"In this dark world and wide": Samson Agonistes and the Meaning of Christian Heroism
Barton, Carol. ""In this dark world and wide": Samson Agonistes and the Meaning of Christian Heroism." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 3.1-27 URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-2/bartsams.htm.
We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes; we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. (Isaiah 59:10)
To my mind, Samson Agonistes is the second of a trilogy of works which were initially composed by their author not as the purely didactic exercises they are sometimes taken to be, but as extended personal meditations, that is, as reifications of his progressive attempts to justify the ways of God to John Milton, and thereby establish a vision of Christian heroism that would answer the fears and misgivings of his own mind and heart. I say "composed" rather than "written" in deference to the ongoing argument in Milton scholarship about the order in which these poems were committed to paper, though I remain convinced that, in various forms, the seminal ideas for all three of them existed concurrently in Milton's psyche, and culminated -- after some false but brilliant starts -- in the iterative realization of his heroic ideal. The poet's search, not for an Arthur to out-Aeneas Aeneas, but for a role model less numinous than Christ (or even the Jesus of Paradise Regained) on whose actions he might predicate his own resurrection and salvation begins, I think, with the events and emotions surrounding his composition of Sonnet XIX -- that is, with the midlife onset of his blindness, and (hard on the heels of his political party's drubbing of the royalists and his own intellectual annihilation of Claude de Saumaise) with the defeat of the Good Old Cause in support of which both he and Oliver Cromwell had been persuaded they were God's elected champions. Proceeding from the dilemma "how can I serve my Maker, light deni'd?" to the most obvious exemplum of Christian obedience, the now-sightless poet trains his Tiresias-like vision on the manGod in the wilderness, but discovers that though the Jesus is mortal physiologically, He is still too divine in aspect and comportment to be readily susceptible of human emulation. From thence, Milton looks earthward toward the still godlike but tragically flawed Samson (whose checkered hubristic career roots him securely in the classical tradition, and makes him unconvincing as an ectype of Christ), to find ultimate resolution in the tandem heroic ideal of Adam and Eve, the Human Pair who though Godlike are not gods, and though fallen are not reprobate. Despite what some critics have over the years alleged to be its shortcomings (Johnson's "missing middle," etc.), Samson Agonistes is perhaps therefore even more interesting as a theodicy in process than it is as the classical tragedy/Christian comedy so many readers have judged as having fallen too far short of its implicit mark.
Given that a vast body of scholarship has already been devoted to the political and psychological correspondences between the benighted poet and the beleaguered Old Testament Nazarite, to belabour the point that John Milton and the hero of Judges 13-16 had much more in common than their sightlessness would be an exercise in redundancy. For the purpose of supporting a paradigm that envisions Samson as devolving from the Jesus of Paradise Regained, and evolving into the hero and heroine of Paradise Lost, however, it will be helpful to summarize the attitudes, conduct, and experiences that the author and character have traditionally been held to share, since it is these commonalities that justify viewing Samson as a crude (and therefore to some degree problematic) model of Christian heroism -- more profoundly human and mortally attainable than the all-but-unreachable paragon of virtue Milton explored in Paradise Regained, but far less comprehensively and satisfyingly conceived than the reassuringly accessible archetype he would perfect in the greatest of his poetic works.
The most cursory reading of Milton's early writings (Ad Patrem,
for example) and correspondence (e.g. the letter of September 1637 to Charles
Diodati) reveals that, even from his youth, Milton had envisioned himself
as one of heaven's anointed, exalted at some remove above the common fray,
and set apart by virtue of his singular mission, which was, after "devout
prayer, . . . industrious and select reading, steady observation, [and]
insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs" (CPW 1:820-1)
to "justify the ways of God to men."  The Lady
of Christ's knew even then he had been given "ease and leasure" for "retired
thoughts, out of the sweat of other men" (CPW 1:804) specifically
for that purpose, and so "keen an appetite" "for the study of literature"
"that, from [his] twelfth year scarcely ever did [he] leave [his] studies
for bed before the hour of midnight" (CPW 1:612), just as Samson's
"breeding [had been] order'd and prescrib'd / As of a person separate to
God / Design'd for great exploits" (30-32) by the angel who appeared twice
to Manoa and his wife in "a fiery column charioting / His God-like presence"
(27-28). Like Samson too, Milton had laboured faithfully and "full of divine
instinct" for the liberty of his nation, and paticularly after his defeat
of Salmasius, "Fearless of danger, like a petty God / [had] walk'd about
admir'd of all and dreaded / On hostile ground, none daring [his] affront"
(526-31): as Cromwell's Latin Secretary, he had even been "Select, and Sacred,
Glorious for a while, / The miracle of men" -- "then in an hour" --at the
restoration of yet another Stuart monarch -- "Ensnar'd, assaulted, overcome,
led bound, / [His] Foes' derision, Captive, Poor, and Blind, / Into a dungeon
thrust" (365-7) by the leaders of the nation that was to have been the "new
Israel," the Governors and Heads of Tribes,
Who seeing those great acts which God had done
Singly by [the regicides] against their Conquerors
Acknowledg'd not, or not at all consider'd
Deliverance offer'd . . .
