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 of a prosperous seventeenth-century moneylender: he spent seven years at Cambridge, followed by several additional years of private study, before embarking on a grand tour of Europe. There is little in Milton’s biography before 1642 to prepare us for his revolutionary opinions. Nonetheless, he quickly gained notoriety in England and abroad as a propagandist for Parliament, a strong advocate of republicanism and popular sovereignty, and a fervent admirer of Oliver Cromwell (though he may have eventually become disillusioned with the Protectorate).
The beheading of the Stuart King Charles I on January 30, 1649, shocked all Europe, but Milton staunchly defended Parliament’s right to execute the King and chided those MPs who had opposed it. Milton’s pamphlet The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates appeared just two weeks after Charles’s death. The Tenure argues that kings do not rule by di-vine right, but are accountable to their subjects, who enjoy a natural liberty to depose tyrants. It was probably this publication that most impressed Cromwell and Parliament and won him appointment as secretary for foreign tongues by the Council of State. In that capacity Milton spent the next eleven years defending the Commonwealth and Protectorate in several more pamphlets, both English and Latin. He believed that it was the writing of these pamphlets by candlelight that caused him to become totally blind by early 1652.
Milton was certainly willing to take enormous risks and to make personal sacrifices. On the very eve of the Restoration of Charles II and the rule of monarchy in 1660 he jeopardized his life (and his still unfinished epic) by publishing The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. In August of the same year all of Milton’s books were publicly burned by the hangman, and he was later briefly imprisoned. Milton had postponed writing Paradise Lost, and indeed wrote very little poetry at all during this period, in order to fulfill what he felt to be his more immediately pressing political obligations to Parliament and to write his pamphlets in defense of its causes. John Milton was nothing if not politically committed.
Why then did he choose a poetic subject that seems to concede everything to the Royalist cause? C.S. Lewis, writing in 1942, argued that the problem disappears when we consider one simple truth: Charles Stuart is not God. Milton’s entire case against the divine right of kings is that divine right arrogates a dominion that belongs to God alone. Earthly kings like Charles Stuart merely play at being God; God does not play at being himself. It follows that what would be tyranny in Charles Stuart is perfect justice in God. Lewis’s argument works in theory, but many readers of Paradise Lost still find Satan’s rhetoric of rebellion to be seductive in practice. Satan wins over a third of the angels in Heaven, and he has won over countless readers and critics. Urging the angels to revolt, Satan (like Milton in his prose) raises the time-honored cry of liberty:
Will ye submit your necks, and choose to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know yourselves
Natives and sons of Heav’n possessed before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Being a rebel himself, how could Milton not thrill to Satan’s stirring eloquence?
The debate is not limited to questions of politics; it extends equally to religion. Milton goes out of his way to emphasize the most troubling aspects of Christianity. He shrinks from nothing. Because two people ate an apple in Mesopotamia, they and all their descendants are doomed to misery and death. True, God is merciful; he gives mankind a second chance. But he will do so only after he has found “satisfaction” in the death (by torture) of his own son. Even after Christ’s sacrifice—His Incarnation and Redemption—most people will be tortured for all eternity in Hell. Both Christians and non-Christians have been troubled by the emphasis Milton places on these doctrines.
The Anglo-Catholic T.S. Eliot wished that Milton had left well enough alone. “So far as I perceive anything,” Eliot wrote in 1935, “it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology that would have been better left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved.” Eliot’s target is Milton, not Christianity, but his comment might be taken as tacitly acknowledging that Christianity might have its own room for improvement. Where Eliot was evasive, the atheist William Empson was brusque and to the point. Milton’s God, Empson insisted in 1961, is a fair and accurate portrait of the arid, legalistic tyrant actually worshiped by Christians for centuries. Milton makes God wicked for the good reason that God is wicked. “The Christian God the Father, the God of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas, is the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man.” “The reason why the poem is so good,” Empson drily concludes, “is that it makes God so bad.”
Lewis and Empson are usually seen as mighty opposites in the debate about Milton’s God, and in many ways that is what they are. Empson argues that God contrives the Fall so that he can have the pleasure of punishing the sinners who brought it about. Lewis, like God in Paradise Lost, argues that Adam and Eve have only themselves to blame. “The Fall,” Lewis writes, “results from Pride—from being too big for your boots.” It might appear that there could never be any common ground between these views, but Lewis and Empson agree about one fundamental. Both think that Milton’s God is recognizably God. Lewis wrote: “Many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God.” Empson applauds Lewis’s comment since for him, Paradise Lost is great because it compels us to “dislike God.”
The debate was at an impasse when Fish entered it in 1967. Fish’s contribution, simple but effective, was to shift the site of conflict from Milton to the reader. For Fish, it is the reader, not Milton, who is “of the Devils party without knowing it.” Milton’s aim, Fish claims, is to make the reader recognize his own sinfulness. He does this by deliberately tempting us to dislike God. Milton, in imitation of God, sets traps for us. He gives in order to take back. One of the things that Fish’s Milton gives and takes back is a conventional epic centered on the heroic virtue of military courage. Paradise Lost opens in Hell shortly after Satan’s fall from Heaven. In the first two books we see Satan rally his defeated army from the brink of despair, then embark on a heroic journey through outer space in search of our newly created universe. Having first lured us to see Satan as hero, Milton then takes this interpretation back in Book Three when the Son of God displays a higher kind of heroism by offering to die for man. At this point, the reader who has surrendered to Satan’s charm is both humbled and educated. Fish’s Satan is a hero, but he is the hero of a poem that Paradise Lost turns out not to be.
Surprised by Sin was immediately acclaimed for having healed a deep division in Milton studies. Critics praised Fish for allowing both sides in the debate to be partly right. Fish, unlike Lewis, did not just dismiss the Devil’s party critics as wrongheaded. He saw their response as a necessary part of the poem’s meaning. As fallen readers, we inevitably read the poem as Blake and Empson did (we are lying if we deny it), but Milton does not want us to rest content with our diabolic loyalties. Milton subjects us to a “good temptation” in the hope that we will learn from it. So long as our rebellious impulses are the first step toward repentance, rebelliousness can have a piety all its own.