Bryson, Michael. The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King. Newark: U of Delaware P; London: Associated University Presses, 2004. 208 pp.  ISBN 0874138590

Peter C. Herman
San Diego State University

Herman, Peter C. "Review of Michael Bryson, The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton's Rejection of God as King". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 8.1-10 <URL:>.

  1. In this compact, wonderfully iconoclastic book, Michael Bryson sets himself two overlapping goals. First, he proffers a new interpretation of Milton’s God alongside a re-interpretation of the Son’s role in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.  Bryson contends that the benign view of Milton’s God popular among Miltonists is entirely mistaken. Milton’s God is disturbing, as Bryson states at numerous points throughout this book, because he is meant to be disturbing, and the Son provides an explicit alternative for the proper means of ruling. The second goal is to critique the present state of Milton studies, which has the unfortunate habit of conflating the literary character of “God” in Paradise Lost with the actual deity worshipped in Christian churches and transforming literary criticism into a form of prayer. “Milton studies,” Bryson acerbically notes, “have often threatened to turn into Milton ministries” (23; all emphases are in the original unless stated otherwise). This book’s project could not be more ambitious, for Bryson seeks to not only change our view of Milton’s poetry, but to challenge a deeply entrenched critical paradigm. While I have occasional differences with his argument  (duly noted below), there can be no doubt that Bryson succeeds admirably in his project, and The Tyranny of Heaven needs to become required reading for all subsequent scholarship on Paradise Lost.

  2. Unlike many books, in which the chapters form discrete units, Bryson constructs The Tyranny of Heaven as an organic whole, each chapter building on the previous one. The first, “Of Miltons and Gods,” sets out the parameters for the upcoming chapters. Bryson proposes that “The Father is not Milton’s illustration of how God is, but Milton’s scathing critique of how, all too often, God is imagined (12). Therefore, Milton “writes to re-imagine God” (12). In other words, Milton critiques the all-too-common tendency among his contemporaries of imagining God as a king: “To imagine God as a king was, for Milton, to imagine God as if he were the Devil” (11). This thesis leads Bryson to the second aim of this chapter: the critique of the Milton establishment, which usually conflates the real with the literary God. The God of Paradise Lost, Bryson reminds us, “is a poetic and a personal character,” but the refusal to observe this fundamental distinction leads many, if not most, Miltonists to conflate, as C. S. Lewis does in A Preface to “Paradise Lost”, “Milton, Augustine, and the entire Christian church” (21). The result has been unfortunate in two ways. First, as Bryson puts it, “the difference between literary study and religious devotion becomes disconcertingly hard to detect” (23). The second is a criticism that is breathtakingly overt in its demarcation of legitimate and illegitimate forms of inquiry, as evidenced by Lewis’s blunt announcement, quoted by Bryson, that the purpose of his argument is to “prevent the reader from ever raising certain questions” (21). While Lewis published those words in 1942, they continue to guide Milton criticism, and as Bryson puts it, with equally remarkable candor: “The time has come to say ‘enough’” (25).

  3. Bryson begins his dismantling of this critical edifice and his reconstruction of Milton into a much less orthodox figure in chapter 2, which has the rather bulky title, “’His Tyranny who Reigns’: The Biblical Roots of Divine Kingship and Milton’s Rejection of ‘Heav’n’s King’” in Prose and Poetry.” Bryson starts by noting some of the strategies Miltonists have used to get around the uncomfortable fact Milton’s God looks and acts a lot like the way Milton described another tyrant, Charles I. Joan Bennett, for example, simply denies the parallel, and in another example of the coercive nature of too much Milton criticism, she declares “that those who find such a parallel are not to be taken seriously” (43). Another critic takes the somewhat unlikely approach of arguing that it is okay for God to be an absolute monarch, but not earthly monarchs (44). Bryson will have none of this. “Milton’s poetic God is an impossibly powerful tyrannical figure,” and Milton depicts the God of Paradise Lost (as opposed to the real God) in this fashion “to express his contempt” for imagining God as a king (45). To prove this point, Bryson scours Milton’s earlier writings on politics, and finds not one positive reference to kingship. As Milton argues in A Defence of the People of England, kingship originates from the Fall, and kings issue “not from blessings but from curses [and] maledictions cast upon fallen mankind” (63). Furthermore, “the Father in Paradise Lost fits the definition of a tyrant” set out in Milton’s prose works (65).  For example, “The Father is first referred to as a ‘supreme king’ . . . at I.735, after the demonic associations of kingship have been thoroughly rehearsed over the last three hundred lines” (65).