But they persisted deaf, and would not seem
To count them things worth notice . . . (242-50)
Like the children of Old Testament Israel, too, the people of England had failed to come to the aid of their loyal defender in his hour of greatest need, leaving him to face the enemy alone when blindness, illness, and the vicissitudes of fortune threatened to overwhelm him altogether. In Pro se Defensio, Milton confesses he was not surprised that he, who
had refuted the unlimited and lawless power of tyrants, should [after the execution of Charles I] have the hatred of all the reprobate flow and surge over me almost alone. I foresaw even then, Englishmen, that your war with the enemy would not be long, but that mine, with the fugitives and their hirelings [i.e. the Royalists], would be almost endless, since those whose weapons you had snatched from their hands would even more hotly shower their curses and insults upon me. Against you, then, the fury and the violence of the enemy have left off their raging; for me, as it appears, for me alone, it remains to fight the rest of this war (CPW 4(2): 698).
Milton continued diligently but unsuccessfully to do just that right up
until the moment that, welcomed by a populace long since overtaxed by the
excesses of war, the Charles II was summoned from France to reclaim the
throne of England for the monarchy. "They had by this possess'd the Towers
of Gath," says Samson,
And lorded over them whom they now serve;
But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by thir vices brought to servitude,
Than to love Bondage more than Liberty,
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty;
And to despise, envy, or suspect
Whom God hath of his special favor rais'd
As thir Deliverer; if he aught begin,
How frequent to desert him, and at last
To heap ingratitude on worthiest deeds? (266-276)
Like Samson's too, Milton's political comeuppance had been as swift and as tragic as it was utterly unexpected. Both had been derelict in the fulfillment of their respective covenants with God, subscribing instead to urgent internal promptings which nonetheless proved unreliable; both had mistaken personal predilection for heavenly approbation; and both had suffered mightily as a consequence.  Being certain that he "motion'd was of God; [and knowing] / From intimate impulse" that he was doing Heaven's bidding in taking his gentile bride of Timna, "she proving false," Samson "thought it lawful from [his] former act / And the same end" (i.e., of "watching to oppress / Israel's oppressors" 219-33) to wed the Philistine Dalila (though it was the call of his libido and not his Lord that he obeyed). Despite Milton's emphatic protestations to the contrary in the Second Defence that he is aware of no reason why he should be afflicted by the "calamitous visitation" (CPW 4(1): 587) of that blindness by which he is momentarily (but utterly for that moment) incapacitated,  he, too, seems to have been plagued by the nagging doubt that he may unwittingly have precipitated his own misery, no matter what brave public words he might utter or write  -- otherwise, he would not be so incensed by the "superstitious imaginations" of the "calumniators of the divine goodness" (CPW 4(1): 824),  chief among whom is Morus (actually, Du Moulin), "the barren and windy egg from which issued that flatulent cry of the royal blood"(CPW 4(1), 570). Such a misgiving could only have been amplified by the taunts of the poet's detractors (who sneered that his blindness was a punishment for the errors of his pen), and was no doubt reinforced by the Biblical precedent of the Nazarite's self-delusion. Milton, too, had heeded what in retrospect seemed to be a misleading "intimate impulse," descending into the "cool element of prose" to "write . . . out of [his] own season" in the service of the ultimately abortive Good Old Cause, when he ought to have "completed . . . the full circle of [his] private studies," and, "soaring in the high region of his [poetic] fancies with his garland and singing robes about him" (CPW 1:808) left "something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die" (CPW 1:810). It did not seem likely, at the onset of his blindness, that this was a mission he would now be able to fulfill; any more than the sightless Samson, debased and in chains, dared entertain any serious hope of "begin[ning] Israel's Deliverance, / The work to which [he] was divinely call'd" (225-226). Perhaps Milton had been punished just as Samson had for his self-seduction, and, cast out like the unprofitable servant of Matthew 25, now found himself "blind among enemies, O worse than chains / Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!" -- "dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon," in a "total Eclipse / Without all hope of day" (68-82), and deserted (as the Nazarite had been) by the very people he had given his eyes to defend. The intensely introspective mood of self-recrimination that permeates both Sonnet XIX and Samson Agonistes is consistent with Milton's personal experiences at this juncture, and differs not only in tone and tenor from the contrition expressed by Adam and Eve in Book X of Paradise Lost, but is also, as E.M.W. Tillyard observed (161-2), and as I have argued elsewhere,  unique in the Miltonic canon. It is this phenomenon that to my mind furnishes the key to the enigma of Samson's "missing middle," to the (mis)interpretation of Sonnet XIX, and to the centuries-old confusion over the identity of the hero of Paradise Lost. 
