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The World of Milton Scholarship

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

How Milton Works. By Stanley Fish. Harvard University Press. $35. The Life of John Milton. By Barbara K. Lewalski. Blackwell.$39.95

Forty years ago a volume of essays on Milton’s poetry by a number of well-known academic critics bore the title The Living Milton. Is Milton the poet still alive among us today? In answer, it may be doubted whether his work is either much known or loved nowadays, even by readers who care for poetry. Although Paradise Lost, one of the classics of world literature, was once familiar to generations of English-speaking people, the religious subjects of Milton’s greatest works and the erudition in many of his poems have made them seem remote and even inaccessible to many at a time when a basic knowledge of the Bible and classical myth have been disappearing as a part of education and the common culture. If Milton still survives, it is almost entirely in the universities, where he continues to be taught in English courses, though probably less so than in the past, and where his work is the subject of a very large amount of academic scholarship. Much of the latter however, is too tendentious, too little concerned with the poetry as such and too attentive to political agendas and issues of race, class, and gender in its approach to literature, to communicate either to students or a wider audience a sensitive understanding of the qualities that make for the enduring greatness to be found in Milton the poet. Two contrasting conceptions are prominent in current Milton scholarship. One is that of Milton the political man, the engaged humanist, artist, and republican intellectual whose allegiances are mirrored in his poetry and who devoted his pen in the 1640’s and ‘50’s to the publication of prose works in support of the revolution against the Stuart monarchy, the justification of regicide, and the defense of the English republic and the government of Oliver Cromwell. The other is that of Milton the Christian thinker, utterly ruled by the religious conviction that nothing has any value but faith in God and obedience to His will.

The principal expositor of the second conception is Stanley Fish, whose recent book, How Milton Works, is a summing up of his view of Milton. Fish enjoys high standing in the academy as a literary scholar, theorist, and critic who is also known more widely as an opponent of liberalism and a participant in the culture wars. Since many Miltonists consider him the foremost contemporary student of Milton, his book provides a useful perspective on the present state of Milton studies. Of its 15 essays, 10 have been previously published, the earliest dating from 1969; the other five plus the introduction and epilogue are new. Written primarily for other Milton specialists, it is unlikely to have much interest for the general reader seeking an understanding of Milton’s distinctiveness and achievement as a poet. Whether in dealing with his poetry or prose, its primary aim is to elicit Milton’s religious philosophy and its various manifestations throughout his work.

Fish is first and foremost a forensic critic, a resourceful dialectician and mixture of a brilliant prosecuting attorney relentlessly arguing a case, a clever high school debater endlessly trying to gain points, and at times a village explainer, good if you are a village but if not, not, as Gertrude Stein once said of Ezra Pound. With unflagging energy he expounds and reiterates the thesis that Milton’s mind and art were controlled by one thought. This is that the sole necessary thing for man is to obey God’s will and judgment, although religious persons can never be sure they know them, and that any human desires or action not in conformity with God’s will are worthless or a temptation to be resisted. Milton, Fish claims, always starts from belief and invariably gives priority to the human agent’s interior state in judging whether people, acts, and attitudes are good or bad, while at the same time recognizing that nobody can be certain whether this interior state is truly one of obedience to God. Evidence, moreover, counts for nothing with Milton; rather than confirming or disconfirming belief, it is determined by and a function of belief. Fish tries to turn Milton into an anti-liberal skeptic. As he explains in his epilogue, his own work has been a sustained critique of liberalism, and he accuses liberals of delusorily supposing that they can be impartial in justifying their position. He lists all the mistakes of liberals from which Milton is free, including their opposition to prejudice and their belief in rationality and persuasion. The poet in his view is someone obsessively proceeding from inner belief outward, without ever finding independent evidence or confirmation in external events for truth, lightness, or values.

Quite aside from whether Fish understands liberalism or criticizes it fairly, his image of how Milton works seems to reflect a critical monomania. The Milton it presents is static, a man without difference or change. It has no room for the young artist who spoke of his love and pursuit of the idea of beauty in every shape and form, the passionate and committed political activist and rebel, the polemical publicist who believed in free discussion as a help to attaining truth, the extreme religious individualist and enemy of orthodoxy who embraced notorious heresies. Although it takes note of Milton’s belief in Christian liberty, it forgets that he often invoked this principle to justify the right of divorce and religious freedom. It surely projects Fish’s own skepticism and relativism onto the poet, and its depiction of how Milton works is strikingly devoid of essential historical context.

