[Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities

Salwa skhoddam at cox.net
Fri Sep 1 17:32:03 EDT 2017

James wrote, "Most people read Milton '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?'" 

I totally agree. I would like to add that this poem is a great story with an
unambiguous plot: Satan changed his form into a serpent, he succeeded in
tempting Eve, she bit into the apple, so did Adam, and they were expelled
from Eden. Those are the pillars of the plot, unambiguous, and yet open for
opinions as to cause and effect and other points. Linguistic ambiguities,
while they make the work rich in texture and meanings are certainly a
complement to a discussion to the plot.





Salwa Khoddam, PhD.

Professor of English, Emerita

Oklahoma City University


From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu]
On Behalf Of Watt, James
Sent: Friday, September 1, 2017 4:12 PM
To: milton-l at richmond.edu
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities


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:  <mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu
< <mailto:milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on
behalf of Arnie Perlstein < <mailto:arnieperlstein at gmail.com>
arnieperlstein at gmail.com>
Sent: Friday, September 1, 2017 1:37:35 PM
To:  <mailto:milton-l at richmond.edu> 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

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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