Tolerating Ambiguity with Marvell, Celan and Prynne.

Poetic ambiguity occurs when something can mean more than one thing at once, this has been a major device in Modernism and has given critics even more than usual to debate. I'll start with two quotes from leading poets. This is Paul Celan:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, this expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals - transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-points, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, "breaks" and "divisions" which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

And this is J H Prynne:

The first is the now well-understood prevalence of semantic ambiguity in poetic language as a deliberate violation of normal cohesion requirements. The English scholar and critic William Empson, well-known in China, was the first to identify and explore fully the complex role played by ambiguity in poetic composition, so that it became not a fault of style but a subtle enlargement of meaning and its possibilities. In very summary form we may describe the effect like this. In strictly local ontext the surrounding sense may point strongly to one word-meaning rather than to another, different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less "probable" meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem's development.

This is as far as I'm going to go with the various theoretical standpoints because it seems to me that these taken together give as rich an understanding with regard to difficult / challenging work as we can get. Celan's point about that there are always 'several facets in one thing' together with Prynne's emphasis on keeping all possibilities in mind when considering the work as a whole.

Ambiguity isn't confined to the Modernists, it has been a constant presence in the history of the form. The illustrations that I have chosen hopefully exemplify a few ways in which the device has been made to work.

Andrew Marvell's An Horatian Ode.

This was written in the summer of 1650 and its full title is An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland. The poem's ambiguity stems from its apparent admiration for both Charles I, who was executed in 1649, and Cromwell, one of the regicides who sentence the king to death. We can be certain of its date because this was the period in between Cromwell's brutally murderous campaign in Ireland and his foray into Scotland. He is praised for his vigour, his strength and his military prowess but some of these apparent compliments may have a double edge. One of these relates to Cromwell's personal ambition:

    Who, from his private gardens, where
    He lived reserved and austere,
        As if his highest plot
        To plant the bergamot,

    Could by industrious valor climb
    To ruin the great work of time,
        And cast the kingdoms old
        Into another mould.

Here we have this military hero at home living the kind of life usually lived by monks being elevated to great deeds by his hard fought bravery. Then we discover that the bergamot was known at the time as the 'pear of kings' which throws up another possible meaning. In this version Cromwell is cast as a crafty schemer, hiding behind a 'reserved and austere' façade in order to 'plot' his route to the political heights by replacing the old order with something new.

Another example is provided in the reference to Charles' escape from confinement at Hampton Court in 1647 to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight:

    What field of all the civil wars
    Where his were not the deepest scars?
         And Hampton shows what part
         He had of wiser art:

     Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
     He wove a net of such a scope
         That Charles himself might chase
         To Carisbrooke's narrow case:

So, we start with praise for Cromwell's bravery and personal sacrifice on the field of battle to a veiled critique of Cromwell's rumoured röle in engineering the escape- which led eventually to his execution. Cromwell emerges here as a cynical and Machiavellian figure who weaves this net of illusions to trap the King. There is no proof (whatsoever) of Cromwell's involvement in this turn of events although rumours still persist of a mysteriously unguarded rear door.

Charles, on the other hand, is painted in unambiguosly positive terms at his execution:

    That hence the royal actor born
    The tragic scaffold might adorn,
        While round the armed bands
         Did clasp their bloody hands.

     He nothing common did, or mean,
     Upon that memorable scene;
         But with his keener eye
         The axe's edge did try.

     Nor called the Gods with vulgar spite
     To vindicate his helpless right;
          But bowed his comely head
          Down, as upon a bed.

I don't think that this apparent Cromwell / Charles 'split' is the most ambiguous part of the poem, I think it is possible to praise Charles' dignity at the point of his death and laud Cromwell for his military and political prowess. As Celan points out above, people are made up of many different facets- it is more than possible to be a hero and a political schemer at the same time as it is also possible to be a noble and dignified tyrant.

For me, the most ambiguous and sophisitcated part of the poem is the last two verses:

    But thou the War's and Fortune's son
    March indefatigably on;
        And for the last effect
        Still keep thy sword erect:

    Besides the force it has to fright
    The spirits of the shady night;
        The same arts that did gain
        A pow'r must it maintain.

It seems to me that this warning about maintaining power by the sword and cunning can be read as it appears but can also change the 'point' of the poem. The English Civil Wars were marked by savage brutality on all sides and the Ode might be seen as a subtle and ironic condemnation of the violence of the age, the celebration of the subjugation of the Irish 'fits' much better as a veiled condemnation and this warning of the dark spirits may be a reference to the many bad things that Cromwell has done. The massacre at Drogheda which he ordered was the worst atrocity of the period.