Fish makes many questionable statements about Milton’s ideas, and despite his great reputation as a close reader, his readings of Milton are too often debatable and bent to his thesis. Many of those who know and appreciate the poet will disagree with the interpretations he proffers of some of the earlier poems and of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, which he likewise discusses. He quotes, for example, a passage in Comus in which the virtuous Lady, refusing the evil Comus’s offer of a drink, replies,

Were it a draught for Juno, when she banquets,
I would not taste thy treasonous offer; none
But such as are good men can give good things.

According to Fish’s reading, this tells us that an object is good not because of its properties but because of the intention with which it is offered, and hence that you can’t read the world from its surface features in order to devise the proper way of proceeding but must already be in the proper way of proceeding to read the world. All this is twaddle that obscures the Lady’s meaning, which is merely that even if the drink were good and fit for Juno, she will not accept anything from a bad man, as she knows Comus to be. It recalls Ophelia’s statement to Hamlet when she returns his gifts: “for to the noble mind/Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”


Arguing that Milton rejects action as a temptation, Fish analyses At A Solemn Music to show that it goes nowhere and is a request for action in which nothing happens. Here is the beginning of this splendid poem:

Blest pair of sirens, pledges of heav’ns joy,
Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreath’d sense able to pierce. . . .

Throughout its 28 lines it makes no call for any sort of action. What it relates, rather, is the rapt experience of listening to sacred music, the celestial images the singers and their harmonies convey, and the hope the music arouses that the speaker and others on earth may be restored to a sinless state, united with God “to live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.”


From book one of Paradise Lost, Fish discusses a passage in which Satan addresses the other fallen angels and “with high words, that bore/Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d/Thir fainting courage.” He then observes that “rais’d,” the key word in this passage, has the same sound as “razed,” and that Milton used it as a pun to point to this opposite meaning of to destroy or make into nothing. It is hard to see, though, any basis for this assumption, and all we need do is to think of the alternate phrase “gently raz’d” to see how improbable it is.

Discussing the great elegy Lycidas, Fish first quotes its poignant opening nine lines,

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:

and then comments on them as follows:

The speaker simply bursts in and starts talking without so much as a by-your-leave. To be sure, he does acknowledge the breach of decorum—I’m “crude,” I’m “rude,” I’m speaking before my turn and without regard for your timetable. I’m shattering your leaves before the mellowing year—but the apology is also a boast: I can be crude, I can be out of sync with your rules and conventions. . . . I can clear you away, disperse your leaves, and bring my own to the fore. It’s payback time; you’ve disturbed my season— I’m going to disturb yours. So there!”

This summary is embarrassingly wrong in its tone. Moreover, it is not correct: the grieving speaker surely doesn’t burst in as if he were an ill mannered interloper; it’s not he but the berries that are crude; and it’s his fingers that are rude, not the speaker himself, because mourning for Lycidas’s premature death has forced them to shatter the leaves too early.


Fish’s treatment of Areopagitica, Milton’s most famous prose writing, presents a striking example of misreading. Published in 1644 during the civil war against Charles I and amidst the heated public controversy over religious toleration, its purpose was to persuade the English parliament to repeal an ordinance requiring all books to be approved and licensed by a censor prior to publication. Areopagitica is an acute critique of the principle of press censorship, a defense of individual judgment and freedom of discussion, and a strong argument in favor of religious toleration and liberty for Protestant sects and independent churches. In his nit-picking chapter on the work, Fish says virtually nothing about its relation to the toleration controversy. What he first stresses, as other deflationary commentators have done, is that it was not a classical liberal plea for complete liberty, since it was against toleration of Catholics and certain others. This fact will be no news, however, to anyone who has actually read Milton’s tract. Such a person will also know the reasons Milton gave for not tolerating Catholicism, and will know as well that he also set certain definite limits to freedom of literary expression. If books were found to do harm, he was willing to have them suppressed after publication, though warning that this should be done only with great caution. But Fish then attempts to show that Milton was not really against book licensing, not genuinely interested in press freedom, and not truly reverential toward books in spite of his words, “as good almost kill a man as a good book.” These claims of course are without substance, an interpretive travesty that defies both the meaning and entire spirit of the work. Areopagitica is extraordinarily rich in both its language and ideas, covering quite a few topics and radiating a belief in the value of dissent and pluralism in the quest for truth. While it addressed the problems of Milton’s age, not our own, the widespread notion that it was a major defense of intellectual independence and freedom of expression is not mistaken, and for this reason it will always have some contemporary relevance.

