[Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Fri Sep 1 17:12:29 EDT 2017

Dear Carl and Arnie:

To begin with, "the ways of God" are as often noted, not merely impossible to understand; they aren't even fully known. There's a whole book in the Torah devoted to this matter and I won't quote more than a single verse: "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words by words without knowledge?" [Job 37:2] So J.M. could hardly be laying claim to a greater understanding than Job. So how CAN we take these words of his: "what in me is dark/ Illumine, what is low raise and support; [in order] That to the height of this great Argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence,/ And justify the ways of God to men."? Do they mean that 'this great Argument' is his poem? And IS an argument enough to justify ANYTHING of divine origin? Given that the midrash on the Torah is, and will forever be, incomplete, what chance can an English poet, for all his good intentions, brilliant mind and impeccable talent, have of finishing the midrash or, indeed, settling the argument?  But IS that his intent?  I don't think so and, if it were, I'd have to use Carl's question and say, 'why bother reading beyond a couple of books?'  What J.M. is doing, I believe, is imploring divine assistance from the Holy Spirit to 'illumine' his --and our-- darkness. Not with logic or precedent or empirical inquiry; not with detachment or withdrawal, but with art, with music, with inspired poetry. If, after all, a substantial portion of what to J.M. is the revealed word of God in the bible is in poetry, song and parable and if, as the renaissance critics mostly agreed, the most perfect works of the Greek and Roman civilizations are epic poems almost worthy to be set alongside the bible, isn't he clearly supplying his own epic to bring his language and his people into their company at the head?

So no one reads J.M. for dogma or theology --unless they have a private interest in such refined acrostics and wish to find in his poem evidence of dogmatic purity or Thomistic quibbling. Nor do people read him, I think, simply to wash themselves in waves of ambiguity in order to sharpen their mental acuity. Most, I think, read him for the same reason they read George Herbert or John Donne, countrymen and near contemporaries, for the beauty of his poetry and the majesty of his dramatic situations. It's a great poem. The world would be the less had it never been written. Isn't that enough?

Jim Watt

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Arnie Perlstein <arnieperlstein at gmail.com>
Sent: Friday, September 1, 2017 1:37:35 PM
To: milton-l at richmond.edu
Subject: [Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities

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 witting."

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 ambiguities:

"‘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 Austen.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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