Wednesday, July 11, 2012

David V. Urban: “Surprised by Richardson”

David V. Urban

Surprised by Richardson: C. S. Lewis, Jonathan Richardson, and Their Comparative Influence on Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost”

1> For the past twenty-five years, the idea that Stanley Fish’s seminal Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” is “a methodologically radical update” of C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to “Paradise Lost” “as a literary monument to mainstream Christianity” (Rumrich, Milton 4) has developed into a truism of sorts within certain circles of Milton scholarship. This association between Lewis and Fish, as far as I can find, was first posited by John Peter Rumrich in 1987 in his first book, Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost.” This book, which, as its title indicates, is primarily a response to Lewis, discusses Fish’s book only briefly, calling it the “most influential expression” of Lewis’s critical paradigm, and asserting that Fish adjusted Lewis’s emphasis to offer a “catechismal version” of Milton’s epic (Matter 9). In his Hanford Award-winning 1990 article, “Uninventing Milton,” Rumrich called Surprised by Sin “Fish’s theoretically sophisticated update of Lewis’s orthodox model” (249), and in his 1996 book, Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation, Rumrich articulates the statement I cite in my opening sentence. More recently, in his 2004 book, The Tyranny of Heaven, Michael Bryson approvingly quotes Rumrich’s 1996 statement and himself calls Surprised by Sin “a combination of C. S. Lewis and psychology” (22). And in a 2005 essay, Peter Herman argues that Fish’s book “turns Lewis’ observation” that “‘many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God’ into a deliberate, pedagogical strategy for instructing the reader as to his or her genuine state” (“Paradigms” 12, quoting Lewis 126).

2> In my own 2011 article, which challenges what I consider unfair and inaccurate depictions of Lewis’s book by certain scholars associated with the New Milton Criticism, I spend a paragraph questioning the legitimacy of Rumrich’s, Bryson’s, and Herman’s emphases on the degree of influence which A Preface to “Paradise Lost” actually has on Surprised by Sin. I note that Lewis’s discernible influence on Fish is actually surprisingly meager, with Fish citing Lewis on only seven pages, agreeing with him only briefly, discounting Lewis’s dismissive statements concerning the style and content of Books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost, and, in his introduction, listing not Lewis as an influence but rather highlighting A. J. A. Waldock and Joseph Summers, two Miltonists who opposed Lewis on important critical matters (Urban, “Speaking” 101-02).

3> To my surprise, my article was answered by a forum of antagonistic responses from three important Renaissance scholars, all of whom, among other things, specifically take issue with my questioning of Lewis’s putative supreme influence on Fish. Herman (“C. S. Lewis” 258), Joseph Wittreich (270), and Richard Strier (272) all question the value of and accuracy of indices for measuring influence (indices, of course, amounted to only part of my support), and all confidently affirm a general similarity between the two works.1 But none of them puts forward a developed defense for why Surprised by Sin should be considered a kind of methodologically sophisticated updating of Lewis’s Preface. Neither does Bryson, nor, more significantly, does Rumrich in any of the three works I cite in the previous paragraph. The fact that Rumrich’s repeatedly stated connection between Lewis and Fish has gained such committed adherents reminds me of Douglas Bush’s statement that “in literary criticism, as in other forms of propaganda, confident assertion goes a long way” (2). My quoting of Bush is not done to cast aspersions on Rumrich and the others, all of whose scholarly insights have enriched my own scholarship, whatever our disagreements, but I continue to question the extent of the Lewis-Fish connection, and I think it crucial to recognize that it is a connection that has been often stated but never demonstrated.

4> Which brings me now to the greater purpose of this present essay. Having seen Herman’s, Wittreich’s, and Strier’s continued commitment to Rumrich’s orignal formulation, I thought it necessary to again revisit Surprised by Sin to see if Lewis’s influence on Fish was more pervasive than I had thought. But I have still not found such pervasive influence. Rather, revisiting Fish’s book has brought me to the following contention: that if Surprised by Sin should be seen as “a methodologically radical update” of any previous book’s view of Paradise Lost “as a literary monument to mainstream Christianity,” that book is not Lewis’s Preface but rather Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and its attached Life of the Author and a Discourse on the Poem, which precedes the Explanatory Notes in the same volume (1734).2 This issue is significant not merely for the controversy at hand but also for the broader significance of recognizing the pieces of earlier Milton criticism that helped to shape Surprised by Sin. Because Fish’s book continues to be the most influential work of Milton scholarship since its initial 1967 publication, critical works that strongly influenced Fish can rightly be said to be among the most important works of Milton criticism in history. Richardson’s volume, despite being rarely studied, falls into this category. The remainder of this essay will demonstrate both that Lewis’s Preface is not especially influential on Surprised by Sin and that Richardson’s volume stands as the work of orthodox Christian Milton criticism whose influence is most foundational to Fish’s seminal study.

