How Milton Works

Long recognized as among the great poets, John Milton has been traditionally viewed as difficult, both in his style and content. His longer works, in particular Paradise Lost, seem dauntingly formidable and shorter pieces, most notably “Lycidas,” are viewed as equally knotty. Now a great Milton scholar helps link the poet and the reader. Since his first volume on Milton, Surprised by Sin (1967), Stanley Fish has been linking the poet’s vision and language to questions of lasting relevance that resonate with today’s readers. How Milton Works is Fish’s most comprehensive and inclusive study, a work both immensely enlightening and pleasurable.

The key to Milton’s work, Fish maintains, is that it operates from the unshakable core belief that the only things of value—in poetry, work, or life itself—are those informed by and aimed toward announcing and praising God’s revealed truth. Anything else, no matter how much it seems to be pleasing or valuable, is dross and worthless. So far, Milton’s aesthetic is the same as many Christian poets, especially of his time. However, Fish points out, Milton goes beyond this: God’s truth is known not by external signs but by inner vision and revelation. Not even the Ten Commandments have greater claim to the truth than the internal dialog between the soul and God. The logical result is that all human actions, including poetry, can be judged only by the moral quality of those...

(The entire section is 446 words.)