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How Milton Works (review)
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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.3 (2002) 383-388



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Book Review

How Milton Works


How Milton Works. By Stanley Fish. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. vii + 616 pp.

Reprinting ten essays and integrating them with five new chapters and an introduction and epilogue, this book is broader in its coverage of the poetry than of the prose writings. The poems that Stanley Fish analyzes include "At a Solemn Music," Comus, "Lycidas," Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Only two chapters, which are reprinted essays, deal with the prose: the one on Areopagitica, the other focusing on Of Prelatical Episcopacy but referring periodically to a few other early treatises. In his approach to Milton's writings Fish is not oriented to literary history, largely because he acknowledges the value of many previous commentaries that reflect such an emphasis. Nor does he pursue in depth any particular strand of intellectual history, such as Renaissance syncretism, whereby certain classical or mythological figures gradually accumulated Christian significance, an interpretive tradition that presumably bears on how and why they are integrated into Milton's writings. Rather, Fish trains his attention elsewhere in this provocative thesis-driven book. Clearly, cogently, and consistently argued, the thesis, most broadly stated, is that one's presuppositions or beliefs inform and shape one's perceptions, from which emerge, in turn, one's process of reasoning.

A corollary of the thesis is that change occurs when one replaces previous beliefs with present ones, and present ones with later ones, and so forth. Though argument does not bring about a change in one's beliefs, it does convey the rationale—or, in the case of wrong beliefs, the rationalization or fallacious reasoning—for what one believes at a particular moment. Finally, in line with the Pauline theology articulated in 2 Corinthians 3.3, true beliefs are inscribed in oneself, on the tables of the human heart. Accordingly, one should be oriented to that inward inscription; this attitude will affect, paradoxically, one's view of the outer world. [End Page 383]

In How Milton Works Fish brings these views to bear with relentless determination, identifying certain presuppositions and beliefs of Milton's and explaining how and why they shape his works in a threefold way: thematically, epistemologically, and interpretively. That is to say, Milton's own beliefs inform, impel, and issue forth from certain characters, for example, the Lady in Comus, the Son and Abdiel in Paradise Lost, and the Christ of Paradise Regained. These characters provide what may be called "the testimony of truth"—they testify to the true beliefs inscribed in themselves, beliefs that they uphold despite the adversities that they undergo. For them, faith, patience, and fortitude are paramount virtues. In their clear and fixed vision, and in their absolute determination to separate good from evil, these characters resist and overcome all challenges to their integrity and stability. Like a siege, these challenges, dramatized in many of Milton's poems, include complex diversions, sophisticated distractions, and seductive blandishments nearly kaleidoscopic in their permutations. In this climate of instability, insecurity, uncertainty, and relativism, false presuppositions and beliefs may overshadow and obscure true ones. Milton's genius enables him to portray the full range of such threats, temptations, and subtleties that bedevil and bedazzle humankind, and Fish's comparable talent is to identify and explain them.

Accordingly, the dialectic between, say, the Lady and Comus, or between the Christ of Paradise Regained and the tempter, is less important as argument and more so as the manifestation, even manifesto, of the underlying beliefs and presuppositions of the respective spokespersons. In short, right perception and ratio recta or right reasoning issue, deductively, from true beliefs and presuppositions, whereas wrong perception, fallacious reasoning, and rationalization emerge from erroneous beliefs and presuppositions. By developing the foregoing point of view, Fish's book promotes a revolutionary understanding of Milton's writings, particularly the poetry. Fish argues that Milton enacts a pedagogical message and embeds it in a quasi-dramatic setting in the poems and in a polemical context in the prose. An agonistic struggle unfolds...