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 of Milton’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.