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Literature & poetry

Milton lost in single-mindedness

The Life of John Milton - How Milton Works

For years Miltonists have been resistant to theory. Instead, they have been governed by historicism. Literary critics and historians have exploited the dense archival resources of the mid-17th century and the hotly contested accounts of the politics of the revolutionary decades (the 1640s and 1650s) to contextualise in painstaking detail Milton's poetry and prose. Barbara Lewalski's biography does full justice to these labours, offering a judicious synthesis of much of this scholarship and an account of Milton's unstinting, deepening radicalism.

In recent years, the primacy of history has been challenged. Perhaps belatedly in the context of fashions in the wider academy, theory has assumed an increasing presence in Milton criticism - not just pure theory, but the typical thematic concerns of the theoretically motivated: postmodernism, indeterminacy, chaos theory. In the consummation of a 30-year career as a Miltonist (while moonlighting as a critical-legal theorist and commentator on contract law, a philosopher of anti-liberalism and dean at an American university - a career worthy of a fictional character), Stanley Fish has stolen centre-stage in this shift and has given it his own inimitable spin.

Fish did something similar in 1967 in Surprised by Sin , displaying a nose for the prevailing wind. Miltonists were then divided between those who wished to reconcile their poet to a (spurious) tradition of Christian orthodoxy, and those who thought that he was on the devil's side, whether he knew it or not. Fish brilliantly reconciled the two positions, assimilating them into an account of Paradise Lost as a didactic poem, in which the reader is tempted into psychologically re-enacting the Fall. Sympathy with the devil was part of the process of instruction. Since then, accounts of Milton's theology, and understanding of the writings of religious radicals, have shifted (improved might be a better word) under the influence of a literary historicism. Fish thinks historicism misguided because it proves nothing; and according to him Milton would have thought it misguided too. Nonetheless, no book has had more influence on the reading of Milton's poetry in the Anglo-American world since Surprised by Sin .

Then, in the early 1970s, Fish embarked on a series of essays on Milton's poetry and prose, the guiding thesis of which was that Milton barely changed his ideas significantly, that all of his works are shaped by a single principle, which is that goodness or virtue lies in the internal commitment to a principle, to God. The only viable form of action is the affirmation of this commitment, and actions that arise from it are not only unnecessary but potentially harmful, as they encourage the individual to focus on external things, distracting him or her from the interior principle. Deeds, eloquence, narratives, plots and so on are temptations. Sometimes Milton gets anxious about this and wishes it were otherwise, that he could just get on with his career (that is, being the best poet ever) and enjoy the fact. But that would be to succumb to temptation.

How does Milton work? From the Nativity Ode to Paradise Regained , Milton works from the inside out. An act of faith lies at the centre of each work, and though the work leads away from this centre, faith remains the answer to this wandering. It is no use trying to historicise Milton, to politicise him, as liberals tirelessly and pitifully do, as all that is meaningful for Milton is self-affirming internal faith, which can never be supported or even explained by the circumstances of externalities. Ordinary evidentiary procedures must be discarded. Truth is embraced against evidence. History can never answer anything beyond itself, or explain or justify its premises or uses.

Apparent multiplicities, resistances, contradictions, divisions, tensions and oppositions in Milton's writings are illusions, mutually dependent aspects of a single thesis. (This is Fish's endlessly versatile move, by which he co-opts and subsumes disagreement.) Milton, says Fish, is a monist, and diversity is symptomatic of dualism. Milton was indeed a monist: he held that matter and spirit are essentially the same stuff, the stuff of God, and this is the premise of his account of creation, of freewill, of the permeability of the hierarchies that exist in the universe. For Fish, monism means something more: Milton is entirely (and successfully) single-minded, all actions reflect an essence, the spirit is the key to everything, there is one right answer and it follows from the premise. Ultimately this extends to the credo - Fish's as well as Fish's Milton's - that interpretation creates facts. Forsake words or other external data that lead you to conclusions, and stick to the spirit. How do we know the spirit? You already know that.

Fish hammers this message home with characteristic wit and eloquence. Most of the book has appeared in essay form (although the last two chapters, which seem to me the cleverest and most persuasive in the book, have not), and his account of Milton as unchanging in his song is self-consciously ironically reflected in the essays' unvarying method and conclusion. This parallel is repeated elsewhere: Fish, like Milton, is his own hero; Milton believes that commitment to a single principle is everything; Fish believes so too, though his principle is that there is no universal principle whatsoever, and it requires no commitment; and so on.