John Steadman, Stanley Fish and Sharon Achinstein, et al. have argued from several different perspectives that to be capable of heroism in Miltonic terms, one must first pierce the veil of hypocrisy that is Satan's stock-in-trade, and separate what to the fallen and self-serving consciousness only seems, from that which in the providential and absolute sense truly is. For the poet's fit audience surpris'd by sin, the ability to do so is acquired cyclically, in faltering fits and starts, through total immersion in the zigzagging "one step forward, three steps back" process of misapprehension, flawed conclusion, error recognition, re-evaluation, and ultimate enlightenment that occurs again and again as the competent reader proceeds through Milton's canonical curriculum. While Jesus in the wilderness has the distinct supranormal advantage of a priori apprehension of a Truth that he has but to uphold, Samson, Adam, and Eve proceed as we do, by trial and error, unaided by any divine illumination of the world they see but through a glass, darkly:
Samson's agony numbs us; but it is, after all, the trial of a man, not the story of a God who has emerged from a human chrysalis. In his own way Everyman may emulate Samson; for Samson's world consists of all the contrary forces that constitute diurnality. He is not only a type of Christ, he is an ectype of the great archetypes of obedience and sin (Abdiel and Satan) and a descendant of Cain and Abel, of Nimrod and Noah. As that mixture, Samson forms a comprehensible way station in the journeys of man to God and of God to man that meet in the terrible joy of Calvary (Miller 179).
In Paradise Regained, it is the extraordinary tranquillity of the hero who is steadfast in his righteousness and serene in his faith that permeates the mood of the poem, the power of an "inner virtue, the strength of mind and soul to resist softness and luxuria even when they seem inviting and proper (as they always do) . . . the strength to resist . . . despair about one's physical and moral lot" (Cirillo 211), which is visually encapsulated in the potent image of Jesus standing unafraid and "no worse than wet" in the eye of a hell-raising thunderstorm (PR 396-489). Blind and physically fettered and for the most part as "immobile as Prometheus chained to the rock" (Radzinowicz 179), however, Samson seethes and churns with an internal agony that is virtually the only motion possible within the confines of the "moving Grave" of his muscle-bound consciousness, an intellectual and spiritual captivity that holds him "within doors, or without, still as a fool, / In power of others, never in [his] own" (77-8), until the slow and arduous process of learning "to what [he can] be useful, wherein serve" breaks the shackles of his self-recrimination and sets him free. Sensible at last of the "rousing motions" that will resurrect the Nazarite sleeper from his spiritual "sepulcher," Samson is empowered by God to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of his own despair; to humble his ego long enough to follow the Philistine messenger to the Dagonalia; to regale the worshippers assembled there with the meaningless feats of brawn that are the stock in trade of their (pagan) kind of heroism, while enduring their gloating exultations as patiently and as silently as might Christ Himself; and finally to stand between the temple pillars, and in a manner consistent with the will of Heaven, bring down the roof of the House of Dagon on the enemy's infidel heads.  Thus in an instant both alternatives of the imperfect prophecy of the Danite chorus are fulfilled, that the lot of "Samson, with might endu'd / Above the Sons of man; but sight bereav'd" (1292-4) is either to be a deliverer into whose hands God has put his invincible might (allowing him "with plain Heroic magnitude of mind / And celestial vigor arm'd" to defeat the wicked, as he has done in the past), or, bereft of his vision, to take on the patience of a saint, and with that expression of spiritual fortitude become "his own Deliverer, / And victor over all / That tyranny or fortune can inflict" (1289-91): both aspects of Christian heroism  are accomplished in the series of actions that culminate in his toppling of the temple, just as in that single achievement, Samson validates both of the alternative premises of his own tentative premonition that "this day will be remarkable in [his] life / By some great act, or of [his] days the last" (1388-9). In the final action of his long career of Herculean barbarism and plunder, Samson crosses over the line from the brute heroism of classical antiquity represented by the physicality-for-its-own-sake that is the essence of his performance at the Dagonalia to the mind and prayer-governed feat of strength regulated by the will of God that is to be the forerunner of true Christian heroism,  another Janus-like respect in which the classical Greek tragedy that is "Samson-dead-for-his-uxorious-folly" is blended into the Christian comedy that is "Samson-who-died-for-the-glory-of-God." The result is both and neither,  which may explain why it is all but impossible to achieve a consensus as to which label applies. Milton was notoriously suspicious of labels, and we should be as well.