5> There are several factors that make untenable the assertion of Lewis’s alleged supreme influence on Fish’s book. The first is the comparative lack of explicit reference. We should not minimize the fact that Fish himself clearly stated in the preface of his work’s first edition that the scholars who “most influenced” him were A. J. A. Waldock and Joseph Summers (lxxii). And, not surprisingly, Waldock’s and Summers’s explicit influence on Fish’s book is reflected by Fish’s consistent interaction with them throughout his work. According to Fish’s index, Waldock and Summers are the two scholars whom Fish cites the most, being cited on twenty-five and eighteen pages respectively.3 Not insignificantly, the scholar whom Fish cites the most after Waldock and Summers is John Peter (cited on seventeen pages), a Miltonist who notes in the preface to A Critique of “Paradise Lost” the tremendous degree of agreement between his book and Waldock’s “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics (ix).

6> Fish’s debt to Waldock is seen throughout Surprised by Sin, but particularly in its opening pages where Fish develops his methodological approach to Milton’s epic—largely regarding the epic narrator’s relationship to his readers—over and against Waldock’s approach (2-9). Similarly, early on in his book, Fish credits Summers for anticipating his emphasis on Milton’s use of the technique of the “guilty reader,” an emphasis that guides Fish’s hermeneutic of Paradise Lost (2; cf. 142). Both Fish’s painstaking analysis of Waldock’s critical technique in relation to his own and Fish’s explicit citation of Summers’s foundational influence upon Fish’s reader response approach to Milton are especially significant in light of Wittreich’s recent suggestion that Fish follows Lewis in Lewis’s contention that Milton manipulates his readers (270). That is not to say that Lewis did not influence Fish’s understanding of Milton’s relationship to the reader; indeed, late in his book Fish cites Lewis in this regard (302).4 But Fish’s stated primary influences regarding the Miltonic narrator’s relationship to the reader are Waldock and Summers. Lewis’s influence in this matter is evident but not primary.

7> And this last point relates closely to the matter of Lewis’s influence on Fish’s book in terms of Surprised by Sin being a “literary monument to mainstream Christianity.” Simply put, Lewis is part of a broader orthodox tradition that Fish engages, but Lewis does not stand out in Surprised by Sin as the member of that tradition most significant to Fish’s study. Early in the preface to his book’s second edition, Fish states that he seeks to integrate the orthodox interpretive tradition, “stretching from Addison to C. S. Lewis and Douglas Bush” (ix), with the Satanic/unorthodox tradition represented by Blake, Shelley, Waldock, and Empson (ix-x).  But unlike Waldock, whose frequent and foundational presence in Surprised by Sin has been noted, Lewis is cited only sporadically—on seven pages throughout the book and then generally only in passing. For example, in the midst of his detailed response to Waldock’s analysis of Satan’s character and the narrator’s intrusive voice, Fish states, “It is not enough to analyse, as Lewis and others have, the speciousness of Satan” (6)—and then Lewis is not mentioned again for nearly a hundred and forty pages, at which point Lewis is briefly quoted but not seriously engaged (145). Indeed, on the page where Fish engages Lewis most closely—concerning Lewis’s contention that the Fall in Paradise Lost equates to disobedience—Fish explicitly notes that Lewis aligns himself with Addison, and he even chides Lewis for attempting to make the reader’s task too simple (208).5  Similarly, Fish agrees with Lewis that Adam, instead of falling along with Eve, could have “interceded with God on her behalf” (Lewis 123; qtd. in Fish 269), but Fish does this in connection with his approval of Irene Samuel’s admonition that Adam should have trusted in the benevolence of the Father (Fish 269-70; Samuel 242-43). Notably, Fish’s engagement with Samuel here is far more developed than his interaction with Lewis. Again, Lewis’s influence on Fish here is evident, but it is simply not dominant, and to suggest otherwise is to misrepresent Lewis’s importance to Fish.

8> But if Lewis’s lack of dominant influence on Fish is evident by the comparative paucity of Fish’s direct interaction with him, it is particularly evident in how Fish departs from Lewis on several crucial matters of interpretation, all of which are matters that Lewis discusses only briefly but which Fish addresses at length. The first concerns Lewis’s harsh deprecation of books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost, famously calling them an “untransmuted lump of futurity” (125). But Fish strongly maintains the value of these books—explicitly disagreeing with Lewis and noting several subsequent scholars who defended their value over and against Lewis (300)—and he dedicates chapter 7 to a sustained analysis of the very books that Lewis does not at all engage but rather dismisses with the aforementioned statement.

