Fish on Milton

Stanley Fish offers some interesting reflections on John Milton. Here’s a snippet:

Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of ideas and moral commitments, and it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism, about the self-parodying bluster of military action, about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything. Milton’s poetry never lets you relax . Even when one of the famous similes wanders down what appears to be a desultory path of mythical allusions and idealized landscapes, it always returns you in the end to the moral perspective that had only apparently been suspended.

And on the difference between Milton and Shakespeare:

And the difference is that after reading or seeing a Shakespeare play you want to sit down and discuss the glories of Shakespeare, whereas after reading a Milton poem you want to sit down and discuss the ideas and imperatives he has thrust at you … Shakespeare does many voices but identifies with none of them. (His, as Keats said, is a negative capability.) He’s hard to find, as his would-be biographers well know. Milton has many characters, but they all speak with one voice — his. You don’t have look for him; you can’t get away from him. Despite the variety of scenes and genres there’s always just one guy talking to you; the conversation goes on and on and it is a conversation in which, as Barrow first said, everything is at stake. This is a poetry that reads you.

One comment

  1. Re: the second quote, Fish seems to be echoing Bakhtin’s description of Dostoevsky’s novels in his book The Dialogic Imagination, in which Bakhtin says that D. has many voices but identifies with none of them.


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