Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish; drawing by David Levine

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,

Equally 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.

Surprised by Sin was enormously influential for about twenty years, but then a reaction began to set in. Several critics, notably the American scholars William Kerrigan and John Rumrich, expressed dissatisfaction with Fish’s argument.1 They felt that his compromise was more apparent than real. Fish claims to strike a balance between God and the Devil’s party, but according to his critics he really tips the scales in favor of God. When dissent turns out to be just another expression of piety, there cannot be genuine dissent. Fish, it was argued by Kerrigan and Rumrich, was even more conservative than Lewis. Lewis at least acknowledged that strong dissent of the kind Satan expressed was possible. He felt the need to persuade his readers that Milton’s God is good. Surprised by Sin leaves little room for persuasion. Fish’s Milton preempts the reader’s every move and so makes real opposition impossible. This is a telling criticism, and it poses a serious challenge for Fish’s new book.

Fish accepts the challenge in his introduction to How Milton Works. He promises to argue that Milton is both “an absolutist poet,” loyal to God, and “a more tentative, provisional poet alert to the ambiguities and dilemmas of the moral life.” This is recognizably the thesis of Surprised by Sin, but Fish now extends it beyond Paradise Lost to cover the whole range of Milton’s works, both poems and prose, English and Latin. He contends that Milton’s works draw their “energy” from the “always doomed attempts” of various would-be rebels (Satan, Adam, Eve, Comus, Dalila, others) “to match or overgo or evade God.” Milton “gives these attempts full reign [sic],” allowing them “to capture the eye and ear,” before reaffirming “the Truth they must contrive to forget or miss—that God is God.”

Much will depend on how much “reign” Fish gives to dissenting wills and energies in Milton’s works. The complaint of recent critics is that he gives very little. Sensitive to this criticism, Fish now makes one significant concession that he never made in Surprised by Sin. His list of rebels (he calls them “centrifugal forces”) now includes not only the usual suspects, but also “sometimes, Milton.” If Fish really meant this, it would be a significant concession indeed.

But Fish never seriously pursues this line of argument. With the exception of one chapter, on Milton’s Muse, How Milton Works puts forward a Milton who is more dogmatic, more stonily uncompromising, than ever before. Fish in his introduction promises to talk of “the ambiguities and dilemmas of the moral life,” but he reneges on this promise in his very first chapter when he cheerfully declares: “In Milton’s world…there are no moral ambiguities.” So much for “the Devils party.” Fish even denies the possibility of dialogue between those who have faith and those who do not. His central claim is that Milton “works from the inside out.” By this he means that Milton’s mind is closed to any external evidence that might call faith into question. Faith determines perception; perception does not influence faith. Those who have absolute values simply see a different world from those who don’t. As Fish assertively puts it: “What you believe is what you see is what you are is what you do.”

There is nothing new about the idea that belief determines perception. But Fish pushes the idea to extremes. In Surprised by Sin he at least allowed Satan to be attractive. In How Milton Works he tries to argue Satan’s seductiveness out of existence. His chief instrument for doing this is a bizarre close reading that claims to find hidden meanings. This is surprising because close reading has been for decades Fish’s widely acknowledged specialty. In most of the book’s close readings Fish argues that Milton’s words can be read as puns. Once we appreciate these puns, Fish believes, we will see that they undermine many of Satan’s apparently strong statements, for example, by suggesting that his words can have a different meaning. This sounds promising. Surprised by Sin was wonderfully attentive to Milton’s wordplay. But Fish’s new book does not repeat his old triumphs. Most of Fish’s claims about Milton’s alleged puns (especially in his most recent chapters) are unconvincing and some just plain preposterous.

Fish builds an entire chapter, “Gently Raised,” around a supposed pun in the following description of Satan addressing his troops:

  …he his wonted pride

Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore

Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d

Thir fainting courage.

Fish thinks that “rais’d” is a pun on “razed”: “that is, destroyed, made into nothing—which is itself closely allied to ‘ras’d,’ as in ‘erased’ or wiped clear of marks.” It is not inconceivable that Milton would make a pun on “rais’d” and “razed,” but the case for a pun in this instance will depend on the context. The lines come early in the poem, soon after Satan and his angels have awakened in Hell. Having fallen from Heaven for nine days, the defeated rebel host has just spent an additional nine days “grovelling and prostrate” on a lake of fire. Their morale, after this ordeal, is precarious and could collapse at any moment. Fish claims that Satan’s speech has the effect of eradicating what little courage his troops have left. But the claim is false. Satan’s army does not disintegrate; it rallies. Within moments of hearing their general’s “high words,” “the universal host upsent/A shout that tore Hell’s concave, and beyond/Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night.” Milton in his own voice then likens the marching angels to fearless Spartans. Fish simply ignores this.