The book is most teasing and enigmatic precisely where Fish's scepticism and Milton's faith coincide, leaving the reader to spot the sleight of hand.

Surprised by Sin was utterly compelling not just because its thesis outmanoeuvred the dominant paradigm, but because of Fish's "new critical" skill at close reading. Moreover, the medium was the message, or at least the method was the answer: Milton wanted us to close-read in this way, as this provided the answers, and Fish was the guide to the didacticism of Milton's poetry. A similar symmetry obtains for How Milton Works , but its answers lie in philosophy, albeit one that Fish claims to divine from Milton's writings, working their way from the inside out. It is a perfectly respectable inductive method of analysis, but it is much less compelling than the earlier account. The writings become exegetical exercises, a form of action subsidiary to the interior essence. Textual appreciation has been downgraded, although there are a handful of magnificent passages of close reading. Literary genres and forms - the masque, animadversions, the epic - are distractions, and Fish largely overlooks them; in his account Milton's aesthetic is founded exclusively on testimony. He renders these texts as steady, static and unshakeable; whereas the Milton I know tests theses, and challenges readers in dramatic ways (and not by reiteration); he establishes expectations through genres and other conventions, then reforms and reinvents them; he fabricates authorial voices self-consciously at a distance from his own, and is a master of diversifying tone even in the most elevated of styles; he champions reason and eloquence together; he is communicative and argumentative. These textures are available to theorists and to historicists, but are lost in Fish's discovered paradigm.

Scripture falls by the wayside: according to Fish, Milton discards scripture as supplementary to the guiding inner light of religious faith. Yet any 17th-century Protestant was obliged to negotiate, through comparison and reason, the manifest contradictions in scripture, and to find sympathetic interpretations without becoming a relativist. Close reading and truth are not necessarily antagonists (just as modern theory can work with history, not against it), and they were certainly not for Milton, whose finely argued accounts of scripture and faith testify to his commitment to the Word in its external as well as its internal forms. The Bible was both the word of God and an historical document. In Fish's account, theology is sucked into the paradigms of modern anti-foundationalist philosophy - if you qualify an absolute, it implodes - just as Milton's account of the liberty of reading in Areopagitica is interpreted through debates about the First Amendment to the Constitution. But to contemplate or argue for such shortcomings in Fish's interpretation is, of course, to succumb to the temptation of evidence, history or reason.

Does Fish's doggedly impressive volume change the way we read Milton? Only if we decide beforehand (and, according to Fish, we always decide beforehand) that we endorse Fish's modulation of post-structuralist theory. Otherwise, Fish makes Milton's writings seem static. No pennies drop. The drama is that nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. How Milton Works is a tremendously impressive and important book for Miltonists - important because of the sustained originality of the argument, the sharpness of some of its textual analysis, and because it will become a standard reference point with which to align oneself by proximity or remoteness. But it does not tell us how Milton works, nor help newcomers to read him.

Lewalski's hefty Life of John Milton summarises decades of scholarship (hers and others'), with historical, theological and literary sensitivity. Authoritative and up-to-date, its endnotes are as abundant and intellectually generous as Fish's are sparse and counter-evidentiary.

Lewalski's Milton is in almost complete contrast to Fish's: he is on an unbroken trajectory to religious and political radicalism and simultaneously to poetic greatness, and it is in part because of this exaggerated narrative that her account is so readable. The story is also shaped by interpretations of the works, and in these Lewalski is both learned and perspicuous. Though poetic ambitions form the spine of her story, she shows how the messy details of his life pressured the form and content of his writing. David Masson's formidable seven-volume life, published in 1859-94, commands unwavering respect because of its originality. W. R. Parker's two-volume biography, published in 1968, remains a useful reference work (particularly in the updated 1996 edition by Gordon Campbell), even though the endnotes are more interesting than the text. But Lewalski's is easily the best single-volume life of Milton to date, and it is hard to imagine its being significantly bettered. Every reader will benefit from its insight and compression, and it will be the biography to which I direct my students.

Joad Raymond is lecturer in literature, University of East Anglia.

The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography

Author - Barbara K. Lewalski
ISBN - 0 631 17665 9
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £25.00
Pages - 816

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