John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet

A Study of Divine Vocation in Milton's Poetry and Prose


©   John Spencer Hill


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Chapter 5

Samson Agonsites

[151]   The most remarkable aspect of Samson Agonistes is its internalisation of the action.1   Samson's movement back to God, his recovery of his lost pre-eminence and power, is recorded, not in terms of the hero's actions, but rather in terms of his progressively more acute spiritual awareness.   It is in the spiritual movement of the drama that the Aristotelian "middle", which Dr Johnson found wanting in the play, is to be found.   Indeed, most of Milton's modern readers would readily endorse Arthur Barker's facetiously accurate reversal of Dr Johnson's charge:   "Samson's experience is so far from having no middle that it is in effect all middle."2
      Almost without exception, recent commentators have read Samson Agonistes as a study in regeneration, and many have argued that the pattern of Miltonic soteriology set out in De Doctrina Christiana provides an important gloss on the poetic handling of Samson's spiritual development.   These readers have pointed out that the hero is renovatingly called in the opening soliloquy, that he freely chooses to respond to this vocation, and that the process of his spiritual rebirth is patterned on the Miltonic doctrines of renovation and regeneration.   The position is admirably summarised by Anthony Low:

When Samson is led in from the prison, he is in what amounts to a state of spiritual death, into which he has fallen as a result of his betrayal of God's trust.   He laments his blindness and captivity, he feels a bewildered sense of spiritual malaise and guilt, but before he can make any progress toward recovery he must first learn to understand and to confront his sin.   This he does, undergoing the process known as conversion (that is, a turning of the soul from evil to good) and regeneration (spiritual rebirth or renewal). In Milton's view, regeneration is impossible without the assistance of God's grace, since man in a fallen state cannot satisfy God's justice or merit his help.   At the same time, however, the individual must freely choose to cooperate [152] with grace and with the opportunities for spiritual renovation that providence offers him . . . .   Much of the process [of regeneration] can only be assumed, because it takes place inwardly and is reflected only indirectly by Samson's outward behavior and conversation; but that it occurs is clear . . . .   Finally, Samson follows the "progressive steps" of repentance:   "conviction of sin, contrition, confession, departure from evil, conversion to good".   It would be wrong, I believe, to associate these steps too closely or schematically with the structure of the play, even though one is tempted to do so by the fact that there are five steps of repentance and the play consists of five episodes or acts.   One may say roughly, however, that Samson is convicted of sin, becomes contrite, and confesses his guilt in the first part of the play--including his soliloquy and the interviews with the Chorus and Manoa.   Although these three steps each might be said to begin at some indefinite point in the first part of the play, all of them plainly culminate in the interview with Manoa.   In his interview with Dalila, Samson can be said to depart from evil--and also, perhaps, in his interview with Harapha, when he dismisses much of what he has formerly been.   His final conversion to good takes place between the two visits of the Public Officer.3

Such theological interpretations have shed considerable light on the mimetic pattern of Samson's renovating movement from death-in-life to life-through-death--a spiritual journey from darkness to light and from loss to restoration that is mirrored in the play's time scheme, which takes us from early morning to the catastrophic finale in Dagon's temple at high noon.   But vocation and the possibility of spiritual growth are not limited to Samson alone.   Both Manoa and the Chorus are called through Samson's experience and invited to respond to the renovating grace extended to them as well; and that they do respond--each according to the degree of grace given to him (cf. Introduction, pp. 14-15)--is clear from the "new acquist/ Of true experience" gleaned from their personal involvement in the great events which they have witnessed--an acquisition of private spiritual experience that sends them from the stage "With peace and consolation . . . / And calm of mind all passion spent" (1755-8).   In a similar way, Dalila and Harapha are called to co-operate with universal grace, and Samson"s development must be seen as being, potentially, an [153] analogue of the regenerative experience offered to but declined by them.   Their wilful behaviour sends them off self-condemned and self-blinded; and ironically, as Anthony Low points out, "their visit to Samson proves to be an 'evil temptation' for them, which encourages them to sink further into error, at the same time that they serve as 'good temptations' to strengthen him".4
      Samson's vocational experience, however, is both deeper and more complex than that of any of the other characters.   He is not only called, like those around him, to respond to God's redemptive purpose by a vocatio generalis, but he is also called by a vocatio specialis which sharply distinguishes his spiritual agon from theirs:   "God, whenever he chooses, invites certain selected individuals . . . more clearly and more insistently than is normal." (YP, VI, p. 455)   Samson is not an ordinary man; he is a judge, an Israelite shôphet elect above the rest of mankind:   "when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge" (Judges 2: 18).   Throughout Samson Agonistes stress is laid on the hero's unique status as a divinely commissioned instrument.   In his opening soliloquy Samson declares that his "breeding" had been "ordered and prescribed/ As of a person separate to God,/ Designed for great exploits" (30-2), and the theme of special election is reinforced in the speeches of Manoa and the Chorus and is often cogently restated by Samson himself:   "I was no private but a person raised/ With strength sufficient and command from heaven/ To free my country." (1211-13)   But, as these formulations indicate, Samson's vocatio specialis involves a special responsibility--for those whom the Lord has "solemnly elected" (678) to serve Him are called as agents of His will and not for their own sake. Samson, however, when first we meet him in the prison-house at Gaza, has proven unfaithful to the divine trust.   Motivated by self-interest and guilty of presumption, he has wilfully abrogated his mission and cut himself off from the source of his strength.   And before he can be reinstated as God's "faithful champion" and fulfil his predicted role as Israel's deliverer, he must be educated in the limits of power and he must learn, like the Christ of Milton's epics, to deny the promptings of self-will so that he may truly serve as the instrument of deity, not pre-empting but co-operating with grace and freely performing God's acts in God's own time.
      In the poetic fabric of Samson Agonistes the related themes of regeneration and election, of general and special vocation, are [154] developed together and skilfully interwoven.   As the drama begins, the hero is presented to us as a "fallen" man in a double sense:   he is both an heir of Adam's transgression and a peccant agent (apparently) dismissed from divine service.   Both of these states are transcended as the play progresses and as Samson grows through his ever more positive response to the graded series of temptations offered to him by Manoa, Dalila, Harapha, and the Philistian Officer.   The various confrontations cause him to manifest faith and repentance; and, as the process of his regeneration advances, the divine image defaced in Eden is gradually restored in him.   Correlative with--and, indeed, contingent upon--this spiritual metamorphosis is the educational growth which transforms him from a self-motivated agent operating on what he presumes to be God's will to a chastened instrument responding only to the intimate impulse of the "rousing motions" by which God calls him to active service.


