[Milton-L] Who needs to work at ambiguity when reading anything in the fallen world will be hard?!

Crystal L Bartolovich clbartol at syr.edu
Sat Sep 2 13:09:21 EDT 2017

I think we need a different emphasis to deal with the question of
³ambiguity."  To be sure, the poet voice in PL makes ³lofty² claims for
the poem, but it doesn¹t follow at all that this assumed he thought it
would be easily understood by readers, fallen creatures after all, by no
means equally in touch with the spirit.  That¹s what ³fit though few² gets
at surely?  My students definitely find the language plenty ambiguous,
especially at the start of the term (as in, right now!).  They are
inevitably delighted, though, when we get to the end of PL, not only
because they are pleasantly surprised by how much better they have become
as readers of poetry (period) as well as Milton¹s poetry, but ALSO to
discover that fallen Adam is really REALLY terrible at ³reading² the
series of moral lessons that Michael gives him. Seeing Adam¹s difficulty
makes their own struggles seem less ³personal.² Adam after all gets it
wrong 100% of the time and has to be corrected repeatedly by Michael. The
issue is not whether Milton was ³trying" to make the poem ambiguous or
not; the point rather is that for fallen creatures, reading rightly, even
(or, rather, especially?) so ³lofty" a poem as PL, will be hard; the whole
world having been turned on its axis by man¹s disobedience, everything is
harder, including reading [or, for us more secular types, who still love
Milton: humans make can make things spectacularly hard for themselves by
cultivating ignorance, blindness and other unhappy tendencies]. Scripture
itself proved perilously and constantly difficult to pin down with
certainty, as the early reformers (and later!) worried as the bible starts
to circulate in the vernacular, and varying interpretations alarmingly (to
elites) proliferated.  Milton obviously knew this‹he writes about it in
the prose as well as the poetry.  But the problem for him would be with
readers' frailties, not with scripture¹s (or the poem¹s) ³ambiguity² per
se, yes?  

‹ Crystal Bartolovich, Associate Professor of English
Syracuse University, Syracuse NY 13244


On 9/2/17, 12:00 PM, "milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu on behalf of
milton-l-request at richmond.edu" <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu on behalf of
milton-l-request at richmond.edu> wrote:

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>   1. Re: Milton's deliberate ambiguities (Richard A. Strier)
>Message: 1
>Date: Sat, 2 Sep 2017 03:04:36 +0000
>From: "Richard A. Strier" <rastrier at uchicago.edu>
>To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities
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>From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on
>behalf of James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
>Sent: Friday, September 1, 2017 9:48:37 PM
>To: John Milton Discussion List
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities
>It's odd to me that we would be afraid to let Milton make any kind of
>definite statement about anything, including God, especially in Paradise
>Lost: in its first 20 lines he makes himself at least equal in
>inspiration to Moses and superior to the Greeks. He may well claim for
>himself greater knowledge than the author of the Book of Job, as he
>believes he has the benefit of a more complete revelation of God in
>Christ. Never mind that the first two stanzas contain Milton's own
>imperatives directed toward the Holy Spirit: "Sing, heavenly Muse..." and
>"Say first..." This is the Spirit that Milton wishes to sing through him
>-- the one present at creation from whom nothing is hid.
>Yes, he makes big claims for himself and his poem.
>Jim R
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