How Milton Works / Edition 1

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Overview

Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin, first published in 1967, set a new standard for Milton criticism and established its author as one of the world's preeminent Milton scholars. The lifelong engagement begun in that work culminates in this book, the magnum opus of a formidable critic and the definitive statement on Milton for our time.

How Milton works "from the inside out" is the foremost concern of Fish's book, which explores the radical effect of Milton's theological convictions on his poetry and prose. For Milton the value of a poem or of any other production derives from the inner worth of its author and not from any external measure of excellence or heroism. Milton's aesthetic, says Fish, is an "aesthetic of testimony": every action, whether verbal or physical, is or should be the action of holding fast to a single saving commitment against the allure of plot, narrative, representation, signs, drama--anything that might be construed as an illegitimate supplement to divine truth. Much of the energy of Milton's writing, according to Fish, comes from the effort to maintain his faith against these temptations, temptations which in any other aesthetic would be seen as the very essence of poetic value.

Encountering the great poet on his own terms, engaging his equally distinguished admirers and detractors, this book moves a 300-year debate about the significance of Milton's verse to a new level.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Acclaimed for more than 30 years as a great Milton critic, Fish still has much to teach. Here he dispels the confusion fostered in recent years by critics eager to convert the famed Puritan poet into a conflicted modern liberal, working out the tensions of his divided psyche in the drama of his spectacular art. Fish releases Milton from this Procrustean bed by restoring his integrity as a writer whose works expressed the timeless serenity of theological conviction...Though unfashionable, Fish's thesis proves remarkably luminous in explaining a wide range of Milton texts, from his sublime Paradise Lost to his polemical tracts. A masterful study indispensable for anyone who reads Milton.
— Bryce Christensen

New York Times Book Review

How Milton Works is a remarkable exercise in a critical method of which Fish is virtually the unique exponent. It might be called 'forensic' criticism. Throughout its considerable length his book devotes itself with unflagging energy to the defense of a particular view of the poet, and to the refutation of all views that are not concordant with it, including, on occasion, Milton's own.
— Frank Kermode

Common Review

Stanley Fish composes in what seventeenth-century writers called the "masculine style" or the "strong line." His sentences close shut like a trap; they give no quarter, demanding a reader's instant salute rather than consent. Reading him is like being taken for a walk by a Rottweiler: You can pull back on the leash as hard as you want, but the direction is relentlessly forward...Fish brings out the gamesmanship in intellectual work.
— Peggy Samuels

Choice

Fish argues that Milton's works teach the reader how tempters and temptations—through inexhaustible variety and innumerable permutations—operate in the world. Like Fish's Surprised by Sin the present work exemplifies reader-response criticism at its best. Clearly written, cogently argued, often brilliant, always interesting, this book takes its place among the finest commentaries on Milton in the last several decades. Essential reading.
— A. C. Labriola

Chicago Tribune

How Milton Works is written to arrest our backsliding and restore us to the true path of Milton criticism. [It] ranges widely over Milton's verse and prose in the service of a single thesis: that his work "stakes everything on an inner resolution supported by nothing but itself"...[It] is brilliantly argued and musters a lifetime's weight of example. It deserves to be widely read. By its own rules, however, the one thing it cannot be is the final word.
— Jeff Dolven

Times Higher Education Supplement

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.
— Joad Raymond

Christianity and Literature

Fish helps us re-see Milton's immense power of words through his deft analyses of the epics, lesser poems, and every major work of prose...He is "Deep verst in books," and certainly not "shallow in himself" (to borrow Christ's line in Paradise Regained). How Milton Works is a book of marvels, of complex argument, of interwoven sources both ancient and modern, of subtle judgments—in short, a work well worth the effort of reading; and especially so because the intelligence of its insights provokes an understanding one almost feels as an echo of thoughts already experienced: "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd, Something, whose truth convinc'd at sight we find, That gives us back the image of our mind" (Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism).

