[Milton-L] Pass the salt.

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Tue Sep 5 08:04:24 EDT 2017

Jim Watt writes:


"I think when Richard bows out, I bow out with him. To those who say "They also serve who only stand and wait" is ironic or ambiguous, I reply "So you say. And so you may also believe. What's KNOWN, though..."


At risk of disgracing myself, let me candidly confess that I consider the line Jim quotes from "When I Consider" to be both ambiguous and ironic. The ambiguity lies in the words "only" and "wait."

I) Only.  Modern readers tend to hear only (!) the current sense "solely, merely, . . . no more than" (OED 1), forgetting the other, now obsolete, sense "singularly, uniquely; pre-eminently; in a special way" (OED 1), as in Jonson's Catiline V I  172: "That renowm'd good man, that did so onely embrace his Countrey". True, this sense was already archaic in Milton's time, but something like it survived until the 19th century in another now obsolete sense: "by or of itself, alone, without (the aid of) anything else" (OED 4). The possibility of hearing either of the last two senses complicates the seeming submission and acquiescence  of "only stand and wait". There is a Miltonic parallel for an assertive "only" in "th 'invisible King, / Only omniscient" (PL 7.123). "

2) Wait.  The submissive senses "continue stationary or quiescent" (OED 6a) and "be in readiness to receive orders... attend as a servant" (OED 9a) are complicated by an echo of the biblical verbal phrase "wait on" meaning "place one's hope in God" (OED 8), as in Coverdale's translation of Psalm 62: "My soule wayteth onley  upon God, for of him commeth my helpe".

In putting the case like this, I am aware I am laying myself open to the charge of over-reading. Milton did not have a copy of the OED at his elbow, and even if he did, his spent light would prevent from using it in the way I just have. But my point about both words is that they admit both acquiescent and assertive senses and the polysemous possibilities ambiguate Sonnet XVI. Specifically, they challenge the easy inference that Milton in this sonnet is abandoning all hope in his vocation and saying goodbye to poetry forever. I think that the ambiguity is sufficiently strong to justify the word "irony," especially since medieval and early modern angelology did allow for angels who  "only stand and wait" by standing out from the throng. Again there is a Miltonic parallel:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only he,
Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified. (PL 5 896-9)

Yes, "only" there does have the modern sense (no more than), but for that very reason Abdiel is (as Jonson might say) "that renowm'd good [angel], that did so onely embrace."

Regarding ambiguity in general, I think the current thread has been far too prone to generalizations. Every case is different, and each case should be judged on its own merits. Ambiguity is not always present and it is not always good, but there is such a thing as ambiguity ,and great poets have used it as a resource. That was Empson's point about ambiguity and it still holds. I dislike the phrase "anti-intellectual," since it is so often used to close down debate. I make it a rule for myself never to use that term of another critic, but when Jim confidently asserts "What's KNOWN, though," I cannot but hear an echo of Daenerys Targaryen's lovable Dothraki handmaid Iqqi in Game of Thrones, whose answer to everything is "This is known."  In making that reference I am of course outing myself as a non- (if not quite anti) -intellectual, but I remain, if not "unshaken, unseduced, unterrified," at least "unbowed, unbent, unbroken," so I guess I shall not be bowing out with Richard.

John Leonard

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Watt, James <jwatt at butler.edu>
Sent: September 4, 2017 10:35:27 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Pass the salt.

I think when Richard bows out, I bow out with him. To those who say "They also serve who only stand and wait" is ironic or ambiguous, I reply "So you say. And so you may also believe. What's KNOWN, though, to all of us, is only known in our bones. Nort our brains, not our hearts, not even in our souls, but in our bones. And I'd say to one who doubted Milton's sincerity here, "Do you doubt his skill? Or his talent? Do you doubt your own? Indeed, if not, then you do not doubt enough until you doubt your doubt. Then we can talk."

Jim Watt

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of Carol Barton, PhD, CPCM <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>
Sent: Monday, September 4, 2017 3:53:30 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Pass the salt.

Or perhaps an ironic comment on his penchant for over-salting his food, Jim. Or perhaps diabolical sarcasm—applauding her perfect murder, in that, knowing that proclivity, she made sure to pass the salt whenever he requested it, knowing it would one day kill him.

The question is—which one did the author mean?

I’ll never tell.

Carol Barton, PhD, CPCM
cbartonphd1 at verizon.net<mailto:cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>

"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything:
That's how the light gets in."
~Leonard Cohen~

On Sep 4, 2017, at 5:19 PM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com<mailto:jamesrovira at gmail.com>> wrote:

Ha. See? In Carol's context, that's a suicide wish. Or a commentary on marriage. Maybe both.

Jim R

On Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 4:06 PM, Carol Barton, PhD, CPCM <cbartonphd1 at verizon.net<mailto:cbartonphd1 at verizon.net>> wrote:
Her husband slowly dying of hypernatremia, his poor wife knelt at his bedside and whispered, “Please . . . pass the salt.”
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