Stephen M. Fallon.† Miltonís Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority.† Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2007.† xiii+274pp.† ISBN† 0 8014 4516 7.††

David V. Urban
Calvin College

David V. Urban. "Review of Stephen M. Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace: Self-Representation and Authority." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.

  1. Stephen Fallonís Miltonís Peculiar Grace is an exceptionally valuable study that makes two main assertions: that Miltonís various writings, regardless of their genre, are inevitably self-referential; and that Milton, although he is certainly a theological writer, is not a religious one because these self-referential writings are curiously bereft of the Augustinian emphasis on conviction of personal sin, spiritual regeneration, and growth in sanctification so common among the Protestant religious writers of Miltonís era.† Fallon succeeds in demonstrating both points, and, as a Miltonist myself, I can assert confidently that I have a significantly deeper understanding of both the general sweep of Miltonís works and specific aspects of particular works as a result of this far-ranging study.†

  2. In his opening chapter, Fallon sets a theoretical groundwork defending the legitimacy of biographical criticism and the reading of intentionality in an author’s works. In the process, Fallon explicitly rejects Roland Barthes’s assertion that intentionality is an illusion, offering the following memorable retort to Barthes’s skepticism: "In the absence of a principle for banishing intention more convincing than Barthes’s intransitivity, we are free to continue reading literary texts as intentional constructions" (9). But Fallon also emphasizes "the tension between [Milton’s] intended and unacknowledged self-representations," arguing that within that tension readers "can follow a fascinating drama of chosen-ness and exclusion, perfectionism and error, confidence and despair" (13).

  3. In a short interlude discussing Miltonís 1633 "Letter to a Friend" and in chapter two, "The Least of Sinners," Fallon lays out just how different Miltonís autobiographical writings are from those of other Protestant seventeenth-century authors.† He notes, for example, that Calvinist authors followed a "rigidly determined" script that moved "from sin through grace, conviction, conversion, regeneration, and sanctification" (23).† Milton, by contrast, avoids such a narrative, and his own autobiographical statements demonstrate "an apparently serene confidence in his own righteousness" (29).† The "Letter to a Friend" is remarkable, among other things, for Miltonís adroit use of John 9:4, the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30), and the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20.1-16) to both relate himself to Christ and to justify his post-graduate inaction.† Milton does not demonstrate repentance or even acknowledgement of sin but rather the desire, not only to justify his seeming inaction (it is actually preparation for a future calling), but also to assert the virtue of his choices.
  4. In chapter three, "ĎHimself before Himselfí: The Early Works," Fallon contends that Miltonís self-representations in his youthful writings serve to outline and indeed produce the life Milton goes on to live, a life that "imitates the proleptic self-representations in the early works" (46).† He notes Miltonís prophetic personae not only as the inspired singers of the "Nativity Ode" and "Lycidas" but also as the Attendant Spirit in A Mask (Comus).† Milton also inhabits the chaste ideal of both the Maskís Lady and Sabrina, and both Miltonís prophetic and chaste ideals are demonstrated in his self-representation in "Epitaphium Damonis."† Through it all, however, no conversion narrative is to be seen.† Milton may admit to youthful error, but not sin.
  5. Chapter four analyzes Miltonís various autobiographical digressionsóboth explicit and implicitóin his anti-prelatical prose works.† These digressions continue Miltonís earlier presentation of himself as one who is superlatively virtuous, and Fallon observes that such a self-presentation is at odds with Miltonís expressed belief in humanityís fall.† The 1641 Of Reformation and Animadversions do not contain overt first-person digressions, but Fallon argues that in both works Milton "presents himself, in the third person, as a specially chosen and specifically gifted spokesman of God" (85), portraying himself as a prophet who is "singular, heroic, and godly" (88).† In his 1642 Reason of Church-Government, Miltonís self-representation becomes explicit and painfully self-conscious, highlighting the danger of his calling and linking his prophetic office with the necessity of chastity.†† In this work and in the strikingly intimate autobiographical digressions of An Apology for Smectymnuus (1642), Miltonís practice of anxious self-justification brings about a "tangled prose" style (101).† Fallonís assertion that Miltonís 1641 tracts contain self-presentations veiled by the third-person voice becomes increasingly credible as he demonstrates the consistent parallels between such veiled presentations and the overt ones of the 1642 tracts.

