[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Sun Sep 3 12:49:44 EDT 2017

No, Jim, I certainly don't want to argue that Milton wasn't deeply
committed to theological concerns. And I'm also not arguing for total
indeterminacy or anything like that. This is sort of what I was getting at
in my post on ideas in PL -- i.e., that they do matter, or we do care about
them. I'm not even really challenging the argument you and Richard have
made, that one can express theological ideas in poems. I do think poetry
can be a slippery medium for theology, though, depending on kinds and
forms. A poem might make a relatively definite statement about some
theological argument. Herbert's "Easter" ("Rise heart, thy Lord is risen"),
for instance, seems pretty clear in its expression of ideas about human sin
and the redemption of humanity by the sacrifice of Christ. The problem in
PL is that even when we read relatively definite statements, they are in
the mouths of constructed characters -- even the narrator, who is not
precisely Milton. Raphael, for instance, seems not entirely reliable in his
discussion with Adam. I don't entirely trust his arguments about Eve and
love, especially given his blush at the thought of angelic sex. The motives
for his visit also make me suspicious, since despite the appearance of
warning Adam and reinforcing his will to resist Satan, the only real
purpose of the visit is to justify God, in the event Adam might claim he
was not sufficient to have stood. But this is getting into deep waters, and
I know we could thrash around on this as so many others have done. My point
is simply that by putting statements in the mouths of characters who have
complicated motives, biases, perspectives, and other limitations, Milton
makes it difficult to take their statements as straightforwardly
definitive. Maybe that's part of the test of our reading (as Fish might
have it), but it still results in doubt.

Maybe you're right, though, that I'm thinking of theology too narrowly, but
doesn't theology tend to be expressed in definitive statements? Is there a
comfortable place within theology for doubt and ambiguity? Calvin warns
against thinking too much about predestination, but that seems like an
avoidance of theology rather than an expression of it.


On Sun, Sep 3, 2017 at 11:42 AM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hannibal -- Do you think that Milton was intentionally indifferent to
> theological concerns within Paradise Lost? Isn't he allowed to make a
> definite statement here too? I think some of this discussion hinges on
> one's definition of theology, which can be systematic, devotional,
> dogmatic, experiential, etc. Not all of theology consists of declarations
> of rigid orthodoxy that must be adhered to at all costs and in all contexts.
> Theodicy is a recognized subfield of theology like epistemology is a
> recognized subfield of philosophy. I think if someone is committed to a
> complete reading of PL, then theology has to be taken into account. But
> that is not to say that every act of reading or interpretation of PL has to
> take theology into account, just that it is a mistake to dismiss those
> concerns.
> Readers' preconceptions or personal commitments are frankly irrelevant to
> me. They always still have to marshal evidence and arguments to present
> their case, and every case has to be accepted or rejected on the strength
> of the evidence and arguments presented. I think distorted arguments occur
> most frequently when Milton is being required to fit a certain model or
> defend a specific orthodoxy, whether atheist or theological.
> I think the truth is that he was somewhat uniquely heterodox, like Blake,
> so that what we do is compare him to other models in order to understand
> him on his own terms, but we have to resort to a variety of conflicting
> models in order to do so.
> Jim R
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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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