Milton's Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority – By Stephen M. Fallon
Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
© 2008 The Author. Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 78–82, March 2008
How to Cite
Coiro, A. B. (2008), Milton's Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority – By Stephen M. Fallon. Milton Quarterly, 42: 78–82. doi: 10.1111/j.1094-348X.2008.00186_1.x
- Issue published online: 17 APR 2008
- Article first published online: 17 APR 2008
Milton's Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority . Ithaca and London : Cornell UP , 2007 . x + 274 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-8014-4516-3 . $49.95 (cloth )..
The long conversation about Milton's works has acted like a test case—or, in recent years, a control group—for critical theories. For a while, the author was dead to hip literary analysis, but Milton remained unquestionably alive because his strong authorial presence was resistant to late twentieth-century theory. Forms of literary biography, including political and religious historicism, have remained central to Milton studies and have made, to varying degrees, Milton himself the center of analysis still. Nevertheless, it did become harder for Miltonists to talk openly about what Miltonists do. Milton's Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority has the strength and honesty to be completely open about its method. Stephen Fallon, a highly respected Miltonist, invites welcome debate about our relationship to Milton and his work. Fallon argues that Milton is always writing about himself.
Milton's Peculiar Grace posits several levels of self-representation in Milton's work, and readers will need to decide how far they can go along Fallon's continuum of both intentional and unconscious autobiography. First, Fallon argues that Milton explicitly fashions a self in his prose. Trained as a humanist, Milton knew that the effective power of a speaker is built on ethical proof. Writing as a seventeenth-century Puritan, Milton might predictably have turned to self-examination and confession of fault to build ethical power, a religious version of classical ethos. But Fallon presses on Milton's inability to admit sinfulness. Milton sees himself as a person apart, doubly deserving because of his own merit and because he is chosen. Most readers will be comfortable with the idea that Milton is crafting “Milton” in the 1640s and 1650s, especially because Fallon writes about the prose with clarity and insight. It can be more difficult, however, to follow the argument of Milton's Peculiar Grace when it is extended to Milton's poetry. Fallon assumes that the speakers of his lyric poems and the narrators of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are Milton. The last step in this inclusive literary autobiography is to accept that Milton's characters, or at least some of them, are versions of Milton.
Anyone who has taught Milton knows that Fallon has introduced for discussion principles that must be constantly negotiated in working with students. After all, Milton's early work launches his career by predicting greatness, and Milton's late works prompt us to see within them a blind, politically disappointed, perfectly educated, and prophetic genius. Because the prose and poetry do prod us to find there the story of a historical person called Milton, the suggestion of a coherent presence is one of the things that makes Milton's work unforgettable (and for some readers, profoundly unlikable). Yet, paradoxically, the autobiographical intimations make Milton's poetry challenging and elusive. To what degree is the person John Milton the actual center of his work? To what degree have the poems morphed through generations of readers, imitators, and critics (including those who have found their own version of “Milton” there)? To what degree is the sense of an authorial life behind the work one of the deliberate hermeneutic challenges of the poetry, an exploration of what it means to write and read in the context of modernity's thickly documented history? Every reader contends with such questions. Fallon's choice in Milton's Peculiar Grace is to reject explicitly the usual strictures against equating speaker and author.
For at least a generation, it has been an axiom of seventeenth-century criticism and of Milton studies in particular that religion needs to be at the center of our concern, although the parsing of sects and the assignment of authors to religious viewpoints sometimes seem to lack a larger goal. Fallon, on the other hand, usefully deploys seventeenth-century religious practice in order to get at what sets Milton apart. Crucial to Fallon's thesis is that Milton is a theological poet, but not a religious one, a distinction that proves immensely fruitful. The initial question of Peculiar Grace is: if Milton is a typical Puritan, why do his autobiographical writings lack the soul-searching and conviction of sin that are the hallmarks of other contemporary works, such as Bunyan's revealingly titled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners? At least half of Milton's Peculiar Grace is concerned with the prose, and the story Fallon traces across the years that Milton devoted to polemic makes an engrossing and convincing biographical narrative. Deploying a psychoanalytic critique filtered through theology, Fallon argues that Milton's whole career is a long negotiation between a sense of specialness and a dread of punishment because of his presumption.
