Ambiguity has been identified as one of the core aspects of poetry by many. Sir William Empson said of it: “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry”. This paper is a contemplation about the extent Empson’s utterance it truthful to. To understand significance of ambiguity it is important to be aware that it is only one of many points that were argued in the transition of literary criticism from simple unsubstantiated judgements to a proper respected discipline. It was Empson and several other philosophers in the first half of the 20th century, including Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, I. A. Richards, or the American New Critics, who helped literary criticism gain a stable position as an academic discipline. Analysis by close reading of texts, according to them, was the ideal way to approach them. That meant separating the poet and their historical, political and social implications from the artistic work itself and focusing on its stylistic devices – theory of deconstruction even goes as far as saying that “one cannot evaluate, criticize or construe a meaning for a text by reference to anything external to it”, meaning that there are, according to Derrida, “endless dialectical interpretations and readings without any stable, essential meaning”. Many of these critical theories, therefore, are to large extent drawn from more or less the same basics; that text is a subject standing on its own, not depending on the author or historical, social or cultural context – in other words, poet’s intended messages conveyed through poetry did not affect reader’s understanding of the poem. Ambiguity was looked at as one of the pillars of poetic experience, embracing the relationship between a text and its reader’s.
Opposed to that presumption stood a large crowd of philosophers celebrating direct communication between author and reader, clear intentions. Marxist critic Georg Lukács claimed that “literature always reflects the kind of system that is gradually unfolding”, highlighting the value of a poem’s content while disregarding the techniques used. Marxism, especially after the Russian Revolution of 1917, became strongly influenced by socialist utilitarianism, praising realism and refusing “insistence upon inessential details, superficiality, empty eloquence”. Simply put, Marxists believed, that art should be useful and utter only practical messages. Reader-Response theory brought yet another point of view into the argument: emphasizing different ways in which a reader participates in the course of reading they placed the reins of understanding text in readers’ hands. Subjective interpretations were not seen as debatable. Main point of focus was fixed on the processes that led to them, inevitably the reader’s background. According to Wolfgang Iser, each text has endless potential meanings, each one realized when read by a specific and unique person.
These ideas are among the ones which gained most attention. Today close reading outbalances other approaches (and it shall be used in this essay), but consideration of more than just one is desirable when looking at the importance of ambiguity in poetry, and so are opinions of the laic reader (which were quite overlooked in the development of above ideas). Ambiguity has in fact many functions: it can be built into a poem to make the reading experience more subjective and personal as each reader gets to pick their own interpretation or can enjoy their multiplicity. The following paragraphs think about significance of ambiguity both academically and non-academically and demonstrate usefulness of ambiguity on specific poems and song lyrics.
According to Empson, understanding of language “is based […] upon an intuitive realization that any word brings with it a body of meanings”. A poem may contain multiple meanings which are connected: in his sonnet ‘The Windhover’, Gerard Mantley Hopkins uses great words to describe a winged predator amidst hunting. The reader is presented with a dynamic language and lines full of great words: “High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing; In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,… My heart in hiding; Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”.
The speaker is surely stunned, using sublime terms for it such as “dauphin” or “chevalier”. This can be explained simply as an expression of admiration on the bird’s grace, however, the poems sub-title “To Christ Our Lord” which is in a way a part of the poem – in the sense that it belongs to it – gives it some clarification – not that it was necessary, though. The religious aspect of ‘The Windhover’ could possibly be deciphered even without Hopkins’ dedication of it to Jesus, considering his life-time association with the church, but the “royal” ways in which he talks about the bird – “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin” – could also be pointing at Jesus’ royal heritage, raising the question whether Hopkins’ windhover is in fact an embodiment of the son of God himself. “Buckle!” exclaims the speaker in line 10, unclear if it is meant to be an indicative or imperative, who they are talking to exactly – the reader, Jesus (to whom the poem is dedicated) or themselves, or even in what sense they should “buckle” (to prepare for some sort of action or bend down to avoid the bird approaching them). On one hand, Hopkins’ speaker is just a passive observer of the nature’s beauty represented by the bird, on the other it is an emotional confession of their devotion to Christ. It could be argued that both interpretations join in one; a tribute to God, from whom come both the nature and Christ’s greatness.
A. S. A. Ibrahim argues value of ambiguity by saying that “ambiguity in a poem makes the reader try to search for or unfold what possibilities [they] can think of in relation to the thing described or referred to, as the reader is not satisfied with what [they] read, trying to find relationships and associations among things” – in other words, poets leave readers wondering what the “real” meaning actually is, making them engage with the text.
William Blake is famous for working with language in that way; thus creating a certain depth, layers in the overall meaning. Korg says about him: “Blake’s reader cannot accept passively what Blake writes, as [they] cannot understand it. [They] must dig, participate actively…”. In ‘A Poison Tree’ the language Blake uses is clear enough for a reader not seeking depth to enjoy the poem yet hiding a wider selection of meanings. The reader is told about a man (the speaker) with an enemy who is later poisoned by an apple, stolen at night from the speaker’s tree, and died – at least that is what the words say. The speaker did not express their feelings and let them grow and storm inside his head, until they overpoured. However, it is not quite clear how the story came to its end. Blake ends the poem with the following lines: “In the morning glad I see/My foe outstretched beneath the tree” hinting that the foe’s death could have been the speaker’s fault since they are “glad” about it. It is even possible that the foe is not dead, but the poem has much more potential than that: the word ‘tree” is only used in the title but it is not explicitly mentioned in any sentence in the text, which might also mean that the tree is just a metaphor for the speaker’s wrath which they “waterd in fears and tears” and “sunned with smiles and soft deceitful wiles” and the apple it bore is the outcome of these unspoken feelings, the final trap to rid of the foe once and for all. Blake makes the reader search for the meaning yet does not reward them with any finite interpretation that would feel like the “truth”.
According to David G. Brooks, “we cannot speak of an end to ambiguity” as it is dependent on readers’ understanding of the “true” meaning, which is constantly prone to change and therefore the search for the “true” meaning can never end. That is perhaps the best way to approach Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, a poem from ’Through the Looking-Glass’. Carroll’s intention was entertainment; the book was written for kids, hence the playful and funny language. Most made-up words are explained in the book, although Carroll’s definitions often vary. Alice’s reaction to the story (which was first presented to her as a prophecy) – “somebody killed something’ – is about all that is obvious from the poem at first glance. Despite the referential ambiguity present in ‘Jabberwocky’, Carroll still sticks to English Grammar and syntax, keeping the poem organized and decodable. The story is almost based on a “template” – a hero slays the dragon and saves the day. This concept, which is, safe to assume, known to every reader, together with syntactic and grammatic rules kept in order, navigate the reader through the poem and allow them to understand, that “someone” (the hero aka Alice) killed “something” (the monster or dragon aka Jabberwock). It is hopefully not too presumptuous to call it a heroic ballad made funnier and less boring for younger readers, maybe even a parody of it.