ambiguous use of words, metaphors and punctuation, by finding half-buried references to Machiavelli and King Solomon and even prophetic hints of Oscar Wilde. Literary criticism has not been the same since.

Empson became the grand panjandrum of...

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