Stanley Fish. How Milton Works. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2001. x+616pp. ISBN 0 674 00465 5.

William Walker
University of New South Wales

Walker, William. "Review of Stanley Fish, How Milton Works." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 11.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-3/walkrev.htm>.

  1. Fish here gathers most of the major essays on Milton's poetry and prose he published over the last thirty years and presents them, along with four new essays, as chapters in this long book which argues with tremendous force and clarity that "Milton works from the inside out" (23). By this Fish means, first of all, that in his poetry and prose Milton both explicitly asserts that, and represents a world within which, the value of any outer, visible action performed by free agents (such as people and angels) derives from what is inside those agents. More specifically, in Milton's fictional and nonfictional writing, the outward actions and lives of rational agents have value and moral goodness only to the extent that they move out of the intention to serve and please God and to testify to one's belief in his glory and goodness.

  2. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that, for Milton, "God is the creator and sustainer of life and value" (51) and in "a God-centred universe... no value can exist apart from a commitment to deity" (484). The second is that, because Christ sacrificed himself for us, God has neither identified any particular outward action that human commitment to him must take, nor identified any particular outward action that such a commitment must not take. On the contrary, committing to deity and being committed to deity are inner acts and states which need not manifest themselves in any way, such as praying, giving money away, and reading scripture, and may manifest themselves in any way, such as slaughtering thousands of people who really are not that bad, stealing, pissing, swearing, standing, fornicating, and waiting. Milton thus works from the inside out in the sense that in both the poetry and the prose, he presents a God-centred universe in which good characters, such as the Lady in Comus, Christ in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Samson in Samson Agonistes, and Milton himself in An Apology and the divorce tracts, are good by virtue of an inner, invisible, and ongoing commitment to deity which they manifest by doing and refraining from doing all kinds of things, and the bad characters, such as Comus and Satan, are bad by virtue of failing to have and act out of such a commitment.

  3. Milton also works from the inside out in the sense that in his poetry and prose he presents a world that bears out the full implications of Hebrews 11:1: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (515). In making this point about Milton's representation of the epistemological condition of free agents, Fish means that Milton's world is not one in which they come to believe things about God (to have faith) on the grounds of their sensory perception of a reality that appears to all of them in the same way no matter what passions and beliefs are within them; rather, he presents a world in which having chosen, on no empirical grounds whatsoever, certain "general conclusions," "first principles," "faiths," and beliefs that are "so basic that they are constitutive of consciousness" (32), agents are then confronted with a reality that down to its smallest details is evidence of and confirms those conclusions, principles, faiths, and beliefs. Thus, for example, because Satan and the rebel angels choose, on the basis of no empirical evidence, to believe in a selfish, tyrannical God, the war in heaven appears to them as evidence of that God, evidence so strong that they can only regard Raphael and the good angels as perverse in their beliefs in another God; because Raphael and the faithful angels choose, on the basis of no empirical evidence, the belief that God is just and omnipotent, the war appears to them as evidence of that God, evidence so strong that they can only regard Satan and the rebels as perverse in their belief in another God. This belief about God is a faith because it is supported by nothing but itself (81; 506; 524; 548; 559); it is always chosen and not imposed because in Milton's world, all free agents are free to choose those first conceptions of God which structure their minds and which result in the world appearing to them as it does; it is something for which God justly praises and blames, rewards and punishes, because it is the product of the exercise of freedom and therefore an action for which one is responsible.

  4. In his prose and poetry, then, Milton works from the inside out in that he describes himself and all of his characters as coming to know not by observing the sensible world and inferring general claims from these observations, but by beginning with an inner choice, supported by nothing but itself, to believe something about God and then observing an outer reality (including God) which, being generated by that choice to believe in a particular God, is evidence for and confirms that belief. In providing this account of how Milton describes the epistemological condition of all free agents, Fish is not saying that in Milton"s world the nature of God depends on how he is perceived, nor that there is not a stable reality which includes one just, omnipotent God. He is saying that Milton represents a world in which God is in fact all-powerful and just, but in which he appears or becomes perceivable as such to free agents only if they first choose--in the absence of any empirical evidence for such a belief, and even, Fish sometimes says, against what appears to them as evidence for such a belief (109)--to believe in an all-powerful and just God. Once they do that, not only does the all-powerful and just God appear to them as such, but the entire world appears to them as what it in fact is--the creation of this God that confirms that he is real. If they do not make this choice but another, then neither God nor his creation will appear to them as in fact they really are.

  5. Though Fish sees Milton describing the world we can sense as being generated by our faith and confirming it, he also claims that "in a world where authority is internalized and the true meaning of an act depends on the spirit that animates it--a spirit that is by definition removed from external inspection--you can never be completely secure in your judgments" (86). That is to say that "in the absence of any sure external indication of its location" (103), the act of identifying God's truth is "hazardous" (103, 504), and one is permanently in a state of "radical uncertainty" (464, 503) in performing this act. This is especially clear, Fish argues with what is even for him extraordinary intensity, in Samson Agonistes where Milton departs from other renditions of the story by making God and the relationship between his will and human action unintelligible to everyone in the world of the play and its readers. It is because Samson responds to his human situation of never being able to know with certainty what God wants us to do by accepting that "whatever we do we must do it on our own, in the absence of any firm unequivocal evidence that it is what God wants" (463) and proceeding to act in this way that he can take his place amongst Milton's heroes of faith, such as Abraham who "went out, not knowing whither he went" (Hebrews 11: 8).