In the prose of the 1640s and 1650s, under the pressure of attacks on his positions and even his morality, Milton, in Fallon's apt phrase, “composes himself.” Except for “On Shakespeare” and the anonymous appearance of A Maske, and Lycidas, Milton's first works to appear in print are his five antiprelatical tracts, published in 1641 and 1642. Fallon traces the ways Milton finds his voice and emerges from anonymity over the course of these two years, culminating in the famous autobiographical passages in the last two tracts. Part of that self-creation, Fallon argues, is fed by a sense of exceptionalism which entailed Milton's refusal to admit his own fallenness. The Preface to Book 2 of Reason of Church-Government, the only one of these early works to have Milton's name on the title page, is the most often-cited instance of Milton's explicit autobiography. Milton begins by being apologetic for coming belatedly to the controversy (indeed, for having produced so little of the great English poetry that should have been the product of the years of time and money invested in the brilliant young man), but he ends by being assertive about his future as a prophetic artist. Fallon understands these remarks as Milton's declaration of his own unique gifts—an artist who, even as he works in long-established genres, stands apart. An Apology for Smectymnuus where, under a thin veil of anonymity, Milton defends himself ardently against accusations of dissolute behavior, is in Fallon's fine analysis even more revealing. Fallon teases out of the baroque, self-revealing phrases of the early prose works the ongoing Miltonic tension between the chorus of the Many and the righteousness of the One.
Milton's Peculiar Grace positions the divorce tracts as a watershed in Milton's self-representation. The humiliation and frustration of his failed marriage and his wish for a divorce pushed Milton beyond self-defense into assertive self-creation. Fallon's premise is that while Milton never acknowledges his own frailty or wrongdoing, the divorce tracts mark the moment when fear that he is cut off from God begins to haunt Milton, a thesis Fallon proves convincingly in his reading of Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Tetrachordon, in contrast, is much less ambivalent about a husband's possible culpability and much more contemptuous of shallow and seductive women. Through the divorce tracts, then, Fallon traces a retreat on Milton's part from his initial willingness to acknowledge weakness. Finally, he needs to regard himself as unfallen, and thus as tricked, like Uriel, precisely because he is unfallen. Fallon also reads the two gloriously optimistic works of the mid 1640s, Of Education and Areopagitica, for the powerful tide of Milton's self-concern. He sees in Of Education Milton's belief in the heroic teacher (Milton himself, thinly veiled). But he also finds “a nascent and inchoate strain of perfectionism” in Milton's belief that the teacher can produce a nation of great men. Similarly, Areopagitica's rousing idealism is closely linked with the job of protecting the work of John Milton, writer.
Fallon's method of psychological close reading enables him to pull Milton out of the prose work he wrote in the 1650s as an employee of the state. Fallon is brilliant on Eikonoklastes. Charles's solemn self-justification and his stance as a saint-like figure are unnervingly close to Milton's version of himself. But Charles's humble stance, admitting wrongdoing, is a place Milton cannot go. Ironically, the king's confessional humility is one of the aspects of the Eikon that renders it impervious to Milton's sputtering rage. Similarly, the three Latin defenses Milton wrote in the early 1650s become, increasingly, defenses of himself. The person he presents and defends in Defensio Secunda, for example, is a heroic character, standing alone. Fallon's analysis of the prose of the 1640s and 1650s is subtle, witty, and utterly convincing in its evocation of a complex mind whose personal ambitions and fears are woven into his prose polemic, who is uncomfortable writing on assignment and fearful of allowing his single, heroic voice to join in a public debate with the multitude. In a strong and compelling reading, Milton's Peculiar Grace summons out of Milton's dense prose a person who both glorifies and desperately justifies himself.
The issue of Milton's presence in his poetry is a long-standing puzzle: is he the poet racing to be first in the Nativity Ode? The young man facing mortality in Lycidas? The narrator of Paradise Lost? Samson? Milton's Peculiar Grace argues that he is indeed all of these figures. Fallon aligns himself with the school of Milton critics who want to find a continuous self from the early poetry to the great Restoration works. Rather than reading Milton's mature views backward into the early poetry, however, Fallon makes the intriguing proposal that Milton is creating a self in the early works, inventing himself textually. As a result he is never in the present moment, but continuously casting backward in nervous justification or forward in heroic creation. The Nativity Ode responds elegantly to this argument—this is one of the finest readings in the book. But reading Milton's poetry and dramatic work as autobiographical carries the heavy risk of being reductive rather than illuminating—overly literal or thesis-driven and selective. A Maske, for example, gets only a few paragraphs precisely because Milton's presence is “diffuse and veiled.” There is no “I.”A Maske is Milton's major work before Paradise Lost, and a touchstone for the epic, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. It feels strained for a biographical account of Milton to give the masque such short shrift.