In the first act of the drama the significance of the hero's fallen state is explored by contrasting past and present, and the theme of vocation is introduced in terms of an unresolved tension between prophecy and fact, between Samson's promised calling as God's champion and Israel's deliverer and his actual position as a Philistian bondslave whom God, it seems, has rejected.   Led from the confines of his prison, Samson laments that, while the cessation of labour afforded by Dagon's feast may grant some ease to his body, it allows none to his mind, which is the more assailed by those "restless thoughts" that rush upon him like a swarm of angry hornets

                                             and present
Times past, what once I was, and what am now.
O wherefore was my birth from heaven foretold
Twice by an angel, who at last in sight
Of both my parents all in flames ascended
From off the altar, where an offering burned,
As in a fiery column charioting
His godlike presence, and from some great act
Or benefit revealed to Abraham's race?
[155]   Why was my breeding ordered and prescribed
As of a person separate to God,
Designed for great exploits; if I must die
Betrayed, captived, and both my eyes put out,
Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze;
To grind in brazen fetters under task
With this heaven-gifted strength?   O glorious strength
Put to the labour of a beast, debased
Lower than bond-slave!   Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke . . . .       (21-42)

Samson is more than a fallen Hercules or Prometheus, more than a tragic image of despoiled strength or thwarted heroism.   Despite the noble self-pity that he manifests in the face of adversity, he is spiritually dead--a state characterised by "the loss of that divine grace and innate righteousness by which, in the beginning, man lived with God" (YP, VI, p. 394).   In this state Samson, like the newly fallen Adam and Eve in Book IX of Paradise Lost, is incapable of any but selfish thoughts and actions, and his lack of faith is attested in his querulous vocational doubts.
      But Samson's renovation has already begun when the curtain rises:

A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on;
For yonder bank hath choice of sun or shade,
There I am wont to sit, when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil,
Daily in the common prison else enjoined me,
Where I a prisoner chained, scarce freely draw
The air imprisoned also, close and damp,
Unwholesome draught:   but here I feel amends,
The breath of heaven fresh blowing, pure and sweet,
With day-spring born; here leave me to respire.       (1-11)

The "guiding hand" by which he is led forth is the hand of God as [156] well as that of the (purposely) unnamed figure who pilots him up the dark steps and across to the embankment, and the sweet breath of heaven "With day-spring born" is emblematic of the secret operation of inspiring grace and, as well, of the possibility for rebirth.   Responsive choice is possible from the outset:   the steps, now dark, up which he stumbles out of the prison prefigure the latent stages of his enlightenment and regeneration; and, as the embankment gives him "choice of sun or shade", so he is free to respond or not to the gentle leading of the unseen hand that guides him from an imprisonment that is as much spiritual as it is physical.
      His initial response to renovating grace issues, as we have seen, in peevish vocational murmurings against the ways of Providence.   With the aid of restored right reason, however, he takes his first step on the road to recovery almost simultaneously, by admitting--albeit reluctantly--the possibility of personal responsibility for his present deplorable condition:

Yet stay, let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine prediction; what if all foretold
Had been fulfilled but through mine own default,
Whom have I to complain of but myself?           (43-6)

Samson's sense of guilt and recognition of sin, however hedged with conditionals and question marks, provides the starting-point for his gradual return to God--for conviction of sin is the first of those "progressive steps" of repentance outlined by Milton in De Doctrina Christiana (cf. Chap 4, p. 145).   Remorse, however, is not repentance, and Samson's introductory footing on the path of redemptive theology is precarious and faltering.

O impotence of mind, in body strong!
But what is strength without a double share
Of wisdom, vast, unwieldy, burdensome,
Proudly secure, yet liable to fall
By weakest subtleties, not made to rule,
But to subserve where wisdom bears command.       (52-7)