— Larry R. Isitt

Stephen Greenblatt
How Milton Works is a dazzling, rigorous, and unutterably strange attempt to follow the great seventeenth-century poet along the perilous path that leads away from the temptations of history and politics and into the fair fields of eternal Truth. Why strange? Because the book depends upon a perfect congruence between the fathomless faith of John Milton and the fathomless skepticism of Stanley Fish.
Geoffrey Hartman
Stanley Fish still tempts us with an uncompromising, utterly undivided, un-Romantic Milton, who honors the beauty and fertility of the created world--and the creative powers of poetic or other kinds of self-regard--yet whose moral one-liners reject the slightest tendency toward an idolatrous displacement of creator by creature. In its close, illuminating, and iconoclastic readings of Milton's entire career as poet and doctrinal thinker, How Milton Works crowns Fish's own career.
Victoria Kahn
Stanley Fish needs no recommendation to the community of Milton scholars. This will be the indispensable book on Milton for all succeeding generations.
Frank Lentricchia
I cannot think of a more impressive work of literary interpretation published in the past forty or so years. As a close reader--of just about anything--Stanley Fish has no peer.
Elaine Showalter
In How Milton Works, Stanley Fish defends his title as the reigning specialist on Milton by taking on all critical challengers single-handed. This forcefully and lucidly argued book is necessary both for readers and scholars of Milton, and for readers interested to see how Fish works at the height of his literary and rhetorical powers.
Fredric Jameson
Admirers of Stanley Fish and his work will not be disappointed by the long-awaited Milton book, which posits theology as the foliation of style, syntax as the miniaturized performance of theology. It is a performance worthy of the Russian Formalists at their most concentrated and will open up all kinds of new questions, about literature fully as much as about the great revolutionary poet.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
Acclaimed for more than 30 years as a great Milton critic, Fish still has much to teach. Here he dispels the confusion fostered in recent years by critics eager to convert the famed Puritan poet into a conflicted modern liberal, working out the tensions of his divided psyche in the drama of his spectacular art. Fish releases Milton from this Procrustean bed by restoring his integrity as a writer whose works expressed the timeless serenity of theological conviction...Though unfashionable, Fish's thesis proves remarkably luminous in explaining a wide range of Milton texts, from his sublime Paradise Lost to his polemical tracts. A masterful study indispensable for anyone who reads Milton.
New York Times Book Review - Frank Kermode
How Milton Works is a remarkable exercise in a critical method of which Fish is virtually the unique exponent. It might be called 'forensic' criticism. Throughout its considerable length his book devotes itself with unflagging energy to the defense of a particular view of the poet, and to the refutation of all views that are not concordant with it, including, on occasion, Milton's own.
Common Review - Peggy Samuels
Stanley Fish composes in what seventeenth-century writers called the "masculine style" or the "strong line." His sentences close shut like a trap; they give no quarter, demanding a reader's instant salute rather than consent. Reading him is like being taken for a walk by a Rottweiler: You can pull back on the leash as hard as you want, but the direction is relentlessly forward...Fish brings out the gamesmanship in intellectual work.
Choice - A. C. Labriola
Fish argues that Milton's works teach the reader how tempters and temptations--through inexhaustible variety and innumerable permutations--operate in the world. Like Fish's Surprised by Sin the present work exemplifies reader-response criticism at its best. Clearly written, cogently argued, often brilliant, always interesting, this book takes its place among the finest commentaries on Milton in the last several decades. Essential reading.
Chicago Tribune - Jeff Dolven
How Milton Works is written to arrest our backsliding and restore us to the true path of Milton criticism. [It] ranges widely over Milton's verse and prose in the service of a single thesis: that his work "stakes everything on an inner resolution supported by nothing but itself"...[It] is brilliantly argued and musters a lifetime's weight of example. It deserves to be widely read. By its own rules, however, the one thing it cannot be is the final word.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Joad Raymond
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.
Christianity and Literature - Larry R. Isitt
Fish helps us re-see Milton's immense power of words through his deft analyses of the epics, lesser poems, and every major work of prose...He is "Deep verst in books," and certainly not "shallow in himself" (to borrow Christ's line in Paradise Regained). How Milton Works is a book of marvels, of complex argument, of interwoven sources both ancient and modern, of subtle judgments--in short, a work well worth the effort of reading; and especially so because the intelligence of its insights provokes an understanding one almost feels as an echo of thoughts already experienced: "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd, Something, whose truth convinc'd at sight we find, That gives us back the image of our mind" (Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism).