If we may for a moment consider "When I Consider . . ." in relation to the "tragedy coming forth after the ancient manner," and view Samson Agonistes from the perspective of Milton's other great disquisition on his blindness, the crucial connections between Sonnet XIX and the longer poetry of Milton's mature career should become self-evident. I have argued that the meaning of the fourteenth line of the sonnet ("They also serve who only stand and wait") is that one must stand in patient obedience and wait with steadfast faith for the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit that will lead to righteous behaviour (rather than gratify his or her own sense of urgency and take wrong action on impulse); this same concept is subsumed in the temptation of Jesus on the pinnacle in Paradise Regained ("Tempt not the Lord thy God; he said and stood"), and by the dénouement of the struggle of Samson in Samson Agonistes as well, the entire narrative of which is in fact an answer to a subtle variation on the question, "Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?" Having been "effeminately vanquish't" (in the double sense of having been bested by a woman, and overcome by his own garrulousness, behaved like a wag-tongued gossip), Samson, "now blind, disheart'n'd, sham'd, dishonor'd, quell'd" wonders at the beginning of the tragedy "to what [he] can . . . be useful, wherein serve / [His] Nation, and the work from Heav'n impos'd, / But to sit idle on the household hearth, / A burdenous drone . . .?" (563-7). But if that -- indolence, a "sedentary numbness," helpless dependency -- were the answer either to this question or to the one posed by the narrative voice in Sonnet XIX, Samson would not retort as he does in rapid rejoinder to his own inquiry, "Here rather let me drudge and earn my bread, / Till vermin or the draft of servile food / Consume me" (573-5). As Thomas Kranidas suggests, the question "to what can I be useful?"
has in some ways been implicit in the play since the opening plea for the guiding hand. Samson has been asking for direction[, and] the question is half-shaped even in those statements where he seems nearest to despair. Samson is unconsciously waiting for the word, for the proper injunction to usefulness. If he were not, he would not reject the specious solutions offered to him by Manoa, Dalila, Harapha, and the Officer in his first appearance. His rejections of these withdrawals are evidence not of despair but of an almost dead but lingering hope. Had he despaired of usefulness he would have accepted the first offer than came to him-the Chorus' offer to play scapegoat (Kranidas, "Manoa's Role" 103).
Perpetuation of the status quo is, as Manoa points out, the wrong answer, too ("Wilt thou then serve the Philistines with that gift / Which was expressly given thee to annoy them?" 577-8) in recognition of which the ancient father well-meaningly offers his fallen son the first new opportunity he has had to misuse "that gift given thee" since his incarceration at Gaza, opining that Samson would "better at home lie bedrid, not only idle, / Inglorious, unemploy'd, with age outworn"(579-80) -- his talent thus buried -- than remain in his present condition. God, the father reminds his son, "doth not need / Either man's work or his own gifts" (Sonnet XIX 9-10): he "who caus'd a fountain at thy prayer / From the dry ground to spring / . . . can as easy / Cause light again within thy eyes to spring, / Wherewith to serve him better than thou hast. . . / Nor shall his wondrous gifts be frustrate thus" (581-9). Samson of course at this point has no eyes, which even he himself fails to acknowledge ("All otherwise to me my thoughts portend, / That these dark orbs no more shall treat with light" 590-1) -- an almost certain Freudian nod of the head from an otherwise meticulous craftsman whose own "dark orbs" had "as much the appearance of being uninjured, and [were] as clear and bright, without a cloud, as the eyes of men who see most keenly" ( CPW 4(1): 583),  and who had himself hoped for a time that his own eyes might treat again with light -- but the point is nonetheless well taken. If the Almighty does not want Samson's talent to be "lodg'd with [him] useless," he will find a means of enabling him to use it:
the knowledge that has taken [Samson] literally to the edge of despair . . . has also prepared him for the opposite motion toward usefulness. . . . Though he expresses terrible doubts, though he comes very close indeed to pure despair, he speaks, discriminates, and waits. The very fact that he waits, however uneasily, testifies to his being alive to the theological and dramatic possibilities of his regeneration . . . toward sacred usefulness in the temple of the profane god (Kranidas, "Manoa's Role" 109).