9> A second area in which Fish’s approach significantly differs from Lewis’s involves Milton’s poetic presentation of God the Father, a presentation which Lewis considers rather mediocre (126-27). Fish, by contrast, defends Milton’s presentation of the Father throughout the second chapter of Surprised by Sin, crafting his defense of Milton’s God in response to numerous scholars from across several centuries, with Lewis being absent altogether. And it certainly won’t do to agree with Herman that Fish “turns Lewis’ observation” that “‘many of those who say they dislike Milton’s God only mean that they dislike God’ into a deliberate, pedagogical strategy for instructing the reader as to his or her genuine state” (“Paradigms” 12, quoting Lewis 126). The problem with Herman’s assertion goes beyond the important fact that Lewis’s quoted statement appears nowhere in Surprised by Sin. The bigger issue is that Lewis’s statement specifically refers to unbelievers’ distaste for both Milton’s God and the God of Christianity, while Fish’s book emphasizes the reading experience of Milton’s assumed 17th-century Christian reader, whose presumably sometimes adverse responses to Milton’s God are orchestrated by Milton in order to test and refine that reader’s faith.

10> This last point is especially germane to the final and perhaps most significant interpretive difference between Lewis and Fish. Lewis states emphatically that Paradise Lost “is not a religious poem” that enables a reader to have “his devotion quickened,” and he states that a reader who hopes to gain such devotional edification from Milton’s epic will find it “cold, . . . heavy, and external” (127). For Lewis, reading Paradise Lost is not “a religious exercise” (128), and its value for developing the reader’s spiritual maturity and personal piety is minimal. But Fish’s book specifically affirms the poem’s devotional value, arguing throughout that “for the Christian reader Paradise Lost is a means of confirming him in his faith” (55). So Fish’s perception of the poem’s relationship to the reader is fundamentally different from Lewis’s. And to assert, as Rumrich does, that Fish’s “catechismal version of Paradise Lost” is a variant “expression” of Lewis’s “basic argument” (Matter 9) is to seriously overstate the similarity between Lewis’s and Fish’s books.6 Indeed, such a deep connection between Lewis and Fish should simply not be asserted if there is convincing evidence that Fish draws significantly on a different orthodox Christian interpretation of Milton’s poem for his own approach to Paradise Lost in Surprised by Sin.

11> This is where Richardson comes in. As I sought to find any precedent for Rumrich’s original 1987 statement connecting Fish and Lewis, I read every review of Surprised by Sin listed in Huckabay and Klemp’s bibliography (238). Not a single reviewer states anything about Lewis’s special influence upon Fish, including Earl Miner, who, in calling Surprised by Sin “unquestionably the liveliest book on Milton since C. S. Lewis’s little Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’” (300), makes no substantive connection between the two. Two reviewers, however, briefly but specifically note the deep similarity between Fish’s and Richardson’s respective readings of Milton’s epic (Sims 535; Morris 137). As I will discuss below, Fish himself makes this connection explicitly, but it has not been discussed by later scholars, and it has been missed or ignored by those scholars who have continued to press the case for Lewis’s special influence on Fish.

12> On the surface, Richardson (1665-1745) seems an unlikely candidate to serve as a primary influence upon Fish’s seminal work of reader response criticism, but a closer look at his volume on Milton reveals the ways in which it anticipates Fish’s concerns. A respected painter and writer of art theory and criticism, Richardson demonstrates his high regard for Milton’s writings in his citations of Milton in both his Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715) and Two Discourses: An Essay on the Whole of Art Criticism (1719). And his writing of the Explanatory Notes was at least partly prompted by Richard Bentley’s “corrected” edition of Milton’s epic, Dr. Bentley’s Emendation on the Twelve Books of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which Richardson quite disdained (Gibson-Wood 113-14).7 Moreover, Richardson’s high regard for Milton’s art was matched by his awed respect for Milton as a man, something evident throughout Richardson’s Life of Milton, which, in its various superlatively laudatory remarks about Milton’s character can be rightly described as hagiography.8 Curiously, however, it is perhaps Richardson’s idolization of Milton that gives rise to his writings being a basis for Fish’s application-oriented approach to Paradise Lost. For clearly Richardson considered Milton a man worthy of emulation even as he considered Paradise Lost a poem worthy of personal application. Before Richardson begins directly discussing Paradise Lost, he notes of Milton that “Holy Scripture . . . was his Guide in Faith and Practice; but interpreted by his Own Judgment Ultimately. What Better, what Other can Any of Us Have, Desire, or Pretend to?” (xli). Richardson himself seemed to imitate Milton in this regard, holding to a general Christian orthodoxy,9 yet “not accepting religious authority uncritically but rather . . . arriving at [his] own conclusions through reason” (Gibson-Wood 39).

13> Richardson’s emulation of Milton also relates to his view of Paradise Lost itself. In Richardson’s view, “Milton’s Religion” is best expressed in book 12 of Paradise Lost, starting at line 561, in which “our Progenitor [Adam] professes his Faith in One God, and that ’tis his Duty to Obey, Love, and Fear him; to consider Him as Always Present, to Depend upon his Providence . . .” (lxv-lxvi). Adam’s confession of faith, Richardson postulates, was likely “Copy’d from what [Milton] found Engraven on his Own Heart” (lxvi). Moreover, as I shall discuss below, Richardson goes on to contend that Adam’s situation in book 12 is eminently applicable to the Christian readers of his day, a view very similar to Fish’s contention that Paradise Lost was written to awaken the spiritual convictions of Milton’s contemporary Christian readers.