Fish’s insistence on a pun is a cheap attempt to rob Satan of his charisma, a quality that Satan, whatever his other faults, undoubtedly has. Even if we, like Fish, ignore the dramatic context, the pun encounters an immediate obstacle in “gently,” which works with “rais’d” but not with “razed” (or “rased”). Fish tries to overcome this obstacle with the following peculiar logic: “It becomes difficult to tell even what ‘gently’ means here, or if it means anything; the one thing it cannot mean is gently.” Such reasoning is both troubling and typical. Fish’s pun, by Fish’s own admission, makes nonsense of the words around it. From this, one could conclude that the pun itself is therefore nonsense. But Fish writes that Milton’s words “cannot mean” what they say; instead they must mean what Fish wants them to mean, even though the price of his lexical wrenching is that some words mean nothing at all.

This example highlights a major problem with How Milton Works. Fish claims some words are puns in order to bend Milton’s texts to his own thesis. The puns are not just an embel-lishment of his argument. They are integral to it. Several chapter headings and subheadings (“Unsightly,” “Becoming Parchment,” “Not Uninvented,” “Gently Raised”) take their names from supposed puns. “The wordplay,” Fish writes, “is more than just that: it compels us to acts of cognitive reflection on crucial moral and philosophical issues.” As Fish sees it, Milton’s puns, uncovered only after many verbal contortions, are part of a subtle code: they are Milton’s way of debunking false heroism. The poems may, on the surface, seem to be troubled by a division of loyalties, but when we read Paradise Lost with an awareness of this code, hidden puns rescue the works for God and the moral law.

The problem is that this method is too convenient. Whenever a difficulty arises in Milton’s texts, Fish trumps it by claiming to find not very credible puns. He describes his method like this: “If you lean on words…they will display a double meaning.” But words, like any witnesses, are liable to offer false testimony if they are leaned on too heavily. Fish offers a method of reading that can be counted on to deliver every time. The danger of such a method is that it will deliver cheap prizes. For example, Fish lists numerous occurrences of “rais’d” and writes as if each and every one were pregnant with a pun.

This is a dangerous game for a critic, both because it does a disservice to the texts and because two can play at it. If Fish can “lean on words,” so can advocates of the Devil’s party. Not every potential pun is tributary to God’s glory. Consider the following example, ignored by Fish. Toward the end of Paradise Lost fallen Adam has a vision of Noah’s flood. At first Adam is distraught to see so many of his children perish, but Noah’s survival raises his hopes and he bursts out with sudden hope: “I rejoice/For one Man found so perfet and so just,/That God vouchsafes to raise another world.” Employing Fish’s method, a Devil’s party critic might detect a bitterly ironic pun in “raise.” I do not think that the pun is there, but one could make a plausible case for it—and it would be a better case than Fish makes for “gently rais’d.” God, after all, does mean to raze the world he raises from Noah’s flood. He means to destroy it by fire at the Last Judgment. Adam does not yet know this, but we do, and our knowledge imparts a certain incongruity to “vouchsafes.” What kind of God, Empson might ask, would vouch for the safety of a world he raises to raze? My point here is not that “vouchsafes to raise” is an unconscious impugning of God, but that ingenious puns are often a two-edged sword.

For the most part, How Milton Works is hostile to the view advanced so strongly by Empson that Milton is unconsciously hostile to God. But in Chapter 8, “With Mortal Voice: Milton Defends against the Muse,” Fish unexpectedly revises his position. Here he argues that Milton does indeed resent God, since God poses that “primary threat, the threat of castration by the father.” As Fish sees it, Milton is torn between two irreconcilable desires: one part of him yearns to be absorbed in the heavenly choir, while another part of him dreads the loss of individuality such absorption entails.