All of this speculation is further complicated that Marvell was about to be employed by Lord Fairfax, the head of the New Model Army who had opposed the execution of Charles and refused to take military action against the Scots. So this may also be read as an extended application form for the job as tutor to Fairfax' daughter....

Paul Celan's Todtnauberg.

Many, many people think of this as the most important poem of the 20th century, it records the meeting between Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger in 1966. Heidegger is becoming an increasingly villified figure as the depths of his anti-Semitism become more apparent but he was certainly the most influential European philosopher of his time. Celan, the finest poet anywhere in 1966, was an admirer of Heidegger's work but remained angry and disappointed about the philosopher's silence about his membership of the Nazi party prior to and during WWII. Celan visited Heidegger at his cabin in Todtnauberg and they spent the day together. The critical debate that has simmered away ever since centres on whether the poem records a reconciliation or further estrangement between the two. Of course this isn't helped by Celan's use of ambiguity:

    Arnica, eyebright, the
    draft from the well with the
    star-die on top,

    in the 

    written in the book
    -whose name did it record
    before mine?-
    in this book
    the line about
    a hope, today,
    for a thinker's 

    to come
    in the heart

    forest sward, unleveled
    orchis and orchis, singly

    crudeness, later, while driving,

    he who drives us, the man
    he who also hears it,

    the half-
    trod log-
    trails on the highmoor.


Given the complexity of the above, the best response is to acknowledge that we will never (ever) know with confidence what happened when these two met and walk away. This is the default arduity position but in this instance I feel forced to side with Pierre Joris (whose translation this is) and others in 'reading' this meeting as a complete failure. Being unable to read German, I can't comment on the accuracy of the translation but I am aware of the work and views of both men and cannot imagine how any kind of reconciliation could take place primarily because Heidegger was incapable of acknowledging his personal guilt.

Joris has written a fascinating description of the work that this translation entailed. He draws attention to Celan's use of the word 'waldwasen' which he translates as 'forest sward' but 'wasen' also means the land where the knacker guts and buries livestock. These two men would therefore be walking over the bodies of the dead victims of the Holocaust. The rest of the Joris thesis is too complex to describe in detail but has persudaded me. In all fairness, I don't want the meeting to have been successful primarily because Celan had dedicated his life to bearing witness to/for the victims of the Holocaust but also because I don't trust anything that James K Lyons, the main proponent of reconciliation, puts forward.

In summary, it is important that we should know more about this meeting but also acknowledge that we never will. This shouldn't however stop us from paying attention to the poem.

J H Prynne's Word Order.

This is where I try and show how Prynne's formula stated above is a little bit trickier than might first appear. About five years ago, when I was starting to pay attention to his work, I looked at the Word Order sequence because some bits of it seemed reasonably accessible. I came up with an understanding that this was 'about' an adulterous affair and subsequent divorce. I think I was so pleased with this that I wrote about it on bebrowed citing several examples as 'proof'. This is the second poem:

    As you knew why
    you took me for
    just as well you knew

    you I took, as you
    could hardly, with
    me if you offer

    taken for anything
    as I knew, you as   
    can lay on nature

    deceived your friends

This was the most obvious poem for me- 'you took me'. 'you I took' 'lay on nature' and 'deceived your friends' seemed pretty clear that the start of an affair was being described. The other parts that were less clear but seemed to confirm the overall sense. Here's a few:

  • We inserted our names;
  • the forms of marriage;
  • secretly they went about;
  • What do you take / to give me now;
  • For the attraction / take away her long wait;
  • she must pay for;
  • not for nothing / is there a word from her;
  • I heard two lovers / talking and singing;
  • on the paper hoop / as a form goes through.

Inserting the names in the wedding register through various attractions and deceptions to finish with the forms applying for a divorce all seemed reasonably transparent until I read John Wilkinson's much more informed and erudite analysis of the same sequence. He puts forward that Word Order is about state repression, whether by one's own government or a foreign power. He cites different elements but also makes the point that the deceptions, the covert meetings and betrayals are all features of living under such a regime. He also explains that the sequence contains several references to work songs and thus hint at labour camps.

I can't argue with any of this but would nevertheless, because I'm stubborn, put forward that this subsidiary 'meaning' of mine does indeed give the overall meaning something richer in perhaps equating a failed marriage with the breakdown of the relationship between state and citizen.....

To conclude, in paying attention to some poems, readers should be able to tolerate a level of ambiguity where many things are meant rather than just one. To some this may seem yet another piece of obfuscation but it does seem to be a more honest and accurate evocation of the world in which we live.