As Adam in Paradise Lost had questioned the Creator's wisdom in [157] not arming him against the threat of passion, so Samson's words here contain a tacit rebuke that he was not granted wisdom equal to his strength.
      At this early stage the vague awareness of spiritual death is capable of producing in the protagonist effects which are diametrically opposed.   If Samson's sense of guilt is the first step in his potential recovery, then, conversely, his sense of alienation from divine favour, nurtured by doubts concerning his ordained vocation as Israel's deliverer, leads him to the very brink of the chasm of despair.   It is as "one past hope, abandoned,/ And by himself given over" (120-1) that the Chorus first describes him, and through the first two acts of the drama he is tempted again and again to yield to despair.   The mortal sin of tristitia, when man succumbs to it, puts him at the furthest remove from God; it is the sin for which no forgiveness is possible and, as Milton notes, it "falls upon the reprobate alone" (DDC, II, iii; YP, VI, p. 659).   If Samson despairs, he nullifies that first step in repentance which he has taken by recognising his guilt and responsibility for what has happened, and, what is worse, he effectively extinguishes any chance of regeneration or reacceptance into his promised calling.
      "The principal purpose of this mainly expository first Act", according to A.S.P. Woodhouse, "is . . . to underline Samson's remorse (not yet repentance) and his religious despair:   to give us the starting point of the movement back to God--and on to the catastrophe".5   While this is true, it should be added that there is nothing fated or ineluctable about this progression.   Samson is not driven on by relentless parcae to a predestined end; his "fate" lies in his own use of reason and free will as he is called to respond to renovating grace.   It is significant, too, that Milton develops the theme of Samson's regeneration (that is, his response to the vocatio generalis) in terms of his growing understanding of his special vocation.   His initial realisation is that he has, through sin, failed in his role as deliverer; and this recognition leads, as he discusses his two marriages with the Chorus, to further insight into the causes of his fall from favour and takes him a step further in repentance:

The first I saw at Timna, and she pleased
Me, not my parents, that I sought to wed,
The daughter of an infidel:   they knew not
That what I motioned was of God; I knew
[158]   From intimate impulse, and therefore urged
The marriage on; that by occasion hence
I might begin Israel's deliverance,
The work to which I was divinely called;
She proving false, the next I took to wife
(O that I never had! fond wish too late.)
Was in the vale of Sorec, Dalila,
That specious monster, my accomplished snare,
I thought it lawful from my former act,
And the same end; still watching to oppress
Israel's oppressors:   of what now I suffer
She was not the prime cause, but I myself
Who vanquished with a peal of words (O weakness!)
Gave up my fort of silence to a woman.           (219-36)

The marriage to the woman of Timnath, although it necessitated his transgressing ceremonial and Nazaritic law, was prompted by God, and Samson therefore urged it on in order that he might "begin Israel's deliverance,/ The work to which [he] was divinely called".   The marriage to Dalila, however, through which he sought to continue his harassment of the Philistines and further the work of his promised vocation, was not "motioned" by God:   it was an action undertaken by Samson alone ("I thought it lawful from my former act,/ And the same end").   This is rationalisation rather than reasoning, and Samson has erred, as Arnold Stein points out, by interpreting intuition by analogy.6   In taking the woman of Timnath to wife, he had contravened the law out of respect to the will of the Lawgiver--for God's servants are required to obey divine commands, even when doing so means disobeying divine laws.   In marrying Dalila, however, he was guilty of presumption:   although his intentions were good, he presumed, without that certainty provided by "intimate impulse", to carry forward what he felt to be God's plan for the liberation of Israel.
      Samson has assumed that, as an elect instrument, he must be always actively engaged in God's service.   What he has overlooked is that the scheme for Israel's deliverance is God's and must be carried out in God's time.   Samson is the instrument, not the instigator; he has not scrutinised the divine plan and he does not know how it is to be fulfilled.   Legitimately, all he can do is await [159] God's commands and obey them.   But his mania for action leads him to presume and, in presuming, to fall from grace.   Moreover, presumption is connected with a number of other sins which accentuate its gravity:   loss of humility and the deadly sin of pride.   The credit for Samson's glorious victories over the Uncircumcised belongs, properly, to God; however, as his career advanced, Samson had begun to take personal pride in, and personal credit for, these feats.   Forgetting the real source of his strength, he had swaggered "like a petty god/ . . . admired of all and dreaded/ On hostile ground, none daring my affront" (329-31).   As his pride and self-esteem grew, his humility before God inevitably eroded and, eventually, disappeared.
      Before he can be reinstated as an instrument of the divine will, Samson must be educated.   First, he must learn the lesson of humility:   instead of arrogant self-sufficiency, he must manifest absolute submission before God.   Second, he must learn the lesson of patience:   as an instrument of deity his role will not always be an active one, and he must patiently await God's commands.   Third, he must learn the lesson of faith:   in spite of his sins and in spite of his present deplorable situation, he must trust in divine mercy and have faith in the promise of his special calling.   Humility, patience and faith are the spiritual antidotes to the three sins--pride, presumption, doubt--of which he is guilty as the play begins; and these three virtues, freely embraced, will bring about his regeneration and return to divine favour.   It is through suffering and through a series of "good temptations"--both aspects of the mysterious working of Providence--that Samson passes to purification and the fulfilment of his divinely ordained vocation to deliver Israel.


In the second movement of the drama, Samson is confronted by Manoa who, like the Chorus (115-74), laments his son's change of fortune.   And, as Samson had done earlier, Manoa questions the "divine justice" which raised his son to such an eminence and then, after he had made but one mistake, abandoned him:

Why are his gifts desirable, to tempt
Our earnest prayers, then given with solemn hand
[160]  As graces, draw a scorpion's tail behind?
For this did the angel twice descend? for this
Ordained thy nurture holy, as of a plant;
Select, and sacred, glorious for a while,
The miracle of men:   then in an hour
Ensnared, assaulted, overcome, led bound,
Thy foes' derision, captive, poor, and blind
Into a dungeon thrust, to work with slaves?
Alas methinks whom God hath chosen once
To worthiest deeds, if he through frailty err,
He should not so o'erwhelm, and as a thrall
Subject him to so foul indignities,
Be it but for honour's sake of former deeds.       (358-72)