  6. Chapter five, "ĎThe Spur of Self-Concernment,í" focuses primarily on Miltonís divorce tracts.† Here, Fallon plainly states that "the divorce tracts are not merely inspired by personal experience, they are about Milton" (111).†† Moreover, Fallon moves beyond Arthur Barkerís belief that Miltonís marital discord with Mary Powell forced Milton to confront his own weakness (Barker 66); Fallon argues that although Milton does implicitly acknowledge his own fallen nature, he goes on to offer "a torturous set of logical moves" that ultimately reaffirms his earlier heroic self-presentation (112).† Fallon highlights differences between the first and second editions of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and between them and Tetrachordon, contending that these works display "the progression and variations of Miltonís self-representations" (112).† Indeed, the first edition of Doctrine (1643) begins the divided self-representation "that marks the rest of Miltonís career," for in it Milton represents himself as both "a prophetic restorer of divine mercy" and one who recognizes his possible "alienation from God" (113).†† But Miltonís insecurities increasingly fade to the background in the divorce tracts; responding to criticism of the tractís first edition, the second edition of Doctrine (1644) offers Miltonís "more pronounced"† representation of himself as a "godly hero" (113).† And Tetrachordon (1645) goes so far as to claim "special perfection for the divorcer" (130), for Milton, basing his definition of true marriage upon God creating, in Genesis 2, a wife fit for Adam, suggests that divorce offers the hope to return to a prelapsarian Eden, "an undoing of the fatal error" of the fall (132).

  7. Fallonís discussion of Tetrachordon is particularly strong, and he certainly demonstrates in this chapter the startling degree of self-regard that Milton articulates while championing the scandalous idea of divorce.† But in the interlude on Miltonís Interregnum poetry that follows the chapter, Fallon misses an obvious opportunity to further develop his important point about Miltonís divided self-representation.† Fallonís short section on the Interregnum poetry is remarkable for its brief coverage of Sonnet 19 ("When I consider how my light is spent").† This is a poem veritably bursting with divided Miltonic self-representation, and yet Fallon inexplicably devotes less than half a page to its discussion.† Indeed, it seems that a more thorough analysis of this important sonnet should be expected in any book devoted to Fallonís larger overall topic.

  8. Chapter six, "ĎIt Was I and No Other,í" covers Miltonís Interregnum prose. Fallon observes that Miltonís self-representation in his writings of 1649-1655 is"more restrained and more impersonal," a phenomenon largely explained by the fact that in these works Milton "speaks explicitly for Cromwellís party, the party of power"† (150).† Nonetheless, Miltonís three Defences (Defence of the English People [1651], Second Defence of the English People [1654], and Defence of Himself [1655]) become increasingly self-referential, a phenomenon evident enough in the title of the third Defence.† As Fallon writes, by the time of that work Miltonís "defense of his party is completely displaced by a response to attacks on his character" (160).† And as the republican experiment ends in failure, Milton once again resumes his earlier stance as "the lone prophetic voice crying out in a faithless world" (176).† This phenomenon is especially evident in The Readie and Easie Way (1660), in which Milton assumes the persona of a new Jeremiah, and Fallon offers a particularly valuable connection between this persona and that of the autobiographical figure of Abdiel, the brave angel in Paradise Lost who, alone among his legion, remains loyal to God and rebukes Satan as he leads his traitorous rebellion against the true King.

  9. Chapter seven, "ĎElect above the Rest,í" examines self-representation in Miltonís posthumous theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana.† To focus his investigation, Fallon uses God the Fatherís famous words in Paradise Lost, "Some I have chosen of peculiar grace / Elect above the rest" (3.183-84).† Fallon argues that Miltonís theological self-representations in the treatise demonstrate his desire "to be elect by both birthright and merit" (188).† Although Miltonís basic Arminian views are evident throughout the treatise, he still holds to the belief in "Godís arbitrariness in dealing with Ďhis own possessionsí" (197).† Even though Milton asserts "universal, sufficient grace," he nonetheless "leaves an opening for a spiritual aristocracy" (197).† The juxtaposition of these seemingly incompatible views is in fact consistent with "Miltonís self-construction as a heroic and select servant of God; that is, to Miltonís own need to be outstanding in as many ways as possible, or rather in more ways than are possible at once" (202).