Samson, like Milton, must literally stand, and wait to see.
As this suggests, then, it is not so much resignation or despair that the speaker is experiencing at the beginning of the sonnet, but the same profound regret that Samson feels at enlightened recognition of his own too-confident arrogance and presumption in relation to God's favour, and what he has taken to be his own manifest destiny. The defeated champion of Commonwealth likewise contemplates that "one talent" now "lodg'd with [him] useless," and yearns nonetheless "to serve therewith [his] Maker, and present / [His] true account," having been certain all the while -- until this devastating loss -- that he has something important to contribute to the world -- something that will bring his Master a fair return on "these his entrusted gifts," of which "God even to a strictness requires the improvement" (RCG, 665). Like Samson at the beginning of the tragedy, though, he is unable in the piercing freshness of his grief to imagine how he can possibly deliver what he knows is required -- Donne's "La Corona" and Marvell's "Coronet" have already made it clear that the humble zeal to serve God well can be a kind of arrogance, too  -- and neither Samson nor Milton can afford to risk additional errors or judgment at this juncture:
By assuming that he is now worthless to God, [Milton (like Samson)] implies that he was once valuable. His pride suggests that God needs man; and [his] despair-as we have seen in Satan-is the ultimate pride (Miller 174). . . .God may choose to use Samson [or Milton], or He may work through some other means, but ultimately, no man is necessary to God (Miller 177).
Like Adam and Eve, Samson of course commits the reciprocal sin of not recognizing that God is necessary to man by attempting to take destiny presumptively into his own hands, since in each instance the underlying motive is despair, a failure of the actor to rely on God's providence, mercy, and benevolence to give him or her what is needed, or to restore to him or her what has been lost, accompanied by an id-like insistence on the need being met RIGHT NOW. For example, Adam determines deliberately to sin with Eve as soon as he learns of her transgression, rather than live alone again (he says) "in these wild woods forlorn" (Paradise Lost 910) never considering that God who had the power to create his fallen consort also has the power to make her whole again; likewise the blind speaker of Sonnet XIX and the benighted champion of Samson Agonistes cry almost in unison, "Doth God exact day labor, light denied?" (7), forgetting that, as Samson himself will only come to understand in the moments before he follows the Philistine messenger to his hero's death, God "may dispense with me or thee" (1377) as he sees fit, with or without our urging or consent.
