Andrew Marvell and J.H. Prynne make for an illuminating comparison if you consider both in terms of their approach to ‘poetic ambiguity’. Leonard Bernstein, in his lecture The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, makes much of the role of ambiguity in the history of music and poetry (and by implication the other arts also). He offers two distinct definitions of ambiguity (it being in itself an ambiguous word):
1. Capable of being understood in two possible senses.
2. Doubtful or uncertain.
The first definition is concerned with ideas of dualilty, and shares the prefix derivation with words like ‘ambidextrous’ and ‘ambivalent’. The second is about vagueness and ‘aroundness’, and shares a similar derivation of its prefix ‘ambi’ with words like ‘ambience’ and ‘ambit’. Bernstein goes on to demonstrate that the history of music and poetry in the western world has been about increasing ambiguous procedures, procedures that move from ideas of ‘duality’ in the classical-inspired world of the 17th and 18th centuries, through a sharp increase in the quantity and intensity of ambiguity during the 19th century, leading to an ‘absolute vagueness’ described in the second definition. This latter stage, he asserts, is ‘where the aesthetic delights of ambiguity start turning into dangers.’
Andrew Marvell and Duality
Marvell is one of the greatest examples in literature of ambiguity in the first sense, his work being almost always concerned with dualities. This is a strong element of the so-called ‘metaphysical’ style that Marvell exemplifies. One of the key characteristics of metaphysical poetry is its fondness for ‘conceits’, which Helen Gardner defines very clearly in her introduction to the Penguin poetry collection, The Metaphysical Poets:
A conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness, or, at least, is more immediately striking. All comparisons discover likeness in things unlike: a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.
The example of John Donne’s comparison between the union in absence of two lovers with the two legs of a compass makes the point well – how two people can be both apart and together at the same time. ‘Donne sustains the comparison through the whole process of drawing a circle, because he is attempting to give “proof by analogy” of their union, by which he can finally persuade his mistress not to mourn.’
Marvell creates many more types of ambiguity within his conceits, as William Empson demonstrates in his seminal work Seven Types of Ambiguity. For example, he cites the following passage from On a Drop of Dew to illustrate ambiguities of the second type, which he defines as occurring ‘when two or more meanings are resolved into one':
See how the Orient Dew,
Shed from the bosom of the Morn
Into the blowing Roses
Yet careless of its Mansion new;
For the clear Region where ’twas born
Round in itself encloses:
And in its little Globes Extent,
Frames as it can its native Element.
The comparison of a drop of dew with the human soul is a strong conceit – we shouldn’t expect them to be alike. But besides this, the passage has many syntactical ambiguities, as listed by Empson:
‘Shed’ is active verb in the perfect tense, or past participle; ‘careless’ may or may not understand ‘is'; ‘for’, etc, conveys ‘for the sake of the upper region where it was born, and to keep up its tradition, it encloses round in itself,’ or ‘being careless, because the upper region where it was born is still enclosing it round,’ whether because the drop cannot conceive of being enclosed by anything else, or because its clear region does in fact enclose the whole earth; ‘and’ in the last line but one may be taken as applying either to the subordinate clause or to the complete sentence that follows; and ‘frames’, in the closing line, is the only word that is undoubtedly a main verb following ‘how’.
In analysing Marvell’s poem The First Anniversary of the Government under His Highness the Lord Protector, Annabel Patterson points out how syntactical ambiguities like these can lead to opposing interpretations:
To some it seemed clear that since he [Oliver Cromwell] held all the powers of a king, he might as well accept the crown also, and thereby settle the problem of who would succeed him in conventional dynastic terms. Some modern readers see ‘The First Anniversary’ as an appeal to Cromwell to do just that; and others have argued, conversely, that it casts the Protectorate, with its biblical model of the Old Testament judges behind it, as unequivocally superior to the monarchical model. How can one poem produce two such different understandings? Partly because Marvell’s most direct statement of this problem is lexically and syntactically ambiguous.
Consider the string of paradoxes in this poem, in which Cromwell is portrayed as sacrificing his privacy to the demands of public life:
For all delights of Life thou then didst lose,
When to Command, thou didst thy self Depose;
Resigning up thy Privacy so dear,
To turn the headstrong Peoples Charioteer;
For to be Cromwell was a greater thing,
Then ought below, or yet above a King:
Therefore thou rather didst they Self depress,
Yielding to Rule, because it made thee Less.
Annabel Patterson comments on this:
While a literal understanding of what is neither below or above kingship would seem to be kingship itself, this does not appear to be what Marvell means. Rather, the idea of what it is ‘to be Cromwell’ remains inscrutable, tilted slightly toward the idea of a selfhood for which all political titles are irrelevant.