14> Richardson’s direct and foundational influence on Fish is explicitly evident in the several categories discussed above wherein Fish’s approach to Paradise Lost clearly differs from Lewis’s. Richardson’s influence is seen not only in the number of times Fish cites him, but also in the striking length of certain quotations and the manner in which Fish draws on him in places especially important for Fish’s formulations of certain of his most crucial critical assertions.10 First and foremost it is seen in Fish’s approach to reading Paradise Lost as a complex and involved linguistic and spiritual exercise. Fish relies heavily on Richardson late in his opening chapter, where, as Fish puts forward his own view of Paradise Lost as a work intended to spiritually convict and quicken the Christian reader, he quotes Richardson no fewer than six times. Fish calls Richardson his predecessor in his paradoxical emphasis on the reader becoming “the detachedly involved observer of his own mental processes” (54). Fish notes, “Repeatedly Richardson pays tribute to the subtlety of Milton’s method and acknowledges the special claim the poem has on his Christian attention” (54). Fish then cites approvingly Richardson’s emphasis on how Milton “will Awaken” the reader’s “Attention” (Richardson cxliv, qtd. in Fish 54), and, in a two-page span, Fish goes on to quote Richardson in several lengthy blocked passages. The first of these passages is introduced by Fish with a sentence whose importance can hardly be overstated: “Richardson’s description of the poem’s demands accords perfectly with my own” (54; italics mine). In light of this statement, it is difficult to imagine another Milton critic in the orthodox interpretive tradition—Lewis or anyone else—who can be considered a more foundational influence upon Fish’s book.

15> Fish goes on to quote the following passage:

“A Reader of Milton must be Always upon Duty; he is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line, every Word is to the Purpose . . . he Expresses himself So Concisely, Employs Words so Sparingly, that whoever will Possess His Ideas must Dig for them, and Oftentimes pretty far below the Surface. If This is call’d Obscurity let it be remembered ’tis Such a One as is Complaisant to the Reader, not Mistrusting his Ability . . . if a Good Writer is not Understood ’tis because his Reader is Unacquainted with, or Incapable of the Subject, or will not Submit to do the Duty of a Reader, which is to Attend Carefully to what he Reads.”  (Richardson cxliv-cxlv; qtd. in Fish 54)

16> I quote this and other of Fish’s lengthy quotations of Richardson in their entirety to demonstrate how important Richardson is to Fish as he develops his reader-response hermeneutic, especially his belief that Milton intends Paradise Lost to be a poem that brings the reader to greater Christian maturity. In the passage directly above, Fish clearly resonates deeply with Richardson on the matter of the responsibility of the reader to engage Milton’s complexity.

17> And Fish goes on to again quote Richardson at length regarding the way Paradise Lost can serve as “an instrument by which the reader’s mind can be educated to receive” the poem’s “sublime ideas” (55):

“And all These Sublime Ideas are Convey’d to Us in the most Effectual and Engaging Manner: the Mind of the Reader is Tempered, and Prepar’d, by Pleasure, ’tis Drawn, and Allured, ’tis Awaken’d and Invigorated to receive Such Impressions as the Poet intended to give it: it Opens the Fountains of Knowledge, Piety and Virtue, and pours Along Full Streams of Peace, Comfort and Joy to Such as can Penetrate the true Sense of the Writer, and Obediently Listen to his Songs.” (clx; qtd. in Fish 55)

18> Clearly Richardson’s celebration of the poem’s “Fountains of Knowledge, Piety and Virtue” that bring “Full Streams of Peace, Comfort and Joy” to the obedient reader differs tremendously from Lewis’s belief that those reading Paradise Lost in hopes of devotional edification will find the epic “cold, . . . heavy, and external” (Lewis 127). And Fish explicitly agrees with Richardson’s assessment of Paradise Lost’s religious value, unabashedly affirming the devotional riches Milton’s poem offers to its obedient readers.

