[Milton-L] Coherent ambiguity

Arnie Perlstein arnieperlstein at gmail.com
Sun Sep 3 12:02:29 EDT 2017

Hannibal Hamlin wrote: "Actually, I think both lines from the sonnets that
Prof. Richmond quotes are ambiguous.
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment." Does this mean the
speaker cannot think of any impediment, can think of some but doesn't want
to mention them, would like to think that there is no impediment (even though
there might be)? And is there in fact a marriage of true minds (whatever
that is), or is this just wishful thinking? A good deal of ambiguity is
introduced when the sonnet is considered in context, not just in isolation
as anthologized. In context, it's not at all clear that there is a marriage
of true minds, and it may be that this is a fantasy on the part of the
speaker, faced with the fickle but lovely young man before him. (The
allusion to the marriage service is also somewhat ambiguous, since it seems
that the speaker is playing both groom and celebrant at once.)
"My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun." This sonnet is ambiguous to the
core, since the final couplet can be read either as a declaration of love
and esteem beyond false comparison, or as a more cynical statement that all
women are what they are (no better than they should be). Again, in the
context of the whole sequence, it's hard to believe that the speaker
is praising
the honest virtues of his dark lady. Even sticking to the opening line, in
what way are her eyes not like the sun? Are they lacking in radiance,
warmth, nurturing energy? Or is this just a critique of the (tired)
metaphor, pointing out that eyes are really not likely anything but eyes?
I agree that language, even in poems, is not always ambiguous, since otherwise
we should hardly be able to communicate. But it often is, in various ways."

Thank you, Prof. Hamlin, for expressing much better than I did, what I
meant in my posts about Milton's (and Shakespeare's and Austen's) pervasive
ambiguity. I was not at all suggesting a murky chaotic literature whence no
coherent meaning can be derived. Rather, I suggest a tradition of writing
in which the same words can, depending on a shift of assumptions and point
of view, be read in two very different COHERENT ways.

Just think, by analogy of the classic figure-ground image:
Both images are real and plasible. That is precisely what I claim Milton
was doing in Paradise Lost. There's the plausible version in which Satan
really is the hero, and there's the version in which God and the Son are
the heroes.

Milton wanted the sharp elves to see both sides of the argument, and then
see them both in the context of the plausibility of the other.

He learned this from Shakespeare, Richardson learned it from both
Shakespeare and Milton, and Jane Austen learned it from all three of them
-- and behind them all, Chaucer.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
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