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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 428-430
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How Milton Works by Stanley Fish. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. vii + 616. $35.00 cloth.
In 1967, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" established Stanley Fish as a major critic of Milton and an outstanding practitioner of reader-response theory. Now, some thirty-five years later, and with a certain reputation as a cultural critic and theorist, he turns his attention to the poet's work as a whole in a study that reproduces ten older essays and adds five new ones to produce a lengthy study boldly titled How Milton Works. The effect of these fifteen chapters is uneven but provocative as the author, without recourse to excessive critical jargon, focuses on indeterminacy in the poet's famously ambivalent texts. Fish, often as contentious and controversial as Milton himself, requires his readers to do what he does with passionate intensity: read the poet closely and challenge him with questions.
The basic, interrelated questions that inform these essays are thematic (What is Milton about?), epistemological (What is Milton's account of knowing and perception?) and interpretive (How is Milton to be read?). Ultimately, these and other probing questions are intended to direct the reader to understand how Milton's ideas of truth and certainty, rooted in God, are constantly being tested by the instability and uncertainty of this world. In Milton's world, Fish proclaims, "there are no moral ambiguities" because "there is only one value—the value of obedience" (53). Yet Fish's Milton is also more tentative and open to moral ambiguity, even though the first chapter, "How Milton Works," posits a simple, uncompromising God who is the basis for asserting the poet's pre-modern world view, according to which knowledge is not empirical but interior, based on a belief in fixed certainties. Fish enjoys presenting this position to counter his critical opponents, who are likely to share what he calls post-Enlightenment "liberal" biases that prevent them from seeing the poet's belief that there is but one position at stake for the reader of Milton: "we must discern the will of God and do it—that should form the basis of our thought and action in any and all situations" (57). The result of this thinking from the inside out is that the main ideas in Milton's poetry are neither stated nor clearly implied; there results a "determined reticence" (62) that enables Fish to show that in Milton's speakers "the true meaning can be discerned only by the heart and mind already informed by it" (85).
There are many revealing insights in this introductory chapter, where Fish combines analysis of early and later texts, moving from Comus to Paradise Regained and back again, with interesting comments on several passages, such as the mixture of military and sexual puns in Paradise Lost. Here and elsewhere, Fish the deconstructionist remains fixated on the problematic nature of Milton's texts, especially those passages that tend to "adopt an attitude toward [End Page 428] some thing or person or action, only to turn in a few lines and apparently sanction exactly the opposite attitude" (144).
Fish's two chapters on Comus, one of them new in this volume, illustrate his interest in ambiguity and wordplay. The wood that can appear both frightening and friendly is typical of the masque's dual point of view as the reader shifts his or her perspective; the masque itself remains static, Fish insists, though its experience for its audience is what really counts. In this reading, the subject of the poem is not virtue or temptation but the reader's interpretation. One wonders what the original seventeenth-century audience might have learned from a text that has been rightly called a "Puritan masque." But such historicist approaches to Milton are not a part of Fish's critical agenda. Since context, whether theological, political, or historical, is not considered, this chapter, like so much of the book, tells us as much about how Fish works as about how Milton works.