Frank Kermode
Fish does some close analysis of particular texts, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes far-fetchedly . . . a very distinguished book, and should restore Milton to the center of critical interest.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
The shadow of Fish's barbed reputation is far longer than that of the man or his work itself: he is better known now for the scandal surrounding Alan Sokal's hoaxing contribution to Fish's journal, Social Text, and Fish's own feeble response to it, than his once-revolutionary reader-response criticism. In the wake of the Sokal disaster, Fish has left the demoralized English department of Duke University for the University of Illinois, Chicago, whence comes this long study of Milton's theology and method a study Fish claims to have been writing since 1973. What students of Milton and readers of literary criticism will find refreshing is the low volume of jargon and poststructuralist lit-speak in this solidly argued work. Some may quarrel with his conclusions, but his erudition is indisputable. This work, which addresses the whole range of Milton's oeuvre in prose and poetry, asserts that the core of Milton's message is that "there is only one choice to be or not to be allied with divinity" and that the Fall that separated Satan from Heaven and Adam and Eve from Eden, is, paradoxically, the only source of action, politics, individuality, and poetry, including Milton's own. It is easy enough to quarrel with Fish's reading of certain lines or passages, but he has caught something about Milton's strange talent, its immobility and monumentality. What's more, Fish has done so with an intensity of close reading that would have been the envy not so much of today's poststructuralists despite Fish's self-avowed radicalism as of yesteryear's "close reading" critics, like Cleanth Brooks. Despite the professional faltering and failures that have preceded it, Fish's title is an eminently readable, provocative, and indispensable new study of one of our greatest poets. For most collections, especially academic libraries. Graham Christian, formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nearly 35 years after the publication of Fish's first landmark study comes this culmination of his lifetime of Milton scholarship. Fish has distinguished himself most recently as a freelancer in the culture wars, subverting political and intellectual pieties with the skill and cunning (and occasionally the disingenuousness) of a first-rate lawyer. Here, however, he shows himself to be a truly passionate critic, immersing himself in the texts of Comus, Lycidas, Areopagitica, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, and other works to explicate the remarkable philosophy that animates and informs them. Instead of staging critical conflicts between good and evil, Fish holds that Milton's work is continually mapping out a moral universe in which good is immune to both crisis and conflict because it is a state of perfect attunement to God's will. One of several surprising things that follow from this monolithic morality is that moral value is, by definition, intrinsic, and therefore cannot be ascribed to any object or action. Instead, the meaning of any action proceeds from the inherent moral condition of the individual who effects it: books are only as dangerous (or beneficial) as their readers, and deeds, whatever value they might appear to have in themselves, are really only as good or evil as the doers. So while they are rigidly defined, moral distinctions are not discernible outside the self. Moral conviction is thus placed on an epistemological precipice, requiring constant monitoring and self-questioning to maintain its position. Although Fish acknowledges the pressures this vision brings to bear on Milton's own legendary ambition and egoism, he is more interested in the principles ofMilton's cosmos than in the personality that informs it. The same applies to poetics, Fish's literary sophistication notwithstanding. What is at stake here is not artistic but moral truth and, implicitly, what Milton's radical vision might have to tell our own age. With forcefulness, fluency, and persistence, Fish succeeds in making his case and honoring his subject: a definitive work.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012332
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 1,422,651
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Fish is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His many books include There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing Too.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

I. The Miltonic Paradigm

How Milton Works

Milton's Aesthetic of Testimony

Problem Solving in Comus

Unblemished Form

II. The Paradigm under the Pressure of Time, Interpretation, and Death

Driving from the Letter: Truth and Indeterminacy in Milton's Areopagitica

Wanting a Supplement: The Question of Interpretation in Milton's Early Prose

Lycidas: A Poem Finally Anonymous

With Mortal Voice: Milton Defends against the Muse

III. The Counter-Paradigm

The Temptation to Action

The Temptation of Speech

The Temptation of Plot

The Temptation of Understanding

The Temptation of Intelligibility

IV. The Paradigm Reaffirmed (Almost) without Apology

Gently Raised

"On Other Surety None"

Epilogue: The Temptation of History and Politics

Notes

Credits

Index

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