19> But Fish goes further still. Introducing yet another lengthy Richardson quotation, Fish adds that “the reader who does listen obediently will have participated in something more than a literary experience, since this poem is concerned with his very salvation” (55):

“What does the War of Troy, or the Original of the Roman Name, say it was That of Britain, Concern You and Me? the Original of Things, the First Happy, but Precarious Condition of Mankind, his Deviation from Rectitude, his Lost State, his Restoration to the Favour of God by Repentance, and Imputed Righteousness. . . . These Concern Us All Equally, and Equally with our First Parents, whose Story, and That of the Whole Church of God, this Poem sets before us. . . . Whereas Whoever Profits, as he May, by This Poem will, as Adam in the Garden, Enjoy the Pleasures of Sense to the Utmost, with Temperance, and Purity of Heart, the Truest and Fullest Enjoyment of them; and will Moreover perceive his Happiness is Establish’d upon a Better Foundation than That of his Own Impeccability, and Thus possess a Paradise Within Far more Happy than that of Eden.” (clxi-ii; qtd. in Fish 55)

20> Immediately after this passage, Fish comments approvingly: “In short, for the Christian reader Paradise Lost is a means of confirming him in his faith” (55). Again, it goes without saying that Fish’s approach to the poem as a profound aid to the Christian reader’s devotion fundamentally differs from Lewis’s dismissal of such a devotional emphasis. And this all the more demonstrates the problem with Rumrich’s view that Fish here is somehow recasting Lewis’s “basic argument” into a “catechismal” reading of Milton’s poem (Matter 9). Indeed, Fish here is not modeling his reading on Lewis’s at all. Rather, he is modeling it explicitly and in great detail directly upon the reading of Paradise Lost offered by Richardson.

21> Fish goes on to quote Richardson yet again as he concludes his opening chapter. Fish notes that Richardson even “suggest[s] a comparison” between Paradise Lost and the Bible, which, Richardson notes (quoting 2 Timothy 3.16), is “Profitable for Doctrine, for Reproof, for Correction, for Instruction in Righteousness” (clviii; qtd. in Fish 55, italics Richardson’s). But instead of challenging such a hyperbolic comparison, Fish repeats and approves of it, and he implicitly calls for his readers to agree: “Doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction. Milton could not have wished for higher praise, and he should not be judged by a lesser standard” (56). Fish’s suggestion that Milton’s epic merits a response similar to one’s response to Scripture is drawn directly from Richardson. For Richardson and Fish alike, Milton’s Christian readers are to engage the poem with the expectation that it will teach, challenge, convict, and inspire them on every level, including and indeed specifically on a devotional level. By the end of Surprised by Sin’s opening chapter, Richardson’s foundational influence upon Fish’s hermeneutic is clear, as should be the stark difference between Richardson’s and Fish’s approaches to Paradise Lost, on the one hand, and Lewis’s, on the other.

22> With Richardson’s foundational importance to Fish’s hermeneutic and his emphasis upon reading Paradise Lost as a Christian religious exercise established, I shall now examine Richardson’s influence upon Fish in the two other specific areas about which, as I noted earlier, Fish starkly differs from Lewis. The first area concerns the matter of Milton’s God the Father, whom Lewis considers a less than successful poetic creation (126-27). Fish, of course, defends Milton’s God throughout chapter 2 of Surprised by Sin, and in that chapter’s final section, entitled “Carnal and Spiritual Responses,” Fish summarizes the relationship between the reader and Milton’s Satan on one hand, and the reader and Milton’s God and his heaven on the other, by asserting, “The reader’s response to the two styles [Satan’s and God’s], and thus to what each of them represents, determines his spiritual status, measuring the extent to which in his soul the pride of life has been supplanted by love of Heaven” (88). Fish goes on to invoke Richardson to support this assertion: “Only the pure mind, Richardson remarks, is able to be touched with the beauties of Heaven” (89), and he quotes Richardson at length:

“We have seen Hell; Now Heaven opens to our View; from Darkness Visible we are come to Inconceivable Light; from the Evil One, to the Supream Good, and the Divine Mediator; from Angels Ruin’d and Accurs’d to Those who hold their First State of Innocence and Happiness; the Pictures Here are of a very Different Nature from the former: Sensible things are more Describable than Intellectual; Every One can Conceive in some Measure the Torment of Raging Fire; None but Pure Minds, and Minds Capable Of, and Accustom’d To Contemplation Can be Touch’d Strongly with the Things of Heaven, a Christian Heaven; but He that Can may Find and possess Some Ideas of what he hopes for, where there is a Fullness of Joy and Pleasure for Evermore.” (99; qtd. in Fish 89)

23> Fish quotes the above passage without further comment, but his dependence on Richardson is clear, and Fish’s dependence on Richardson here links seamlessly with his earlier use of Richardson to establish the reading of Paradise Lost as a religious exercise. In the case of reading about God and heaven in book 3 of Milton’s epic, readers can measure their spiritual maturity by their response to Milton’s God and his heavenly entourage. And Fish’s aforementioned Richardson-inspired emphasis on Paradise Lost’s value for “Doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction” (56) is clearly applicable here, both for the carnal and the spiritual readers of Milton’s poem. As Richardson observes, pure minds accustomed to contemplation can be moved and instructed by what they find in Milton’s heaven, and readers whose purity is found wanting, being reproved and corrected, may, as Fish goes on to note, “ascend on the stylistic scale by ‘purging [their] intellectual ray’ to the point where [their] understanding is once more ‘fit and proportionable to Truth the object and end of it,’ and [their] affections follow what [their] reason (the eye of the mind) approves” (90). These, according to Fish, are the rewards for obedient readers of Paradise Lost, and such rewards recall Richardson’s previously quoted promise to such readers: that Paradise Lost “Opens the Fountains of Knowledge, Piety and Virtue, and pours Along Full Streams of Peace, Comfort and Joy to Such as can Penetrate the true Sense of the Writer, and Obediently Listen to his Songs” (clx; qtd. in Fish 55).