  6. Besides simply describing a world in which characters work from the inside out, Milton, Fish argues, is everywhere concerned to teach his readers to do so as well. And it is this strategy to teach us "that we must forsake the letter for the spirit" (14), that we must "refuse external guides and work from the inside out" (478) that explains, Fish argues, many features of the particular way in which Milton presents his vision of the God-centred world, features which as Fish notes have been accurately observed by several critics before him. Thus, in early poems such as "At a Solemn Music" and the "Nativity Ode," Fish sees Milton deliberately pressuring us to move away from our inclination to think of important action as outer and punctual rather than inner and ongoing by refusing "to yield us the satisfaction of a climactic gesture" (527), describing the virtuous as being in tune, watching, waiting, and standing, and presenting the infant Christ as an agent that gets things done not by doing but by being. In Areopagitica, Milton makes claims and presents arguments which he then proceeds to contradict and discard in order to "disorient" and so prevent the reader from thinking that truth and virtue reside in any external forms, such as books and their arguments, and provoke the reader to "just the kind of labor and exercise that is necessary to the constitution of his or her own virtue" (205). Many aspects of Paradise Lost, too, are answerable to Milton's desire to "detach us" from expectations of drama, crisis, climax, plot, agency, and change, and "return us to a moment when nothing and everything is happening" (325). Though he argued this point in Surprised By Sin, Fish here continues to do it by commenting on Michael's severe chastisement of Adam and those who think like him (which for Milton and Fish is just about everyone) in the final books when, in response to Adam's question concerning "where and when" Christ will fight Satan and deal him the deadly stroke, Michael responds not by answering it but by attacking its premises: "Dream not of thir fight, / As of a Duel..." (XII, 384-87). In addition, Fish here emphasises the ambiguity of several specific phrases and lines in the poem and sees them as further ways in which Milton demands of his readers the "interpretive labor" (503, 508) which gives them meaning and by virtue of which readers engage in the only act that is of any significance: bearing witness to what is within them.

  7. In Paradise Regained, Fish again sees Milton attempting to teach us "a reversal of values away from the self and toward God" (343) by creating in the reader "a need for resolution, in the form of some action or event" and then declining "to fulfil the need it has itself created" (330). That is to say that one reason Milton presents a Christ who in this poem refuses to do anything--except of course maintain his inner commitment to God--is to exasperate not just Satan but the reader who, out of this exasperation, will, Milton hopes, assume the exemplary position of Christ. Finally, in Samson Agonistes, it is by making God, Samson, and the relation between history and God so opaque and unintelligible that, by the end of the play, Milton's readers find themselves "bereft of interpretive resources, impotent before the very story whose meanings were once so firmly in our grasp" (472). That, according to Fish, is precisely how Milton wants them to find themselves, for that will make them feel what Samson feels, and help them know and even be what Samson is. One of the great virtues of Fish's analysis, and one of the signs of his respect for those who have gone before him, is that attending to features of Milton's poetry observed by critics from Johnson through to Leavis, Broadbent, Davie, and Carey, he makes sense of them as manifestations of a particular pedagogical strategy and vision and thereby suggests that rather than being grounds for demoting this poetry they are grounds for celebrating and valuing it.

  8. Milton works from the inside out, finally, in the sense of composing in a particular way. For, at least in some tracts such as An Apology, Milton, according to Fish, explicitly presents himself as, and is in fact, a poet whose own act of writing is an act of testimony, of outwardly signalling one's inner resolve to serve a benevolent and all-powerful deity. Testifying in this way, however, is problematic for Milton, since as he puts it in An Apology, it means that he writes and speaks "not as mine own person, but as a member incorporate into that truth whereof I was perswaded" (122). That is to say that the individual who truly does testify to one's inner commitment is also according to Milton's understanding of this crucial act necessarily a member of a larger body of like-minded and committed individuals who are also continually bearing witness and keeping in tune with the heavenly song. In an important sense, then, the true testifier is "distinguished by not being distinguished" (114). The value of that type of distinction is dubious for Milton, for though here and elsewhere he celebrates the state of bearing witness in which one is absorbed in holy community, he also confesses, in the "Nativity Ode," Lycidas, and the invocations to Paradise Lost, that he wants his testimony to stand out from that of everyone else. Observing how Milton both describes writing and in fact writes, then, Fish claims that Milton writes from the inside out in the sense of bearing witness to his inner allegiance to God but also confessing to, and even speaking out of, another allegiance which is inside him as well, one which is fundamentally at odds with his allegiance to God--his allegiance to himself.

  9. There are some problems with the consistency of the claims and with their adequacy as an account of everything Milton wrote, but a review hardly seems to be an occasion worthy of taking issue with Fish's great argument which will be a permanent landmark in Milton criticism.


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