And dispense with Samson God does indeed, though not quite in the way the hero blindly anticipates. Though marriage to Dalila seems to the eager bridegroom to be ordained by heaven, any reader of Milton's divorce tracts would find it difficult not to project what we know of the poet's idealized vision of marriage onto the union of Samson and Dalila and find it seriously wanting. To begin with, the narrative is biased exclusively from the perspective of the injured husband and ultimate hero, a figure who immediately draws our sympathies because he is introduced alone at the beginning of the poem in suffering, privation, and despair, and we are given no standards but his own with which to compare him -- not to mention the fact that we also foreknow from God's eternal perspective that he is on "our side," and will emerge victorious from his current plight because the Bible tells us so. Because we know a priori as well that Dalila is a traitress from the ancient pagan tribe whose name is still synonymous with speciousness and materialism, one who by her "manifest Serpent[hood]" has cost her husband his liberty and his eyes, the tendency is for the reader to focus with Samson on the treachery of his Philistine bride, and to ignore the fact that his marriage to an infidel is based on mutual infidelity from the start. In virtual solitude for the first two fifths of the poem  the unregenerate Samson (in some respects a replication of Herakles at his worst) has the distinct advantage of being the sole source of the reader's impressions of him, an advantage Satan also enjoys in the initial books of Paradise Lost. And just as Satan suffers by comparison with his moral betters later in the longer poem, so Samson is mirrored to his moral and ethical detriment by his amorally seductive equal, whose only superior vice seems to be that she ends up on the losing side of the agon.  Despite his castigation of Dalila for being a "specious monster" and his "accomplisht snare" (230) in that she uses their marriage for her own financial and political gain, Samson openly admits that his motive in marrying her was to "oppress Israel's oppressors" (232-3) -- had he had the chance, he would have used her just as she has used him, slighted her, sold her, and foregone her (940), and as little bemoaned the loss. In several important respects, Dalila's betrayal of Samson mirrors Eve's betrayal of Adam: each places the man she has sworn to love and honour in mortal jeopardy for her own advancement, seducing him into an iniquity that he has until that point assiduously avoided ("she purposed to betray me," says Samson, then "sought to make me Traitor to myself" 399-400); then, after reaping the rewards of her own transgression, pleads with her husband for forgiveness, becoming thereby the catalyst of his ultimate regeneration (though the means and the outcome in terms of their respective reunions with Samson and Adam are as different as night and day). Like Eve's initial Book IX self-exculpations, too, Dalila's speeches when she returns to Samson in triumph
suggest a complex tissue of motives and impulses: curiosity, a challenge to see if she can draw him back, regret that it turned out worse than she thought it would, physical desire to have Samson back with her again, a desire to defend herself, to prove to herself that perhaps she is not as bad as it may seem. At the end we have the natural anger of a woman scorned, which does not necessarily prove her to be a hypocrite throughout . . . . Whatever her nature, whatever her motives, the power of her appeal has certainly accomplished a remarkable change in Samson: she has stirred him out of his sense of loss, stung him into more positive responses (Martz 208),
and forced him to evaluate the seductive fallacies that lie behind her seemingly plausible arguments and counter them with recta ratio, a function which Eve's contrition descending into despair also performs for Adam, with more blissful results for them both. 
Clearly, Samson has for most of his less than entirely illustrious career
been a creature of the material world, a classical killing machine who is
as proud of his physical strength and his warrior's conquests as he is neglectful
of the development of his intellect and his ethos: "O impotence of mind
in body strong!" he cries in despair, recalling how "liable to fall" he
was "by weakest subtleties," having "strength without a double share of
wisdom"(52-6) -- which could be said with equal accuracy of almost any of
his counterparts from Ilium. Though "thrice [he] deluded her, and turn'd
to sport / Her importunity" (396-7), the attraction he feels for "the sumptuous
Dalila" plainly terrifies her husband: when she glides up "like a stately
Ship / Of Tarsus, bound for th'Isles . . . / With all her bravery on, and
tackle trim, / Sails fill'd, and streamers waving" (714-18) "desirous to
behold / Once more [her spouse's] face, and know of [his] estate" (741-2),
Samson recoils in overreactive horror ("My Wife, my Traitress, let her not
come near me" 725); and when she asks if she may "approach at least, and
touch [his] hand" (951) he is equally violent in response: "Not for thy
life, lest fierce remembrance wake / My sudden rage to tear thee joint by
joint" (952-3). "Wisest and best men [have been] full oft beguiled" by the
wiles of an "accomplisht snare" like Dalila, Samson remembers, and
Beauty, though injurious, hath strange power,
After offense returning, to regain
Love once possest, nor can be easily
Repuls't, without much inward passion felt