24> If Richardson’s influence is evident in Fish’s approach to book 3 of Paradise Lost, it is seen even more clearly in his approach to books 11 and 12, the books Lewis memorably dismissed, as noted earlier, as “an untransmuted lump of futurity” (125). Unlike Lewis, Fish emphasizes the importance of these books and, as he does with the rest of the poem, also emphasizes their personal religious application to Milton’s readers, again drawing on Richardson to support his analysis. In his opening paragraph of chapter 7, Fish discusses the fallen Adam’s education in books 11 and 12, noting, “His failures parallel our own at every point and his successes recreate the process by which we as readers have attained the unity of vision he must now regain; at the end of Book XII, as Richardson saw, he is brought ‘into the Condition in Which We Are, on Even Ground with Us’” (287, quoting Richardson 535). For both Fish and Richardson, we as fallen readers are to recognize in the Adam of these books our own fallen condition and identify with him as one who, in Richardson’s words, represents “Every One of Us in particular” (535).

25> But we are to recognize in Adam not only our fallen state, but also our capacity for spiritual restoration and development. As Fish writes, “The reader is expected to recognize the stages of his growth and to relate them to our own spiritual history” (292), and he again quotes Richardson at length:

“ . . . ’tis Delightful to see how Finely Milton observes observes all the Growth of the New Man. Creation was all at Once, Regeneration is like the Natural Progression, we are Babes, and come by Degrees to be Strong Men in Christ.” (Richardson 484; qtd. in Fish 292)

26> Significantly, Fish here draws on Richardson not only to explain how Milton’s readers may measure their spiritual growth in relation to Adam’s, but also to defend Milton’s oft-criticized stylistics in books 11 and 12. Following this quotation by Richardson, Fish writes,

“Negatively viewed, this stylized formality has been seen as evidence of a 'decline of poetic power,' but one should understand that the regularity and predictability of the pattern allow the reader to use it as a framework within which he gathers together and orders the disparate intuitions he has brought with him from earlier books.” (292)

27> Even as he does in his analysis of Paradise Lost book 3, Fish here makes foundational use of Richardson not only to explain the religious application of a portion of Milton’s epic that many readers—including Lewis—have considered inferior parts of the poem, but also to explain and defend the poetic style of that portion. In both cases, matters of Milton’s stylistics and religious applicability go hand in hand: those who chafe at the formalized stylistics of Milton’s heaven and Adam’s education reveal their own spiritual shortcomings, while those possessing genuine spiritual maturity can appreciate both the quality and purpose of Milton’s poetry in books 3, 11, and 12 and will use these books to grow even deeper in their maturity.

28> My purpose in this essay has been twofold: to shed a corrective light on the oft-repeated but inaccurate notion that Fish’s Surprised by Sin is a methodologically sophisticated restatement of Lewis’s orthodox Christian presentation of Paradise Lost in his Preface; and to demonstrate the foundational influence of Jonathan Richardson’s Explanatory Notes, over and against Lewis’s Preface, upon Fish’s presentation of Paradise Lost as a poem designed by Milton to cause his readers both to recognize their own sin and to grow in greater Christian maturity. It is striking to consider that, in spite of the fact that Fish’s book has been called “a methodologically radical update” of Lewis’s Preface (Rumrich, Milton 4), Richardson’s volume’s influence on Surprised by Sin is evident just as much for Richardson’s hermeneutical methodology as for Richardson’s general understanding of Milton’s epic as an expression of orthodox Christianity; indeed, Richardson’s hermeneutical influence is so pronounced that, despite the clear methodological influence of Waldock and Summers on Fish, it is not entirely accurate to say that Surprised by Sin is a methodological update; rather, it is also, as Sims noted in 1968, a study reminiscent of “the reading of critics near in time to Milton” (535). And although, as noted earlier, Richardson stands as part of a significant line of Milton critics in the orthodox tradition whose insight Fish draws upon, his profound degree of influence on Fish’s book—still the most influential book on Milton in the past fifty years—perhaps merits a call that Richardson’s book itself—generally neglected in present-day Milton criticism11—be reexamined more closely as a still-valuable contribution to Milton scholarship in its own right, one that should be analyzed not merely for its place in the history of Paradise Lost criticism but also for its continued relevance to our understanding of Milton’s great epic.


Thanks to Brian Ingraffia, Paul Klemp, and the anonymous readers at Appositions for their insights and suggestions regarding earlier drafts of this essay. Thanks also to Calvin College, whose Calvin Research Fellowship assisted this essay’s writing.

