[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Salwa skhoddam at cox.net
Mon Sep 4 12:18:40 EDT 2017

I believe it was Cleanth Brooks who compared literary interpretation to the
ripples caused by a pebble thrown into a pond. The closest ripples to the
pebble are the appropriate interpretations, and the farthest ones are those
far-fetched and forced ones. The challenge for us all is to find which is



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 Bryson, Michael E
Sent: Monday, September 4, 2017 10:56 AM
To: Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>; John Milton Discussion List
<milton-l at richmond.edu>
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities


"I'm inclined to say -- and I guess I will -- that there is really nothing
but interpretation. It's interpretation (substituting for turtles) all the
way down. To argue otherwise is to entirely misunderstand the fundamental
nature of language."


And there we have the problem with the entire "linguistic turn" in theory,
and the effects that turn has wrought upon literary criticism over the last
century. It has been, in my view, something akin to a disaster, and I will
take the Susan Sontags and Oscar Wildes over the whole lot of us any day of
the week. 


Michael Bryson


Love and its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton's
Eden (Cambridge: Open Book, 2017)



------ Original message------

From: Hannibal Hamlin

Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 8:35 AM

To: John Milton Discussion List;


Subject:Re: [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities


I don't like Sontag's argument at all, and it actually has a whiff of bad
faith about it, an anti-intellectual pose by one of 20th century America's
most famous intellectuals. I'm inclined to say -- and I guess I will -- that
there is really nothing but interpretation. It's interpretation
(substituting for turtles) all the way down. To argue otherwise is to
entirely misunderstand the fundamental nature of language. We may strive for
the precise utterance, but we are so bound up in metaphors that this is an
impossible dream. Of course, if I ask someone to please pass me the salt, I
am unlikely to be misunderstood, which is handy. But if I write "Shall I
compare thee to a summer's day" and have it printed, this is quite another
matter. I've already described some of the potential ambiguities of both the
line and the poem it begins. Professor Richmond feels I have invented these,
but how would he go about proving this? My comments are rooted in the
language on the page, just as his are. The only difference between them is
that he wants to believe the poem is a straightforward declaration of love,
and I find it more interesting to think of it as somewhat more nervous --
love, certainly, but perhaps charged with a sense that neither men, lovers,
love, nor poems may be quite as eternal as we might like them to be. I
cannot prove that this is what Shakespeare had in mind, but then neither can
Professor make the same claim for his interpretation, the author being dead
(in a literal if not Barthesian sense), and his intentions inaccessible
except in the words he left behind. 


I am not advocating Deconstructive nihilism. I venture to say that I love
sonnet 18 as much as Professor Richmond. But every utterance needs to be
interpreted, and the pleasure I derive from Shakespeare (or Milton) is
enhanced rather than diminished by the complex ambiguities in which they





On Sun, Sep 3, 2017 at 9:42 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com
<mailto:jamesrovira at gmail.com> > wrote:

Thanks very much for the elaboration, Michael. I've become dissatisfied with
the eisegesis versus exegesis model. It seems to treat literary texts like
buckets of meaning in which authors put meaning in and readers are obligated
to take only the same meaning out. 


I prefer to think in terms of pattern recognition. In this practice, the
reader is applying different filters, so to speak, to look for different
kinds of patterns of meaning in the text. The author or his or her immediate
historical context is maybe one filter that we use to examine a text, but it
doesn't have to be the only one. Any conceivable pattern is legitimate so
long as it's supported by evidence provided by the text. 


Of course, when you think that way, you have to carefully distinguish
between the patterns that you're using and the author himself (in this
case). We can ascribe patterns to the text that don't necessarily reflect on
the person who wrote it. This isn't an arbitrary practice, as a filter looks
for specific things, should set the terms of its own practice of pattern
recognition, and then follow them.


Jim R


PS If Milton had an iPhone, Steve Jobs would be Satan.

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Hannibal Hamlin
Professor of English
The Ohio State University

Author of The Bible in Shakespeare, now available through all good
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