  4. The corollary to Bryson’s assertion that Milton’s God “troubles precisely because he is supposed to trouble” (64) is his view of Satan, who “seems heroic because he is heroic” (83).  It would seem that Bryson is tearing down the image of God in Milton’s epic only to build up Satan, God’s antagonist, but that is, in fact, not entirely the case, as Bryson argues in the third chapter, “’Who durst defy th’Omnipotent to Arms’” Satan’s Fall from Hero to King.” Unlike most Miltonists, who assume that Satan is evil from the poem’s start, Bryson’s point is that Satan does not start off as the arch-villain and the Father of Lies: “Satan’s moral advantage is that he does not begin as a tyrant.” (82) Satan begins the poem, Bryson argues, as admirable, a figure who “more closely resembles a character from Greek drama or Homeric epic than one from the Bible” (80). And Milton carefully gives Satan a motive for rebellion “that is both credible and forceful: the Father’s raising of the Son in Book 5” (92). The problem with God’s decree, Bryson continues “is its belligerent tone: the Father seems to be daring any and all to object” (93). Consequently, “Milton’s Father deliberately creates hostility where none had previously existed . . .” (94). Satan takes up the challenge, and borrowing rhetoric from Protestant resistance theory, he rebels and takes about a third of the angels with him.  Satan’s problem, therefore, does not lie in his rebellion, but what happens to him afterward: “Satan becomes a tyrant because in establishing his infernal monarchy, he appeals to the very system of power that he once rejected” (109). Once more, kingship corrupts.  Satan “rejects the Son as king, only to aspire to be a king himself—aspiring to be like God in the wrong way” (111). In other words, Satan’s problem is not that he is God’s opposite, but his acolyte.

  5. If neither Satan nor God provide viable models, then who does? Bryson answers this question in the fourth chapter, “That far be from thee’: Divine Evil, Justification, and the Evolution of the Son from Warrior-King to Hero.” The Son, Bryson proposes, "adopts an end more radical than Satan’s (and closer to Milton’s) while employing means hitherto unseen in Milton’s Heaven: he fights—through reason, self-sacrifice, and self-denial—to overturn heavenly kingship, to refuse thrones both earthly and heavenly, and to abolish kingship itself by reclaiming a Miltonic, internal definition of glory, heroism, and true government" (115).  To prove this point, Bryson backtracks to continue with his analysis of Milton’s God as a hugely negative figure, pointing out that when Milton famously states that his purpose is to “justify the ways of God to men,” “justification” in the seventeenth century did not mean “bear witness to the justice of,” as to use Ricks’ gloss, but to “explain the injustice of” (119). As Richard Baxter put it in 1649, “Justification implyeth accusation” (quoted in Bryson, 120). Milton, Bryson continues, “accuses God in the image of the Father so that he may then acquit God in the image of the Son” (130). Thus, Bryson traces the Son’s evolution from a warrior in Book 5 to a new kind of hero in Book 3 (which chronologically comes later than the events of Book 5). He has grown “weary of the use of force,” and he takes up “the persuasive arms of his creator, the words, phrases, and arguments of Milton himself” (139). Faced with the Father’s implacable demand for a death, any death, the Son presents himself as a sacrifice, and “through his willingness to die, [he] delivers the harshest and most devastating critique of the Father that has yet been made” (142).

  6. This argument reaches its logical conclusion in the fifth and final chapter, “’Tempt not the Lord thy God’: The End of Kingship and the Awareness of Divine Similitude in Paradise Regained.” This poem constitutes “a final dismantling of divine kingship and rule. Anti-reign, -glory, and –power, Paradise Regained is Milton’s ultimate rejection of the image of God as king” (156). The Son, as Bryon argues, rejects all forms of power, all forms of rule, and it is deeply important that the poem does not end with the Son’s public ministry, but with his retiring to “his mother’s house private” at the end of the poem (159). In so doing, "The Son closes the door on the model of reign by force, the model of divinity that pictures God as a king and leader of troops, and steps irrevocably through the door that leads to a model of reign as inner accord with truth". (170).