Beneath this questioning of divine justice lie the implicit questions, "How can Samson now be of service to God?   What is his role now in the work of Israel's deliverance--or is he no longer of use?"   And, although Samson reproves his father for his presumptuous indictment of divine prediction, it is obvious that he is troubled by his words.   Manoa has, indeed, touched a sore spot, for (we recall) these are precisely the questions that Samson had asked himself in his opening soliloquy when he was lamenting the disparity between prophecy and fact in his career as a divine agent.   Here, having acknowledged that "I this honour, I this pomp have brought/ To Dagon", he goes on to reveal the full extent to which he has been affected by the subject of his father's queries:

This only hope relieves me, that the strife
With me hath end; all the contest is now
'Twixt God and Dagon, Dagon hath presumed,
Me overthrown, to enter lists with God,
His deity comparing and preferring
Before the God of Abraham.   He, be sure,
Will not connive, or linger, thus provoked,
But will arise and his great name assert.       (460-7)

Once again he voices his sense of Heaven's desertion--and with a difference that does not bode well for his spiritual growth.   Earlier, he had lifted himself above pride and self-confidence enough to [161] realise that his marriage to Dalila had been an act of presumption; but here, when Manoa calls God's justice into doubt, Samson is plunged into near despair.   And this state of mind prompts him to another presumptuous act:   he assumes that God has finished with him.   His only "hope" is hopelessness.   There is, he decides, no possibility that he can now fulfil his promised mission:   "all the contest is now/ 'Twixt God and Dagon."   It always has been.   And this is the crux of the matter.   Samson accuses Dagon of presumption, but presumption is his fault as well, for he implies that before his fall the battle had been between Dagon and himself.   "Swollen with pride", he had acted as a free agent prosecuting justice in God's name, but without His consent or authority.   Now, confronted by his father's doubts (which reflect his own), he is on the point of reversing his spiritual growth and nullifying the progress he has made.
      It is at this point that we have the explicit wording of the first temptation.   Manoa, who (ironically) has been trying to ransom his son, advises:

Be penitent and for thy fault contrite,
But act not in thy own affliction, son,
Repent the sin, but if the punishment
Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids;
Or the execution leave to high disposal,
And let another hand, not thine, exact
The penal forfeit from thyself; perhaps
God will relent, and quit thee all his debt.
                        . . . . . . . .
Reject not then what offered means, who knows
But God hath set before us, to return thee
Home to thy country and his sacred house,
Where thou may'st bring thy off'rings, to avert
His further ire, with prayers and vows renewed.       (502-20)

Manoa counsels liberty, ease, peace in retirement from active service, and the expiation of error in "prayers and vows renewed".   On the human level, this advice to one who has suffered much seems reasonable enough; however, since chastisement is often "the instrumental cause of repentance" (DDC, I, xix; YP, VI, p. 469), Samson should not attempt to avoid punishment.   The [162] main point of Manoa's temptation hinges once again on the sin of presumption: Manoa presumes that Samson's mission is over and that God has no further need of him--and he asks his son to act on this assumption.
      Samson admits that his father is probably right, that his days as God's sword against the Philistines are almost certainly over:

Now blind, disheartened, shamed, dishonoured, quelled,
To what can I be useful, wherein serve
My nation, and the work from heaven imposed,
But to sit idle on the household hearth,
A burdenous drone; to visitants a gaze,
Or pitied object, these redundant locks
Robustious to no purpose clustering down,
Vain monument of strength; till length of years
And sedentary numbness craze my limbs
To a contemptible old age obscure.
Here rather let me drudge and earn my bread,
Till vermin or the draff of servile food
Consume me, and oft-invocated death
Hasten the welcome end of all my pains.       (563-76)

Given Samson's lack of physical, moral and spiritual strength, and his scepticism (aggravated to some degree by self-pity) about his usefulness to God, one would expect that he would succumb inevitably to Manoa's temptation.   Yet he rejects it, and his reason for doing so is not difficult to find--pride.   The memory of his former greatness will not permit him to become a "gaze" for curious visitors or a "pitied object"; after the glories of his past life, he refuses to be ransomed into senility and "a contemptible old age obscure".   Moreover, his belief in the necessity of action--even action for action's sake--finds the prospect of "sedentary numbness" and sitting "idle on the household hearth,/ A burdenous drone" repulsive.   Thus, he rejects Manoa's temptation, but he does not overcome it.   He does the right thing for the wrong reason.
      Manoa's temptation only succeeds in bringing Samson's present situation squarely before him; and his father's well-intentioned but purely empirical assessment of the situation serves only to plunge Samson further into the Slough of Despond:

[163]   So much I feel my genial spirits droop,
My hopes all flat, nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself;
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.         (394-8)

Not wishing to "omit a father's timely care", Manoa bustles off to "prosecute the means of [his son's] deliverance/ By ransom or how else" (602-3)--leaving Samson in the hands of another Father who is also, though by a higher means, concerned with delivering him from prison and the grave.