The greatest strength of Milton's Peculiar Grace is in its analysis of the prose, and by pairing poetry with prose Fallon writes a memorable chapter that goes to the heart of his thesis. He does not use De Doctrina Christiana to understand Paradise Lost. Instead he uses the poem to understand the difficulties Milton wrestled with in his theological treatise. The puzzling crux created by the contradiction in God's thinking about salvation in Book 3 is an effective tool for analyzing the stubborn remnant of Calvinist election in Milton's Arminian theological treatise. One of Milton's greatest characters—arbitrary, maddening God—becomes an interpretive lens for highlighting what Fallon argues is the major psychological stumbling block in Milton's theology. God sounds decidedly Calvinist in Book 3 when he pronounces “some I have chosen of peculiar grace/Elect above the rest” (183-84). But this remnant of Calvinist doctrine balances uneasily with the rest of God's decree, an allowance of salvation for everyone who merits it. Fallon does not claim that God is Milton or that God's speech is an expression of Milton's conscious beliefs. Instead, he uses the unresolved tension of the poem as a template to understand De Doctrina Christiana and Milton's need to hold onto the position of God's elect for himself, even if he has logically repudiated that doctrine for the rest of mankind.
When Fallon argues that Paradise Lost itself is Milton's self-representation, however, his interpretive model feels imposed and misguided. Fallon puts his case simply: in the invocations “Milton writes of himself in his own person,” and “he also inhabits several of the work's characters” (203). First, the choice of characters is suspiciously selective, apparently chosen to yield results that match the textual self Fallon finds in the prose. Abdiel, for example, is a representation of Milton, the warrior-writer of the 1650s. Certainly many readers have wondered to what extent the righteous angel standing alone in the face of evil is Milton role-playing himself. But that suggestion gets interestingly tricky upon second thought. Abdiel is a decidedly mixed character—he did follow Satan initially; he is capable of an interior monologue, a mark of fallen subjectivity; and he is more zealous than brilliant in his argument with his fallen general. If there is Miltonic representation here it is fractured and self-critical. Similarly, Fallon argues that the anger of the unfallen Adam at the moment when he realizes that his wife has sinned represents the Milton of the divorce tracts. But Adam had already instantly decided to fall with his wife; it is hard to see him as unfallen from the moment he sees her hectic flush. And what of Adam after he falls, bitter and rigid? Once a character becomes Milton, when does that stop? What of Belial, brilliant, and persuasive, but finally super bad? Or Eve, heroic in her acceptance of blame, the act the historical Milton cannot perform according to Fallon's argument? Are they not Milton too, given the autobiographical premise? But because this version of autobiography insists on a Milton who never admits fault, never accepts blame, and never sees himself as part of a group, these aspects of Paradise Lost are missing from Milton's Peculiar Grace. From the minute the censor puzzled over the parliament in hell, the historical and biographical levels of the poem have teased readers. But the poem does not hold still to be claimed.
Fallon joins a number of critics over the years who have accepted, although often implicitly, that the narrator of Paradise Lost is John Milton. Milton's Peculiar Grace is admirably open about its premise that the proems of Paradise Lost are spoken in the voice of Milton himself. Fallon's series of readings of the four proems is full of valuable insights. But those echoes and allusions that complicate his autobiographical thesis, Fallon calls unintentional, so that the whole argument becomes dangerously circular: if there is something that contradicts Milton's “lifelong project of ethical proof” then Milton did not mean to write it. I believe the narrator is a character, albeit one richly complicated by the hauntingly suggestive presence of the poem's author, and Milton's Peculiar Grace did not convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, Fallon's well-written, strongly argued book made me think hard again about fundamental critical issues in Paradise Lost.
The chapter on the 1671 poems takes a step back from Fallon's claims about self-representation in Paradise Lost, and in that one degree of distance lies a great deal of imaginative play. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes have each been read as forms of autobiography many times before; they have also been seen as a linked pair. Fallon's version of these approaches is elegant and suggestive. He reads the two poems together as embodying Milton's polarized psyche—a sense of unfallen singularity represented by the Son of Paradise Regained and a sense of shame at his failures represented by Samson. The Son and Samson together offer a rich puzzle of autobiography, typology, and the polarities of human ambition and foolishness. Here Fallon strikes a reverberating chord that goes beyond the book's initial premise—Milton may have desperately wished to be exceptional, but the shadows of self-representation at the end of his life are breathtakingly recognizable to readers of many religions, genders, and nations.
There is no doubt that Milton represents himself throughout his works, from his student exercises to the final poems that are burdened with and enriched by a life of hope and disappointment. Milton's Peculiar Grace succeeds brilliantly in returning our full attention to the presence of that overweening, irascible, proudly singular voice we call Milton. If the hermeneutic prodigy, Paradise Lost, exceeds the book's thesis, Fallon's encounter with the poem is a bracing reading by a superb critic, one that forces us to be newly self-conscious of our own investment in representing Milton. The issues Fallon raises as Miltonic are issues embedded in authorship itself and in our own relationships with the genius of the word. Specialists and nonspecialists will want to read this important book.