[Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities

Arnie Perlstein arnieperlstein at gmail.com
Fri Sep 1 15:37:35 EDT 2017

Carl Bellinger replied to my last post as follows: "I did not write what in
this email you have ascribed to me."

I apologize for the inadvertent misquote.

I previously wrote:
""[Milton's] overarching goal in writing the entire poem was to
deliberately create ambiguity at every possible level of interpretation."

Carl Bellinger replied : "Were Paradise Lost such a work as you claim M.
designed it to be, who would continue reading more than a book or
two before setting it aside?

I answered your question as I elaborated in that post as follows:

"Why? Because the ability to recognize ambiguity, and to keep
plausible alternative
interpretations of everything in our world in mind at the same time, is the
skill Milton wished to cultivate in the people reading his poem. He was no
angel telling humankind to confine our curioslty to small things, Milton
was a serpent handing us a particularly tasty piece of fruit.He's not the
only writer who did this -- Shakespeare, Richardson, Austen, the list goes
on -- they deliberately created ambiguity in order to show
us, via our disagreements, that we should not be too quick to leap to a feeling
of certainty in our opinions, but to work harder to recognize how our own
assumptions make us prone to leaping to one interpretation when another one
is also plausible.
If Milton had wanted to be clear, he was certainly capable of being clear in
his grammar, especially in what is arguably the most important line in the
entire poem! He chose to play games with the reader, so that we would have
to struggle to decide if he was (as Blake put it) of the devil's party or
not -- but I depart from Blake in one way -- I think Milton's goal was to
make us uncertain about whose party he identified with, he did NOT
unwittingly take Satan's side. Milton was all about making the unwitting

So, to further answer your question, the people who would keep reading I
would imagine would be people who were psychologically flexible, who wanted
to be able to see both of the alternate versions of the story Milton was
telling -- people who like to solve puzzles, not just for the intellectual
exercise (like doing a good crossword puzzle) but because life and morality
are puzzles, and in particular, the puzzles of whether there is a god,
whether that god has operated in a justifiable way toward the human race,
the puzzle of how to balance faith with science, etc.

Here's what Samuel Richardson wrote about why HE deliberately made his
novels ambiguous:

"The whole Story abounds with Situations and Circumstances debatable. It is
not an unartful Management to interest the Readers so much in the Story, as
to make them differ in Opinion as to the Capital Articles, and by Leading
one, to espouse one, another, another, Opinion, make them all, if not
Authors, Carvers."

And here is what Jane Austen famously wrote about her own deliberate

"‘There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would
sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write
for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.” ‘

So I say there is a clear chain of the greatest authors creating deliberate
ambiguity, the better to train their readers to think more deeply and
clearly about life, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton to Richardson to

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
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