In the third movement of the drama Samson is confronted by Dalila, who "like a stately ship" sweeps in,

With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails filled, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them sway.         (717-19)

The imagery suggests that the confrontation will take on the character of a naval engagement, a battle between a dangerous merchantman whose armament is cleverly hidden from view and a broken warship wandering rudderless on a sea of doubt.   The encounter, however, is to be contested with rhetoric, not with cannon.   Dalila's temptation is that of concupiscentia oculorum (temptation by fraud or persuasion) and, Michael Krouse observes, "it is she, more than either Manoa or Harapha, who tries to persuade Samson."7
      The mere arrival of Dalila, his "accomplished snare", is enough to lift Samson from the near despair into which Manoa's visit had thrown him:   "My wife," he cries, "my traitress, let her not come near me" (725).   Despite seeming penitence, Dalila is still a fraudulent temptress who has, it would appear, taken to heart Lady Macbeth's advice to "looke like th' innocent flower,/ But be the Serpent under 't" (Macbeth, I, v, 74-5).   Although his response is initially prompted by wounded pride and the rankling memory [164] of how he had been "effeminately vanquished", the return of Samson's fighting spirit renders him psychologically capable of meeting her challenge.   His point by point refutation of her arguments forces him to employ his partially restored recta ratio, and the result is that this faculty is confirmed and strengthened as he confutes her specious reasoning.   He does not, then, simply reject her temptation, as he had Manoa's; he overcomes it--and achieves a measure of self-knowledge in the process.
      With feigned penitence and "still dreading thy displeasure, Samson", Dalila has come--moved, she avers, by "conjugal affection"--to ask pardon for her "rash but more unfortunate misdeed" (747).   Samson, smarting from the effects of this "rash" deed, sees through her immediately; he accuses her of "feigned remorse", the object of which is to regain his trust and then to lead him to transgress once more.   Having failed in her first attempt, Dalila tries a different approach:   she admits her error in publishing the secret of his strength, but maintains that weakness and the fear of losing him (either to another woman or on the field of battle) had prompted the decision and that she had not foreseen the consequences of her action.   Samson is not deceived, either by the tears or the polished rhetoric:   "All wickedness is weakness:   that plea therefore/ With God or man will gain thee no remission." (834-5)   Thwarted again, Dalila adjusts the ground of her argument a third time:   public duty and religion "took full possession of me and prevailed" (869).   Samson remains undeceived.8
      In one final attempt, Dalila suggests that she intercede on his behalf with the Philistian lords,

                                  that I may fetch thee
From forth this loathsome prison-house, to abide
With me, where my redoubled love and care
With nursing diligence, to me glad office,
May ever tend about thee to old age
With all things grateful cheered, and so supplied,
That what by me thou hast lost thou least shalt miss.     (921-7)

The temptation here is to sloth and physical ease and, except that Dalila adds the note of carnal indulgence, it is precisely the temptation that Manoa had earlier offered his son.   This time, however, Samson is ready and has no difficulty in overcoming the [165] temptation:

Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms
No more on me have power, their force is nulled,
So much of adder's wisdom I have learnt
To fence my ear against thy sorceries.         (934-7)

When she realises that Samson will not again be duped, Dalila begins to show her true colours and stalks off in a fit of hubris, "a manifest serpent by her sting/ Discovered in the end, till now concealed" (997-8).   And the nautical imagery with which the episode began is rounded off by the Chorus in a rhetorical question:   "What pilot so expert but needs must wreck/ Embarked with such a steers-man at the helm?" (1044-5)
      The encounter with Dalila does not teach Samson humility, patience, or faith, but it does succeed in raising him out of the apathy, hopelessness, and despair into which Manoa's visit had thrown him.   The important point is that he has refuted her specious arguments and has, with the aid of right reason, overcome--not merely rejected--her attempts to draw him again "into the snare/ Where once I have been caught" (931-2).   At this stage, however, his reaction to temptation is too self-motivated (his pride is piqued) for positive spiritual growth; but he will learn the necessity of selfless service in the encounters with Harapha and the Public Officer, to which the trial by Dalila is the necessary prelude.


In the fourth movement, Samson is confronted by two instruments of force: Harapha, the giant of Gath, and the Philistian Officer.   The taunts of Harapha and commands of the officer are, in terms of his regeneration, the most significant of Samson's trials.
      Harapha, the first to arrive, says that he has heard much of the Hebrew's martial feats and now is come "to see of whom such noise/ Hath walked about" (1088-9).   He laments that they had not met earlier, on the battlefield, so that he might have [166] vindicated Philistian glory--but now, alas, "that honour,/ Certain to have been won by mortal duel from thee,/ I lose, prevented by thy eyes put out" (1101-3).   Samson's reflex reaction to this cowardly taunt is to challenge the Philistian giant to a trial by single combat.   Harapha, who has come only to scoff, is shaken by the spirited challenge, and he attempts to take refuge in the charge that Samson's strength is the product of "spells/ And black enchantments", of "some magician's art" that "Armed thee or charmed thee strong" (1132-4).   Almost without realising what he is saying, Samson replies:

I know no spells, use no forbidden arts;
My trust is in the living God who gave me
At my nativity this strength, diffused
No less through all my sinews, joints and bones,
Than thine, while I preserved these locks unshorn,
The pledge of my unviolated vow.           (1139-44)

Harapha's taunts have drawn from Samson, almost unawares, an expression of hope--the first in the poem.   During Manoa's visit he had given over all hope of his divine mission:   "all the contest is now/ 'Twixt God and Dagon"; but here, forgetting his earlier sense of heaven's desertion, he unconsciously assumes once more his role as God's instrument.   And, shortly, his reflex assertion yields to sincere conviction, a positive and conscious declaration of faith:

All these indignities, for such they are
From thine, these evils I deserve and more,
Acknowledge them from God inflicted on me
Justly, yet despair not of his final pardon
Whose ear is ever open; and his eye
Gracious to readmit the suppliant;
In confidence whereof I once again
Defy thee to the trial of mortal fight,
By combat to decide whose god is God,
Thine or whom I with Israel's sons adore.         (1168-77)