In contrast to Fish’s picture of Milton as an artist-thinker endlessly working out one thought, Barbara K. Lewalski offers a biography of Milton in all his life’s vicissitudes, a heavy-weight account of 777 pages that includes discussions of all of his poetry and prose. Lewalski is herself a leading Miltonist who has written extensively about the poems and 17th-century literature. In the past decades there have been other short and long biographies of Milton. The 1968 two-volume Milton: A Biographical Commentary by W.R. Parker, reissued in a revised edition in 1996, is in some ways a definitive modern life. Various additions to knowledge, however, plus changes in Milton scholarship and new trends in English literary studies since the 1960’s, have inevitably given rise to further accounts of Milton’s life in relation to his times.

Milton was the first great English poet to impart to his readers a good deal of personal information about himself, his intellectual development, and his aspirations. From his early youth he harbored the conviction that God had chosen him to be a great poet and teacher of nations, a consciousness he carried with him all of his life. Lewalski has drawn heavily on these revealing narratives of himself in some of his prose works, from which she often quotes and which leave no doubt of his enormous self-regard. Her book relates the story of his life in great detail based on a full knowledge of the documentary record and the relevant modern research. How far she differs from Fish may be gathered from her preface, which praises Milton “for his readiness to judge received doctrine by the standards of reason, charity, human experience, and human good; for his far-reaching—even though not total—commitment to intellectual freedom and toleration . . .for his insistence on free will as the ground of human dignity; for his delight in natural beauty and exuberant creativity . . .” The poems and prose are dealt with in their chronological order and context. Their form, content, and character are described, summarized, and discussed. These comments are very well informed and helpful, needless to say, but are also somewhat cursory and yield no great insights.

Like any real artist, Milton the poet is not easy to penetrate. Although Lewalski does her best to do so, the person foregrounded in her biography is the one on whom most recent scholarship has centered. This is the political, the revolutionary, and particularly the republican Milton, whose activities she follows closely. She considers him a “reformist” from early on, hence claims questionably, for example, that his masque Comus was intended as a “reformist” work. In company with other recent scholars she antedates his republicanism by some years. In connection with the latter, she also takes over the view, a pure speculation, that he chose to divide the first edition of Paradise Lost (1667) into 10 books instead of 12, as he did in the second edition (1674), because of explicit association with the Roman poet Lucan’s ten-book epic Pharsalia on Rome’s loss of republican liberty. Like other feminist scholars, she is preoccupied with Milton’s attitudes on gender. Although she clears him of the charge of misogyny, she frequently alludes to his paternalistic view of women and laments his failures in regard to gender equality. It is tiresome, though, to have this theme reiterated, for while Milton’s opinions on women were complex and included a very high ideal of the companionate relationship between the two sexes in marriage, he was like nearly everyone of his time in thinking that God made men superior to women and that they should rule the household.

Many people have disliked Milton because of his religion, his politics, his inconsiderate treatment of his first wife, who left him, his meanness toward his daughters, and his frequent coarseness and bad manners in controversy. Although he went through great changes of opinion on important subjects, he never acknowledged doing so or admitted to being wrong. No artist ever had higher ambition, which he actually realized in his epic poetry, or a more exalted conception of himself and his role. Lacking either knowledge or experience of politics when he first began to write on public issues in 1641, he naturally made some mistakes and had to revise his views. During the early stages of the English revolution he was carried away by his idealistic hopes in the English people, only to become bitterly disillusioned before long and decide that most of them did not deserve freedom. He possessed an astonishingly strong personality whose self-belief neither reverses, afflictions like his blindness, nor political defeat could undermine. Always and essentially a moralist, virtue was the one quality he sought and demanded in other people. Lewalski, who likes and admires Milton, refrains from any criticism of him, but she gives her readers all the facts with which to form their own judgments. She has produced an outstanding biography, one that is reliable and readable. It is equally good on Milton’s private life, his public career, his political, religious, and theological beliefs, and the literary creations that made him a great poet. It will be valuable not only to Milton specialists and students of English literature but to anyone who wants to learn about Milton’s life and work.


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