  10. Chapter eight, "ĎIf All Be Mine: Confidence and Anxiety in Paradise Lost,"focuses primarily on the epicís four highly self-referential proems, and Fallon asserts that in these proems Milton claims to have "the inspiration and authority essential for the composition of Christian epic," even as the proems demonstrate "the anxiety that inevitably accompanies such a claim" (211), including Miltonís anxiety over revealing the divine secrets which have been revealed to him.† This mixture of confidence and anxiety in the proems is another manifestation of the divided self-representation Milton offered earlier in his prose writings.

  11. Fallonís interest in Miltonís divided self-representations reaches its apex in his final chapter, "I as All Others," in which Fallon investigates Miltonís prominent self-representation as the Son in Paradise Regained and as Samson in Samson Agonistes.† The respective protagonists of these two works, published together in 1671, represent the two sides of Miltonís divided self, with the Son embodying the still-evident perfectionistic claims of Miltonís early self-representations while Samson embodies angst-filled self-representations that first manifested themselves in the divorce tracts.† Fallonís discussion of Samson is particularly intriguing when he persuasively argues that there are "two Samsons" in Miltonís final poemó"the failed hero who must suffer and the chosen hero who will live on" (262)óand that these two Samsons ultimately serve to reconcile the current debate between Milton critics who argue for a more traditional interpretation of a heroic, regenerated Samson who largely embodies his author and those revisionist Miltonists who argue that Miltonís Samson is a failed, prideful anti-hero whom Milton repudiates.† For Fallon, the flawed Samson of the revisionists "is finally no less a stand-in for his author than the Samson of the regenerationist account" (262).† In Samson, "Milton explores the darker sides of his own self-conception, coming closer to the Augustinian autobiographical narrative of conviction and regeneration than he does anywhere else in his writing.† This reconstruction is a deeply mature act, and it measures the distance Milton has come from the fantastic and naÔve self-construction of the young man" (263).† Ultimately, the "divided character" of Samsonówho is both elect and heroic and "fallen and flawed" -- demonstrates "Miltonís profoundly divided representations of himself as they emerge in and shape the course of his career" (270).†

  12. This important book is a major contribution to Milton studies: it covers the breadth of Miltonís works, including a large number of his less accessible prose works, and successfully demonstrates the sustained trajectory of Miltonís consistent yet evolving self-representations throughout his career.† Indeed, I think that I will never look at Miltonís works, either as a whole or in their individual parts, quite the same after reading this book, and my perception of him as a man and a writer has been similarly sharpened by Fallonís efforts.†

  13. Fallonís book is, of course, not without its faults.† At times its great strength of covering a broad range of Miltonís works in a manageable number of pages becomes a weakness in that certain important poetic works and certain important self-representational characters (Miltonís Satan in Paradise Lost comes to mind here) are covered comparatively sparsely in favor of more lengthy discussions of Miltonís explicit or implicit self-representations in, frankly, less interesting prose works, and the bookís readability suffers as a result, even though Fallonís decision to emphasize such less-covered writings may ultimately serve as a net gain for Milton studies as a whole.† And, although Fallon certainly succeeds in demonstrating Miltonís consistently self-referential presence throughout his works, he at times, particularly in the late-middle chapters, seems to lose sight somewhat of his other early-stated emphasis that Milton is a theological but not a religious writer, although in fairness to Fallon he demonstrates that point earlier in his work and does reiterate it in the bookís epilogue.† Finally, readers of C. S. Lewisís A Preface to "Paradise Lost" (including readers of its excerpts in the 2005 Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost) may recognize that Fallonís argument that Milton is not a religious writer recalls Lewisís assertion that Paradise Lost "is not a religious poem" in the sense that it is not "a poem of religious expression" (127, 128).† Lewisís analysis here anticipates Fallonís project, but Fallon neglects to acknowledge Lewis on this point..

  14. These caveats notwithstanding, I highly recommend Fallonís book to anyone hoping to better understand Miltonís writings and their relationship to the man who wrote them. 

Works Cited



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