The dispute with Dalila had succeeded in lifting Samson from [167] near despair, and his despair--as the Manoa episode illustrated--was born of self-centred remorse.   Once his attention is focused on the spiritual rather than on the temporal or physical aspects of his situation, the door is open to returning humility and faith.   Harapha's gibes have called forth a latent belief in God's mercy, a hope of "final pardon". Samson has always believed in divine justice, and from the beginning has accepted personal responsibility for his condition; however, because his thoughts had centred too much on himself (on what he is as compared with what he was), he had begun to doubt and, finally, to despair that God tempers justice with mercy.   But here, now guided by right reason and piqued more by Harapha's derisive suggestion that Heaven has deserted him than by the slight to his own pride, Samson asserts that there is no cause to doubt divine mercy or despair of pardon, for God's "ear is ever open; and his eye/ Gracious to readmit the suppliant".   The important word here is suppliant.   Samson has become a humble petitioner imploring God's mercy, and his returning faith leads him to hope for--indeed, to expect with certainty--His final pardon.
      If the verbal encounter with the giant of Gath causes Samson to reassert his faith and humility before God, it does not teach him the necessity of patience.   Without God's sanction, he challenges Harapha to a "trial of mortal fight,/ By combat to decide whose god is God".   Truly, the active inactivity of standing and waiting for divine commands does not come easily or naturally to Samson.   As was the case in his determination to marry Dalila, his motive here is, in itself, good.   Yet his defiant and (largely) selfless challenge puts him on the verge of committing another presumptuous act, of sacrificing the spiritual headway he has made through one negligent, though well-meaning, act.   It is, ironically, a sudden burst of pride that prevents his carrying this presumptuous threat into execution:   he disdains to fight a "vain boaster" who uses every excuse to avoid combat--he (Harapha) cannot fight a blind man, cannot demean himself to duel with a slave, and so on.   And Samson contemptuously dismisses the Philistine braggadocio in high scorn:

Go baffled coward, lest I run upon thee,
Though in these chains, bulk without spirit vast,
And with one buffet lay thy structure low,
Or swing thee in the air, then dash thee down
[168]  To the hazard of thy brains and shattered sides.     (1237-41)

      Many critics have not regarded the summons of the Public Officer as a separate and significant trial, and yet, in many ways, it is the most significant of Samson's temptations, for he must learn that as an instrument of the divine will he is permitted to act only when God commands.   It is the function of the temptation presented by the Philistian Officer to teach him the necessity of patience, of standing and waiting.   After the Chorus has ironically observed that Samson's lack of sight "May chance to number [him] with those/ Whom patience finally must crown" (1295-6), the Officer enters and orders that Samson follow him to the temple, where a festival is being held in Dagon's honour.   Although Samson advances his fidelity to Hebrew law as his reason for refusing to comply, it is apparent that his refusal is also motivated by wounded pride:

Have they not sword-players, and every sort
Of gymnic artists, wrestlers, riders, runners,
Jugglers and dancers, antics, mummers, mimics,
But they must pick me out with shackles tired,
And over-laboured at their public mill,
To make them sport with blind activity?         (1323-8)

Again he is on the point of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.   However, when the Officer reminds him that he should obey for his own safety's sake, Samson remembers that his own safety is not important, that his strength is God's gift and must not, especially now that he has hope of pardon, be profaned in "feats and play before their gods" (1340).
      Ultimately, then, Samson refuses to accompany the Officer because he realises that, in doing so, he would be breaking God's law and prostituting his "consecrated gift/ Of strength" (1354-5) to the amusement of idol-worshippers.   His choice is to obey God's law or the Philistines' command--and, since he has free will, the choice is his alone:

                  the Philistian lords command.
Commands are no constraints.   If I obey them,
[169]  I do it freely; venturing to displease
God for the fear of man, and man prefer,
Set God behind:   which in his jealousy
Shall never, unrepented, find forgiveness.         (1371-6)

It is a confirmation of Samson's faith and humility that, in the end, he gives credence to the supreme value:   he determines to obey God's law, whatever the consequences to himself.   But he goes further, for he declares that God

                may dispense with me or thee
Present in temples at idolatrous rites
For some important cause.           (1377-9)

He will not obey the Philistines' command--but if, he says, God were to command his presence at the pagan temple, he would obey without hesitation and without question.   For the moment, however, he has received no such direction and so is forced to decline to accompany the Officer.   He has finally learned that they also serve who only stand and wait.
      Entirely baffled by Samson's determination to disobey the Officer, the Chorus can only observe in uncomprehending astonishment, "How thou wilt here come off surmounts my reach." (1380)   No one in the play understands fully the reasons for Samson's decision and, at this point, he is completely isolated from everyone--except God.   Until God indicates otherwise, Samson is resolved to pass his days in patient waiting; he has become at last a true hero, one who exemplifies that "better fortitude/ Of patience and heroic martyrdom" of which Milton had sung in Paradise Lost.   His regeneration is now complete.   Having learned and accepted the lessons of humility, faith and patience, Samson has been renovated and sanctified "both soul and body . . . to God's service and to good works" (DDC, I, xviii; YP, VI, p. 461).   And it is precisely at this point, at the culmination of his regenerative experience, that Samson is made aware by "intimate impulse" of the vocatio specialis recalling him to divine service:   "I begin to feel/ Some rousing motions in me which dispose/ To something extraordinary my thoughts." (1381-3)   Directed by the Spirit of God, he is now prepared to accompany [170] the Philistian Officer:

I with this messenger will go along,
Nothing to do, be sure, that may dishonour
Our Law, or stain my vow of Nazarite.
If there be aught of presage in my mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.       (1384-9)

He does not know the particulars of the duties to which God, through the Officer, is summoning him, but he is fully aware of the vocational significance of the "rousing motions":   he has been readmitted to divine service, and his prophesied mission is to find expression in some glorious action--perhaps his last.   In going to the pagan temple, Samson transgresses the Law out of respect to the will of the Lawgiver--an action paralleled in his marriage at God's command to the Timnite woman.9   His career has come full circle, and it is once again as God's active champion that Samson, humbled and trusting in the yet unrevealed will of his divine Master, freely follows the Officer to Dagon's festival and to the fulfilment of the promise of his nativity.