  7. Overall, I found Bryson’s argument completely convincing. His diagnosis of the present state of Milton is depressingly accurate, and his twin analyses of the terrible nature of God in Paradise Lost and Milton’s proposing the Son as an alternative model of rule is powerful, accurate, and eloquent. There are also many riches in the details of this book. I particularly learned from Bryson’s pointing out that in his early translation of Psalm 2 “I, saith hee, /Anointed have my King (though ye rebel),” Milton seems fully aware that the raising of a king will create rebellion, since the phrase, “though ye rebel,” “appears nowhere in the original Hebrew” (92). In 1653, Milton thus sketches in miniature the plot of Paradise Lost.  Bryson’s evident mastery of Hebrew lends his analysis even more authority, and his decision to read Paradise Regained as building on Paradise Lost enriches both poems.

  8. Yet I also have some reservations.  First, throughout this book, Bryson repeatedly separates the actual from the literary God, emphasizing that Milton is writing poetry, i.e., fiction, not theology, and therefore one cannot and should not assume that the God of Paradise Lost is “intended to be synonymous with whatever ‘presence’ or ‘absence’ is pointed to with the word ‘God’” (116). At one level, of course, this approach makes sense. Facts are not fiction, and fiction cannot be made to substitute for facts.  Yet I am not sure that this distinction was as accepted in the early modern period as it is today. Consider, for instance, Elizabeth I’s observation to the historian, William Lambarde, “I am Richard II. Know ye not that?” [1] Also, I am not sure that Bryson himself entirely buys this proposition, given his difficulties with maintaining the barrier between the image of God and God Himself. When he writes, “Rather than reconciling Man to God, Milton is reconciling God to Man” (120), it is not at all clear if by “God” Bryson means the deity or a fictional representation of the deity. But most importantly, by positing an unbridgeable wall separating the literary from the actual God, Bryson runs the risk of draining the poem of its force. By depicting a God who lies, who acts like a tyrant, who is “no less syntactically self-obsessed than Satan is at any point in the poem” (140), Milton is not critiquing “images of God” (116), but God. That is why so many critics from Alexander Pope onward are so uncomfortable with Milton’s God, and why they have spent so much time and energy proving that Milton’s God is not what the poem manifestly says he is. Asserting that Milton wants to criticize how his contemporaries imagine God, but not God Himself, means domesticating the radically questioning nature of Paradise Lost.  Bryson’s revisionism only takes us halfway, as the next step is to see how Milton puts God, not an image of God, on trial.[2]

  9. Also, Samson Agonistes, the companion poem to Paradise Regained (Milton published them together in 1671), is strangely missing from this book. The absence is important, because in many ways, Samson puts into question much of what Bryson says about Paradise Regained, just as in Milton’s earlier companion poems, “Il Penseroso” puts into question much of “L’Allegro.”   If at “the end of Paradise Regained, obedience is reasoned, internal, and given to oneself” (169), then what happens when one’s inner promptings tell one to commit mass murder? And if divinity is internalized, then how does one know that it is God, and not Satan, or even one’s own madness, speaking? While I am entirely convinced by Bryson’s analysis of the Son’s retreat to his “mother’s house private” (does the presence of the mother in this line constitutes yet another implicit criticism of the Father?), I wonder if the events in Samson Agonistes qualify that retreat by suggesting that the world will find you, regardless? Is, in other words, the quietism at the end of Paradise Regained implicitly made impossible by the treachery of Dalilah and active malevolence of God’s enemies? Finally, does God’s reduced presence in Paradise Regained and unbroken silence in Samson collectively portray a divine retreat from this world, leaving us with a literally God-less void?

  10. The Tyranny of Heaven is marvelous, sharply argued, learned, and elegantly written. But even more, Michael Bryson has written a necessary book, one that attempts to overthrow the rather stultifying critical orthodoxy that presently governs Milton studies. I hope this book gets the audience it so richly deserves.


1 E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), vol. 2:327.

2 In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that examining Milton’s interrogation of God is the subject of my book, Destabilizing Milton: “Paradise Lost” and the Poetics of Incertitude (London: Palgrave, forthcoming).

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