[Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Sat Sep 2 15:32:54 EDT 2017

Interesting that no one so far has mentioned Empson. One point to take away
from his seminal study is that ambiguity comes in many forms (types), some
of them reflect deliberate artistry, and others reflecting limitations
thereof. It's also evident that ambiguity can refer to both the small and
particular (specific words, say) and the very large and general (the
characters of God or Satan in PL). We tend to value ambiguity when it is
(or seems) deliberate, but not when it seems accidental and confusing --
though of course distinguishing these is not always easy (authors being
dead and all). But of course no writer can be consistently ambiguous, nor
would we want them to be, since presumably (if this could be achieved) the
result would be utterly incomprehensible. When Milton writes of Hell, "O
how unlike the place from whence they fell!" we understand this quite
clearly, and there seems no ambiguity in the statement, deliberate or
accidental. On the other hand, when he writes,

                             Thou from the first
wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant

the more carefully we read, the less clearly we understand exactly what is
going on, and the passage is full of ambiguities that many of you have
written about, and most of us taught. Even if we leave aside the sense of
"meditating upon" especially "moodily," "brood" can mean both to "breed"
and to "incubate," the latter being something birds after breeding. In this
weird case, the action seems like incubation, since the spirit is over the
abyss like a bird over its eggs, but this brooding doesn't hatch something
already born but makes the abyss pregnant, which is not at all what happens
when a dove broods over its eggs. We might also ask why the mighty wings
are outspread when the spirit is sitting on the abyss (and, moreover, how
something "dove-like" can have mighty wings anyway). Let alone how an abyss
can be made pregnant. We could say that the ambiguities and mysteries of
this passage are Milton's attempt to represent something ineffable, but the
particular ambiguities he introduces are not in fact those of the Genesis,
but rather his own invention. The author of Genesis, for instance, does not
seem particularly interested in whether the spirit is male or female, an
interest reflected in Milton's strange play with poultry reproduction. We
may note that the germ of this play lies in the Tremellius Latin
translation of Genesis, which has "incubabat" instead of the Vulgate's
"ferebatur," but this doesn't entirely explain Milton's elaboration. A
further ambiguity probably lies in Milton's use of "pregnant," which can
refer to the mind as well as the womb, meaning "full of ideas;
imaginative," etc. Since this passage occurs in the midst of a plea to this
spirit for inspiration, he is presumably in some sense asking it to make
him pregnant just as (though in a different way) it impregnated the abyss.

Like many others on this list -- clearly -- I find these ambiguities
delightful and productive, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that Milton
is always ambiguous or that my delight is only in ambiguities.

On the question of why we read (or teach) PL, though, I'm interested in the
suggestion from Jim Watt that it's all about "the beauty of the poetry and
the majesty of his dramatic situations." I've been reading John Leonard's
"The Value of Milton," and I hope he doesn't mind if I mention his
statement that "Paradise Lost should not be valued solely or even primarily
for its ideas," which seems to jibe with Jim's argument. First, though I
have no data to back me up, I suspect that many of those who read PL do
still value it for its ideas, whether political or theological. I teach in
Ohio, which is chock full of Christian believers of various sorts, and I'd
be surprised if the response to PL of Christian students in my classes
wasn't at least partly theological. I also get the impression from my
reading that at least some critics take Milton's theology seriously,
whether they subscribe to it or not (and assuming that they can determine
what it is). Furthermore -- and this is trickier -- I often have the
impression that Milton scholars of whatever personal faiths (or none)
relish a kind of literary critical debate that rather closely resembles the
kinds of theological debates in which Milton and others were engaged in the
seventeenth century. Their base text was the Bible, whereas ours is PL, but
we are just as keen to ascertain the truth of our "scripture," just as we
are to refute those we perceive as heretics, perhaps converting them to the
true faith. Does anyone else feel this way or recognize this phenomenon? I
often find myself in the curious position of engaging in a passionate
struggle to find a true meaning in which I don't have any actual stakes at
all. (I.e., I am not a believer, and yet I care about what PL seems to
imply about the nature of Creation, the status of the Son, good and evil,
the responsibility of Adam, etc.) In short, I'm not sure that I don't value
the ideas in PL, even if I don't believe in them.


On Sat, Sep 2, 2017 at 1:22 PM, Salwa <skhoddam at cox.net> wrote:

> I agree with Professor Richmond that this passage from Shakespeare is
> certainly unambiguous *linguistically*. But I think it becomes ambiguous
> when we begin to interpret the issue of whether riches and “pomp” can make
> one forget about homeless people. Debatable issue to some?
> This is what I understood by (and I may not be correct) Arnie’s “alternate
> versions” and  “interpretations of everything.” Such
> moral/ethical/psychological “ambiguity” presented in characters’
> motivations and plot lines is plentiful in Shakespeare: Was Hamlet really
> mad? Was Lear culpable towards his daughters? Did he receive justice at the
> end? What about Cordelia’s undeserved death? How is Shylock more than the
> stereotypical villain in the source that Shakespeare inherited? Is there
> racism in the portrayal of Othello? And so on. And so with *Paradise Lost*:
> How culpable is Eve? Was she fallen before biting into the apple? Did Adam
> bite into the apple because of uxuriousness? and so many other questions of
> this sort that have many answers. So many ambiguous matters that, as Arnie
> posted (in different words), while trying to resolve them, we expand our
> views of humanity and so are confronted with the fragility, strength, and
> mystery of human life, an experience  that helps us tolerate our own
> existence. I cannot help but quote C. S. Lewis here from *An Experiment
> in Criticism* (1961): “[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand
> men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with
> a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see” (141). This experience results
> from evaluating more than the language (i. e., whether “to” is “to”) but
> from “receiving” (another Lewis term) the work as a whole with its many
> ambiguities.
> Best,
> Salwa
> Salwa Khoddam, PhD.
> Professor of English, Emerita
> Oklahoma City University
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces@
> richmond.edu] *On Behalf Of *Hugh M. RICHMOND
> *Sent:* Friday, September 1, 2017 7:33 PM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> *Subject:* [Milton-L] Milton's deliberate ambiguities
> Shakespeare is ambiguous? What is ambiguous about these lines?
> Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
> That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
> How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
> Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
> From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
> Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
> Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel. (III.iv.19–34)
> If this is not ambiguous does it prove it bad poetry, or poor thought?
> Ambiguity and irony may be signs of impotence. HMR
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Hannibal Hamlin
Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Author of *The Bible in Shakespeare*, now available through all good
bookshops, or direct from Oxford University Press at
164 Annie & John Glenn Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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