If "true experience" and an understanding of God's ways to men are achieved by Samson in the first four movements of the play, then it may be said that the function of the fifth and final movement is to educate Manoa and the Chorus--in the degree appropriate to them10--in these same virtues.
      At the beginning of this last movement, Manoa arrives to share with the Chorus his hope that he can ransom his son from the Philistines.   Manoa, who operates on a lower level of awareness than either Samson or the Chorus, judges everything in purely human terms.   And, as Don Cameron Allen notes, the characterisation of Manoa is perhaps Milton's broadest irony, for, wanting a true conception of God's mysterious ways, Manoa unwittingly substitutes himself for God.11   Like God, Manoa is concerned with his son's redemption; however, whereas Manoa (characteristically) thinks of redemption only in physical and monetary terms,

[171]   For his redemption all my patrimony,
If need be, I am ready to forgo
And quit,                   (1482-4)

God's concern is purely spiritual.   Manoa, writes R.B. Wilkenfeld, "would just change Samson's physical location--from a prison house to a domestic house--without transforming the inner man".12   Ironically, while Manoa has been treating with the Philistian lords about his son's physical redemption, Samson has, with God's aid, undergone a spiritual transformation that has released him from bondage to sin and death; and, moreover, as Manoa and the Chorus speak of the former's attempts to ransom his son, Samson is simultaneously performing that one final act which will at once secure his physical release from Philistian bondage and mark the resolution, in action, of his spiritual metamorphosis and prophesied vocation to deliver Israel from Philistian control.
      Awareness on a lower level, however, is not confined to Manoa alone.   The Chorus has not recognised the significant spiritual pattern of Samson's responses to his visitors in the earlier movements of the drama.   Nor, it will be remembered, have they understood Samson's decision initially to disobey the Officer's command or his ultimate resolution, prompted by the "rousing motions" of God's call, to accompany the Officer to Dagon's festival.   "The Chorus", writes Joseph Summers,

is often wrong in typically unheroic ways, and . . . only as a result of the action does it acquire "true experience" and understanding.   Those Danites, friends and contemporaries of Samson, represent the "conventional wisdom" of the drama; but the premise of the poem is that conventional wisdom is inadequate for tragic experience.13

Neither the Chorus nor Manoa can share directly in Samson's special calling, which implies a degree of grace greater than that offered to them; but they are expected to see in Samson's career an analogue, pitched at a higher level than is required of them, of their own vocation to rebirth--and an exemplum of the spiritual heroism that frees the responsive servant from the prison of sin and death.
  [172]     At lines 1596-1659, the Messenger describes in detail the circumstances of Samson's death.   He relates that, in spite of the scorn and derision which rang out at his appearance, Samson was "patient and undaunted" and that he stood before destroying the temple

                      with head a while inclined,
And eyes fast fixed . . . as one who prayed,
Or some great matter in his mind revolved.       (1636-8)

Even here Samson has free will.   The act of pulling down the temple is an act of responsive choice, a free action in which the will of the instrument co-operates with, and is submerged in, the will of God.   Moreover, although neither Samson nor the other characters are aware of it, the Hebrew champion's deed is resonant with prefigurative values:   his posture in the temple--arms outstretched to the massy pillars--adumbrates a later event, and his physical deliverance of his nation from bondage likewise anticipates, on a smaller scale, the Messiah's mission of universal salvation.
      Finally, for the Chorus and for Manoa the spiritual pattern of Samson's victory begins to take form.   With the degree of grace and revelation available to them, the members of the Danite Chorus recognise that "living or dying" Samson has "fulfilled/ The work for which [he was] foretold/ To Israel" (1661-3), and they appreciate that he has not died ignobly or unheroically but as God's servant and guided by His "uncontrollable intent".   They are, too, vaguely aware of the magnitude of the events they have witnessed and, albeit with unconscious irony, they are led to articulate their sense of momentous occurrence in an image which later generations in another dispensation were to reserve exclusively (or nearly so) for the Resurrection:

But he though blind of sight,
Despised and thought extinguished quite,
With inward eyes illuminated
His fiery virtue roused
From under ashes into sudden flame,
                . . . . . . . . .
So virtue given for lost,
[173]  Depressed, and overthrown, as seemed,
Like that self-begotten bird
In the Arabian woods embossed,
That no second knows nor third,
And lay erewhile a holocaust,
From out her ashy womb now teemed,
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deemed,
And though her body die, her fame survives,
A secular bird ages of lives.           (1687-1706)

The frame of reference is temporal ("secular" means "lasting for ages") rather than eternal, and the fame envisaged is but terrestrial--yet, for all that, the Chorus's phoenix is an eager fledgling, straining upward for a transcendent reality.   Manoa, predictably, approaches the matter of Samson's death from a more empirical angle; but even he, with his limited vision, finds consolation and a measure of spiritual insight:   "Samson hath quit himself/ Like Samson", he declares, and has conferred upon Israel

