How Milton Works by Stanley Fish was a much-anticipated academic event. A distinguished scholar of seventeenth-century literature and a controversial literary theorist, Fish is now a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Surprised by Sin, his first book on Milton, published in 1967, is widely and justifiably regarded as one of the most influential studies of Paradise Lost to appear in the last century. The recent How Milton Works is really a collection of separate essays, written at different times, and aimed at different audiences, during Fish’s long and contentious career. Even though ten of fifteen chapters were published previously, some more than thirty years ago, Fish has written five new chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. There is more than enough fresh material here (over 250 pages out of a total of 616) to suggest development of Fish’s views on Milton.
Fish’s place in Milton criticism needs some explanation. Milton’s declared aim in Paradise Lost is to “justify the ways of God to men.” He tries to do this by recounting the story of the Fall of Man. Paradise Lost begins with Satan’s expulsion from Heaven and confinement in Hell after his failed rebellion against God. The poem continues with the creation of the universe, the earth, Paradise in the Garden of Eden, and man. Satan and all those damned with him “insatiate to pursue/Vain war with Heav’n,” bend all their thoughts to “some new race called Man,” and determine to drive the “puny habitants” from Paradise or “seduce them to our party, that their God/May prove their foe.” Satan’s “subtlety” succeeds in tempting Adam and Eve and bringing on their Fall, and Paradise Lost ends with their departure from Eden as sinful, disobedient mortals. Milton’s evident aim is to justify God’s treatment of these rebels and show that his punishment of disobedience and demands for obedience are, in fact, just.
Before Surprised by Sin appeared in 1967 Milton’s admirers were divided into roughly two camps. One tradition, running from Addison to C.S. Lewis, held that Paradise Lost is a great poem because its justification of God is largely successful. A rival tradition, running from William Blake to William Empson, held that the poem is great because it expresses unconscious hostility toward God. Blake famously wrote that Milton was “a true poet & of the Devils party without knowing it.” Many have dismissed this comment as incorrigibly eccentric, but Blake and his successors enjoy one advantage over their critical adversaries. They can point for support to Milton’s political career.
Milton, like Satan, was a rebel in a civil war. His professed loyalties in Paradise Lost are with “Heav’n’s awful Monarch,” but in his own life he was a bitter foe of absolute monarchy. Before the revolutionary decade of the 1640s, however, Milton had showed little interest in radical politics. In fact, he had enjoyed the full privileges afforded him as the son …