1. For my response to Herman, Wittreich, and Strier, see “The Acolyte’s Rejoinder.”

2. Jonathan Richardson the Elder alone wrote his Life of the Author and a Discourse on the Poem as the lengthy preface to Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s “Paradise Lost, which he co-wrote with his son, Jonathan Richardson the Younger. The majority of Fish’s citations to this volume are to Richardson’s prefatory material, cited in Roman numerals. The Explanatory Notes themselves are cited with Arabic numerals. Because the majority of the passages that Fish interacts with are unquestionably those of Jonathan Richardson the Elder, and because Fish always refers to him alone in his book, I will throughout my essay refer only to the older Richardson, although it I recognize that some of his insights cited may have originated with his son.

3. Fish cites Waldock’s “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics and Summers’s The Muse’s Method.

4. I overlooked this point of connection in “Speaking” 101.

5. Curiously enough, Fish here chides Lewis for hoping to “prevent the reader from ever raising certain questions” (Lewis 70), quoting the same passage that I have noted that Herman and Bryson have taken out of context (“Speaking” 99-100). Here Fish cites it in the context of Lewis’s discussion of the Fall.

6. Strier asserts that because Surprised by Sin is largely “a response to Waldock’s” “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics and because “Waldock’s book is largely a response to Lewis’s, [...] it is not hard to figure out why it is reasonable to see Fish’s book as, functionally at least, a defense of Lewis’s” (272). But this statement is a faulty syllogism and Strier’s conclusion does not logically follow.

7. For discussions of the critical receptions to Richardson’s volume, see Wendorf 542 and Gibson-Wood 116.

8. For example, Richardson writes, “All his Writings have Intersperst an Odour of Sanctity, not that Cant which was the Character and the Blemish of the Times in which he Liv’d, but a Manly Eloquence flowing from a Heart in which shone the Divine Grace” (lxv); and, “Above all, his Mind Shines with Noble Sentiments of Religion, and Piety” (lxvii).

9. Richardson’s volume was published nearly ninety years before the 1823 discovery of De Doctrina Christiana, the heterodox volume of theology generally attributed to Milton. Richardson directly addresses the “Conjecture” that “Certain Passages” in Paradise Lost suggest “that Milton was an Arian,” but he affirms his general assurance that Milton was in fact a Trinitarian (xlix).

10. Fish’s index notes only six pages on which Richardson is cited, but the index misses pages 160-61, which also cite Richardson. More important is the fact that where Richardson is cited, he is generally quoted lengthily, sometimes with multiple quotations on a single page, and in places foundational to Fish’s larger argument.

11. The general neglect of Richardson has been somewhat remedied recently in the work of Fresch and Lares. See also Leonard’s forthcoming volumes. A particularly valuable study from 1990 is Moore 135-73. See also Walsh 86-91.


Bryson, Michael. The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2004.

Bush, Douglas. “Paradise Lost” in Our Time. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1945.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost.” 1967. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Fresch, Cheryl H. A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton. Vol. 5, part 4: Paradise Lost, Book 4. Ed. P. J. Klemp. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2011.

Gibson-Wood, Carol. Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Herman, Peter C. “C. S. Lewis and the New Milton Criticism.” Milton Quarterly 45 (2011): 258-66.

---. “Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism.” Literature Compass 2 (2005): RE 176, 1-26.

Huckabay, Calvin. John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1988. Ed. Paul J. Klemp. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1996.

Lares, Jameela. A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton. Vol. 5, part 8: Paradise Lost, Books 11-12. Ed. P. J. Klemp. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2012.

Leonard, John. Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of “Paradise Lost,” 1667-1970. 2 vols. London: Oxford UP, forthcoming.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” London: Oxford UP, 1942.

Miner, Earl. “Plundering the Egyptians; or, What We Learn from Recent Books on Milton.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 3 (1970): 296-305.

Moore, Leslie E. Beautiful Sublime: The Making of “Paradise Lost,” 1701-1734. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Morris, John N. Rev. of Surprised by Sin, by Stanley Fish. South Atlantic Quarterly 68 (1969): 134-37.

Peter, John. A Critique of “Paradise Lost.” New York: Columbia UP, 1960.

Richardson, J., father and son. Explanatory Remarks on Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” With the Life of the Author and a Discourse on the Poem by J. R. Senior. London: 1734.

Rumrich, John P. Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Rumrich, John Peter. Matter of Glory: A New Preface to “Paradise Lost.” Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1987.

---. “Uninventing Milton.” Modern Philology 87 (1990): 249-65.

Samuel, Irene. “The Dialogue in Heaven: A Reconsideration of Paradise Lost, III, 1-417.” PMLA 72 (1957): 601-11. Rpt. in Arthur E. Barker, ed., Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism. London: Oxford UP, 1965. 233-45.