Honour . . . and freedom, let but them
Find courage to lay hold on this occasion,
To himself and father's house eternal fame;
And which is best and happiest yet, all this
With God not parted from him, as was feared,
But favouring and assisting to the end.         (1715-20)

      To these bystanders, it is apparent that Samson's recovery of lost virtue has restored him to his rightful place as God's "faithful champion".   His victory, they realise, is as much spiritual as physical--his victory over himself as significant as that over the flower of Philistia.   With new understanding and a new sense of religious purpose gleaned from Samson's exemplary experience, the Hebrew Chorus takes its leave at the end of the play:

All is best, though we oft doubt,
What the unsearchable dispose
Of highest wisdom brings about,
And ever best found in the close.
[174]   Oft he seems to hide his face,
But unexpectedly returns
And to his faithful champion hath in place
Bore witness gloriously; whence Gaza mourns
And all that band them to resist
His uncontrollable intent,
His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind all passion spent.         (1745-58)

And, lest we miss the point of this nunc dimittis, the reader--with his knowledge of written revelation and typology--is also expected to lay down Samson Agonistes with new insight into the mysterious workings of Providence:   "For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." (Luke 2: 30-2)


[Click on asterisk (*) at the end of a note to return to the point you left in the text]

  1. [224]

  2. There is little in the pre-Miltonic literary treatments of the story to support or parallel the spiritual and psychological complexity of Milton's Samson.   In Judges 13-16 he is presented as no more than a boisterous Israelite shôphet of vast and primitive energy.   Although Josephus attempted to ennoble this Hebrew ruffian to make him more acceptable to Roman readers, the Samson of the Jewish Antiquities (V, viii) is still a hero of strength, a hero of action.   In the medieval analogues of Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower, and also in the anonymous fourteenth-century Cursor Mundi, he continues to be remarkable for his strength of body rather than his strength of mind.   Indeed, it is not until one comes, in the Renaissance, to Marcus Andreas Wunstius's Simson, Tragoedia Sacra and Joost van den Vondel's dramatisation of the subject in Samson, of Heilige Wraeck, Treurspel that one [225] finds a conscious attempt to depict the spiritual growth of the protagonist; yet neither Wunstius nor Vondel can be said to explore in any depth the dramatic potential inherent in Samson's inner development.   [For information on the literary analogues to Samson Agonistes, see Watson Kirkconnell, That Invincible Samson (Toronto, 1964) or my own rudimentary analysis in "The Sophistication of Samson:   Milton's Samson Agonistes and the Literary Samson Tradition from Judges to 1670" (unpub. Master's thesis, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, 1968).] *

  3. Barker, "Structural and Doctrinal Pattern" (cf. above, Chap 4, n 7), p. 176. *

  4. Low, The Blaze of Noon: A Reading of Samson Agonistes (New York and London, 1974), pp. 107-3.   An early--and still important--analysis of the poem in terms of Milton's doctrines of vocation and renovation is John M. Steadman's essay "'Faithful Champion':   The Theological Basis of Milton's Hero of Faith", Anglia, 77 (1959), 12-28; reprt. in Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. A.E. Barker (New York, 1965), pp. 467-83. *

  5. Low, The Blaze of Noon, p. 99. *

  6. Woodhouse, "Tragic Effect in Samson Agonistes," UTQ, 28 (1958-9), 208. *

  7. Stein, Heroic Knowledge.   An Interpretation of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (Minneapolis, 1957; London, 1965), p. 146. *

  8. Krouse, Milton's Samson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton, 1949), p. 127. *

  9. I am not concerned here with Dalila's motivation or characterisation, but only with Samson's response to her arguments.   Dalila is, in her own right, a complex figure:   her object in coming at all is difficult to determine and, as Anthony Low says, "one is never quite sure just how much she is telling the truth, or where she is lying; how much she is the conscious temptress and how much the victim of her own passions" (The Blaze of Noon, p. 157).   For a summary of recent critical attitudes to Dalila, see John B. Mason, "Multiple Perspectives in Samson Agonistes: Critical Attitudes Toward Dalila", Milton Studies, 10 (1977), 23-33. *

  10. Samson's willingness to transgress ceremonial law because a higher authority demands it--a stance which Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, designates "the teleological suspension of the ethical"--may be compared with the case of Abraham.   In a flagrant breach of God's law, Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, because God commands him to do so.   Genesis 22: 1 explicitly refers to the divine command as a trial to "tempt" Abraham, and the Lord personally commends him for his unquestioning obedience:   "for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing that thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me" (Gen. 22: 12). The whole episode is, in Miltonic terms, a "good temptation" to exercise and demonstrate Abraham's faith--and it is interesting to note that, according to the Trinity MS, Milton had once contemplated (at least momentarily) composing a drama on the Abraham and Isaac theme. *

  11. "God does not consider everyone worthy of equal grace, and the cause of this is his supreme will.   But he considers all worthy of sufficient grace, and the cause is his justice" (DDC, I, iv; YP, VI, p. 193).   On Milton's use of the terms "unequal grace" and "sufficient grace", see Introduction, pp. 14-15, where they are discussed in relation to the doctrine of vocation. *

  12. Allen, The Harmonious Vision: Studies in Milton's Poetry (Baltimore, 1954), pp. 85-7. *


  13. Wilkenfeld, "Act and Emblem:   The Conclusion of Samson Agonistes", ELH, 32 (1965), 165. *

  14. Summers,"The Movements of the Drama", in The Lyric and Dramatic Milton, ed. J.H. Summers (New York, 1965), pp. 161-2. *

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