Fish’s suggestion is not implausible. Milton is an egotistical poet. (It was he who coined the term “self-esteem.”) A poet who yearns to stand out from the crowd might very well be reluctant to mix with an anonymous throng, even a heavenly one. Fish thinks that Milton’s fear for his individuality comes to a crisis when he invokes his Muse at the beginning of Book Seven of Paradise Lost. Milton ostensibly implores the Muse’s aid, but he also holds her at arm’s length when he says: “Not rapt above the Pole [i.e., not transported beyond the created universe to God’s heaven],/More safe I sing with mortal voice.” From this Fish infers that Milton perceives Heaven as a threat. Fish discerns a specifically sexual fear in “rapt”: “To be ‘rapt’ is to be taken out of oneself, to be carried away by force, to be ravished, to be raped; and this last is what Milton fears.”

This is an intriguing line of argument and some kind of play on “rapt” is plausible. (“Rape” and “rapture” are etymologically connected.) But Fish coarsens his argument when he credits Milton with another, much feebler, pun. Addressing the Muse, Milton says: “Up led by thee/Into the Heav’n of Heav’ns I have presum’d.” Fish thinks that “Up led by thee” is “an accusation” that punningly recalls the typically male complaint “You’ve led me on.” But it is doubtful that the colloquialism “leading him on” existed in Milton’s time, and Fish provides no evidence suggesting that it did. In any case, leading on has a very different meaning from leading up. Most importantly, the pun runs contrary to Fish’s case. Fish’s principal point is that Milton does not want to be absorbed by his sexually aggressive Muse. “You’ve led me on” voices exactly the opposite complaint. When a man chides a woman for leading him on, he means that he once hoped for some rapturous absorption and feels cheated because he isn’t getting any.

Undeterred by these weaknesses in his argument, Fish goes on to equate Milton’s supposed pun “You’ve led me on” with “castration anxiety.” Here Fish may be on surer ground, for castration is not irrelevant to Milton’s invocation of the Muse at the beginning of Book Seven. As Fish perceptively notes, that invocation begins with a prayer for divine aid, but ends with a description of Orpheus’ dismemberment by the Maenads, the female worshipers of Bacchus:

But drive far off the barbarous dissonance

Of Bacchus and his revellers, the race

Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard

In Rhodope, where woods and rocks had ears

To rapture, till the savage clamour drowned

Both harp and voice; nor could the Muse defend

Her son.

The Maenads tore Orpheus to pieces because he had rejected their love. Most critics take Milton at his word when he claims to see “that wild rout” as a destructive force hostile to “the Muse.” But Fish discards this and confidently states that the Muse and the Maenads are just different aspects of the same threat. Milton “transfers his hostility” from one—the Muse who allegedly led him on—to the other because he cannot admit, even to himself, that it is the Muse that he really fears. Ultimately, the deepest threat is God, who would castrate Milton by absorbing him. Fish writes: “The fact that it is female figures who are foregrounded in these lines only attests to the depth and extent of Milton’s anxieties; better to shift everything onto the traditional repository of male fears rather than confront the truth.”

Some readers might find this part of Fish’s argument far-fetched, and indeed it is—but not because Milton is unconcerned with castration. My objection to this part of Fish’s argument is that it underestimates Milton’s “castration anxiety.” Fish omits one small but telling detail. He never mentions the fact that Milton in 1660 faced the real and imminent threat of literal castration. As a defender of regicide Milton was in peril of being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Victims of this appalling punishment would have their genitals cut off as a prelude to disembowelment and decapitation. The American scholar Michael Lieb has recently argued that Milton’s Orpheus simile is a covert allusion to the punishment that Milton feared (and some regicides suffered).2 Historical context rarely offers itself so generously to literary critics. One might have expected Fish to be more responsive to it; but in this case he needs to ignore the context. Real castration is so terrifying as to make Fish’s merely metaphorical “castration anxiety” look trivial. Fish spurns the Muse of History because she would absorb his argument.

How Milton Works is routinely indifferent to history and politics. I do not entirely blame Fish for this. Milton criticism has suffered in recent years from too exclusive an emphasis on the historical and the political. Yet even a close reader needs to have some engagement with the historical facts. How Milton Works disregards context altogether—political, historical, religious, literary. But it is on his own ground, as a close reader, that Fish is weakest. In Surprised by Sin Fish was wonderfully alive to the complexities of Milton’s language. Thirty-five years later, in How Milton Works, where Fish should listen to Milton’s words, he merely leans on them until they cough up a doubtful pun. This is a shameful way to treat a great poet, and it is the main reason why How Milton Works doesn’t.

This Issue

July 18, 2002