Sims, James H. “Paradise Lost Revisited.” Rev. of Milton and the Christian Tradition, by C. A. Patrides; Milton and the Renaissance Hero, by John M. Steadman; Surprised by Sin, by Stanley Fish. Southern Humanities Review 2 (1968): 532-35.

Strier, Richard. “How Not to Praise C. S. Lewis: A Letter to David Urban from a ‘New Milton Critic’ Who Admires CSL.” Milton Quarterly 45 (2011): 271-72.

Summers, Joseph H. The Muse’s Method: An Introduction to “Paradise Lost.” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Urban, David V. “The Acolyte’s Rejoinder: C. S. Lewis and the New Milton Criticism, yet Once More.” Milton Quarterly 46.3 (2012): forthcoming.

---. “Speaking for the Dead: C. S. Lewis Answers the New Milton Criticism; or, ‘Milton Ministries’ Strikes Back.” Milton Quarterly 45 (2011): 95-106.

Waldock, A. J. A. “Paradise Lost” and Its Critics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1947.

Walsh, Marcus. Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Editing: The Beginnings of Interpretive Scholarship. London: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Wendorf, Richard. “Jonathan Richardson: The Painter as Biographer.” New Literary History 15 (1984): 539-57.

Wittreich, Joseph. “Speaking for Myself.” Milton Quarterly 45 (2011): 267-70.

David V. Urban is associate professor of English at Calvin College. He completed John Milton: An Annotated Bibliography, 1989-1999 and is the co-editor of Visionary Milton. His most recent articles on Milton appear in AppositionsMilton Studies, and Milton Quarterly. He has also recently published essays on Fugard and Tolstoy and Pauline Rhetoric. He is completing a book on Milton and Jesus' parables. His most recent reviews appear in the Review of English Studies and Early Modern Literary Studies.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, 1946-1992, VOLUME FIVE (2012): ARTEFACTS


Matthew Smith said...

The critical discussion between Empson, Lewis, and Fish is saturated and continually prolonged by critics, but I confess that it doesn't fail to interest me—perhaps because it has been injected with new questions (such as Rumrich's on Chaos) that separate the union between didactic and orthodox readings of Milton.

This particular article bears not only on the question of whether Lewis's didactic reading is commensurate with Fish's "catechismal" reading but also with the vocabulary of critical influence. Rumrich's claim is that Fish applied a "catechismal" reading strategy to Milton's epic based on the foundation of Lewis's allegedly didactic reading.

In effect, Urban observes that for Fish—in Surprised by Sin—as for many other scholars, Lewis's Preface is more often glossed than it is carefully engaged; it often remains at a distance as a symbol of whatever it is that Stanley Fish applied to the reader's conscience. If Lewis's reading, on the other hand, is indeed didactic, it is not without reservations about Paradise Lost's spiritual value.

Consequently, Urban points to a much older hermeneutic in Richardson. I especially find this quotation compelling: "if a Good Writer is not Understood 'tis because his Reader . . . will not Submit to do the Duty of a Reader." I am interested in thinking more about how this eighteenth-century notion of readerly "duty" relates to the question of Milton's orthodoxy/heterodoxy. Perhaps a worthwhile connection between Richardson and Rumrich (to make a further jump) would be Defoe, who also has a sense of the reader's duty to orthodoxy yet recognizes that there remains a problematic vacuum in Milton's allegedly inadequate explanation of the origin of evil—a vacuum that reminds me of Rumrich's description of Chaos in its indeterminacy and potential for artistic creation.

Stanley Fish said...

"Hi David. You're right. At the time I was writing SBS, I was thinking of editing a collection of early Milton criticism along the lines of the collection John Shawcross later published. I went through all the early editions, and read Bentley, Richardson and others, and they, along with the rhetorical manuals Milton would have known, influenced me a great deal. --Stanley. P.S. if you haven't seen it, you might want to take a look at my new book Versions of Antihumanism: Milton and Others (Cambridge)."

Gregory Machacek said...

On Behalf Of Gregory Machacek []

Sent: Saturday, August 04, 2012 7:10 AM

To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] Comments Requested on Milton/Lewis/Fish/Richardson/NMC article

Re: APPOSITIONS, Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, ISSN: 1946-1992

In response to David's interesting article:

For me, the question of Lewis' possible influence on Fish is not what drives Rumrich, Herman, Bryson to associate the two critics. (Notice that the quotes in your opening paragraph, David, don't use the word "influence").

Rather, I think the God character in Paradise Lost elicits two kinds of reaction from readers. Some, including Lewis and Fish, regard it as most plausible that Milton intended the God character in his epic as (axiomatically) good; if a reader finds him otherwise, it is the reader who needs to adjust his reactions. Others regard the God character's goodness as an open question: not just not God; the reader is entitled, even encouraged, to evaluate and even impugn the God character's goodness. The people in this second camp just see Lewis and Fish as kindred souls since they're on the same side of this big issue.

My two cents.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College