Marvell does move beyond this dualistic type of ambiguity, towards ‘vagueness’, but it is a mark of his greatness that he avoids the inherent dangers of this type of ambiguity. Empson discusses this aspect of Marvell’s style: ‘I shall now consider a couple of vague conceits by Marvell, which fall below the standard of precision that the metaphysicals set themselves, and try to explain how in effect they are so powerful.’ The lines he comments on are from the elegy Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings:
The gods themselves cannot their joy conceal
But draw their Veils, and their pure Beams reveal:
Only they drooping Hymenus note,
Who for sad Purple, tears his Saffron coat,
And trails his Torches through the Starry Hall
Reversed, at his Darling’s Funeral.
An extreme, a direct, an unambiguous beauty wells up in these lines; the young man has died on the eve of his wedding; night has fallen. But apparently this is conveyed by comparing some funeral custom with something, possibly astronomical, seen in the sky; the mood of comparison is caught before it has worked itself out; instead of the sharp conceit at which Marvell excelled we are given the elements which were to have been fitted together, but flowing out, and associated only loosely into an impression of sorrow; something, perhaps something very apocalyptic and reassuring, seems to have been meant, but we cannot think of it; and a veil of tenderness is cast over the dissatisfaction of the mind.
Patterson uses the example of The Coronet to show how increasing ambiguity does not necessarily lead to a lack of comprehension (bold added):
The Coronet is a very different poem from Bermudas. In place of respectable psalmic echoes, we are given highly ambiguous metaphors which may and probably do mean several things at once; and instead of the directed couplets which kept the Bermudas settlers and their audience moving forward to some goal, The Coronet is woven out of a convoluted syntax which deliberately entangles the reader. Nevertheless, its argument can be followed.
This ‘unique mixture of precision and mystery’ is one of the main reasons that Marvell’s poetry continues to captivate and beguile us today.
J.H. Prynne and Semantic Ambiguity
Prynne’s work is on the other end of the scale in terms of ambiguity; there are phonological, syntactic and semantic ambiguities throughout his work. The poetry of Wound Response (1974), for example, starts from vagueness. Is this a battle scene? Who is wounded? How and why have they got their wounds? Details start to emerge, but it’s as if through a fog or veil that we come to glimpse snatches of meaning. Images of snow and ice recur throughout the poems in the sequence, providing us with a sense of place:
…out in the snow-fields the aimless beasts mean what they do
(Again in the Black Cloud)
Our trust selects the ice cap of the General Stuff
(Treatment in the Field)
The price of famine on the inner side goes down to the spark, with the snow crystals in the blood
(The Blade Given Back).
Other recurring images also present themselves – blood, salt, water, clouds, bio-chemical reactions. But if we look for meaning, I think we are missing the point of Prynne’s work. These poems are concerned most of all with making us feel. The pain of the wound is palpably expressed, often in terms of sound:
We are bleached in sound as it burns by what we desire
(Treatment in the Field)
The stress lines converge in finite resonance: is this the orchestral momentum of the seed coat?
(Treatment in the Field)
So the shirt thickens with salt: breathe against it and hear what you are, “vigorous and moderately upright”, that noise again, “soft juicy flesh”
(Cool as a Mountain Stream)
When the protagonist of An Evening Walk falls in the street, we are given the full force of his disorientation, as everything around him is ‘sprung but torn’, like ligaments and flesh:
there is calamitous groaning
heard on the foreshore
with the water just black above freezing and even
now he falls and
lies in the street why
is he stunned
holding his mouth and
there are pork pies arranged on the counter
in a jellied pyramid. They too foil & pitch
furtively, they are sprung but torn.
In his lecture on ambiguity, Bernstein poses the question, ‘what is gained and what is lost’ by the increase in ambiguity in art through the 19th and 20th centuries.
What is lost is easily told; structural clarity, immediacy of meaning. What is gained? An intense new expressivity, born of sheer sound; rich, complex sound, creating new meanings, sonorous meanings, non-semantic meanings.
Bernstein is talking of the early moderns – TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce. But it can apply, I think, just as well to the late modernism of J.H. Prynne. His poetry comes as close as any poet’s to falling foul of the dangers of ambiguity, of reaching an ‘absolute vagueness’. John Hall says of his most recent work, Blue Slides at Rest:
The continuities of syntax and recognisable genres of discourse are not there. The ambiguity of words is multiplied by the withholding of syntactical and discursive context. What to do with this?
Where Prynne’s poetry does work effectively, however, it does so by offering us powerful new forms of expression.