And secret sting of amorous remorse. (1003-7)
Samson is all too painfully aware that, despite his "immeasurable strength,"
he is endowed with "wisdom nothing more than mean" (206-7), "not made to
rule, / But to subserve where wisdom bears command" (56-7) and, having once
"like a foolish Pilot . . . shipwreck't " his own vessel "gloriously rigg'd"
and "trusted to [him] from above" (199-200) in battle with the Philistine
flagship, the thought of entering into another engagement with she who has
already "vanquisht [him] with a peal of words" (235) is a real and present
danger he seeks to avoid: "What Pilot so expert but needs must wreck / Embark'd
with such a Steers-mate at the helm?" (1044-5) But the "thing of Sea or
Land" whose very apparition is untrustworthy ("Female of sex it seems,"
(711), "some rich Philistian Matron she may seem" (722), "she weeps,
and words addrest seem into tears dissolv'd" (729 -- emphasis added)
"comes this way sailing" anyway, and accosts her Danite spouse with tearful
protestations of remorse, her "conjugal affection" (she says) having prevailed
over her "fear and timorous doubt," "still dreading" the "displeasure" of
the blind Danite slave in Philistine shackles who despite her rhetorical
posturing is no threat of any kind to her at all (733-9). Her first assault
is penitence, a seemingly earnest plea to be of help, "if aught in [her]
ability may serve"
To light'n what thou suffer'st, and appease
Thy mind with what amends is in my power,
Though late, yet in some part to recompense
My rash but unfortunate misdeed. (744-7)
As Samson recognizes immediately, if her offer were sincere, it would not
have come so "late," just as her "misdeed" was neither "unfortunate" (for
her) nor "rash": it was the premeditated act of a political mercenary for
the promise of a handsome reward, attempted unsuccessfully three times before,
when she had also lain in wait for him with her henchmen lurking around
her, looking for an opportunity to waylay her too self-confident lord. "Out,
out, Hyaena!" (748) Samson cries in disgust at what he recognizes to be
her "feigned remorse"; "these are thy wonted arts, / And arts of every woman
false like thee" (748-9) to lull their husbands "with goodness principl'd
not to reject / The penitent" (760-1) and so entangle themselves with a
"pois'nous bosom snake" for their pains: he will not succumb to tears and
tantrums and be "to Ages an example" for a second time (748-65). "Yet hear
me Samson," responds the attorney for the defence: "not that I endeavor
/ To lessen or extenuate my offense" (765-6) , but consider this:
ˇ all women do this ("it was a weakness / In me, but incident to our sex," 773-7);
ˇ you did it first ("Was it not weakness also to make known . . . / Wherein consisted all thy strength and safety? / To what I did, thou showd'st me first the way," 778-81);
ˇ it was all your fault ("Ere I to thee, thou to thyself wast cruel," 782-4);
ˇ you're no better than I am ("Let weakness then with weakness come to parle, / So near related," 785-9);
ˇ I did it because I love you ("And what if Love . . . / Caus'd what I did?", 790-9);
ˇ And besides, I was seduced ("I was assur'd by those / Who tempted me, that nothing was design'd / Against thee but safe custody, and hold," 800-802);
ˇ In addition to which, I was jealous ("I knew that liberty / Would draw thee forth to perilous enterprises, / While I at home sat full of cares and fears, / Wailing thy absence in my widow's bed," 803-10);
ˇ And you really should forgive me, because the precedent is well-established ("These reasons in Love's law have passed for good," so "be not unlike all others, not austere / As thou art strong, inflexible as steel," 811-18).
With the perceptiveness of a Solomon, Samson answers and refutes each of
her self-justifications in turn:
How cunningly the sorceress displays
Her own transgressions, to upbraid me mine!
That malice, not repentance, brought thee hither,
By this appears: I gave, thou say'st, th'example,
I led the way; bitter reproach, but true,
I to myself was false ere thou to me. . . .
Weakness is thy excuse,
And I believe it, weakness to resist
Philistian gold . . .
But Love constrained thee; call it furious rage
To satisfy thy lust: Love seeks to have Love;
My love how couldst thou hope, who took'st the way
To raise in me inexpiable hate,
Knowing, as needs I must, by thee betray'd?
In vain thou striv'st to cover shame with shame,
Or by evasions thy crime uncover'st more. (819-42)
Yet still Dalila persists, and the summation for the defence continues: anyone in my position would have done what I did, she says ("Hear what assaults I had, what snares besides, / What sieges girt me round, ere I consented," 843-8); I did it for Dagon and country ("thou knowst the Magistrates / And Princes of my country came in person . . . / Adjur'd by all the bonds of civil Duty / And of Religion, press'd how just it was, / How honorable, how glorious to entrap / A common enemy," 849-61). Then she proffers as her final argument a variation on ragione de stato, the Devil's pragmatic plea ("to the public good / Private respects must yield," 861-70), imploring her blinded, disgraced, disfigured victim to have the compassion to understand that the woman who vowed to love him and honour him, then delivered him into the hands of his enemies, was only doing what "virtue, as I thought, truth, duty, so enjoin[ed]" (870). The Nazarite (who has been equally unconcerned with "virtue" and "truth" in his thus-far checkered career) fights this fire with more fire also, answering Dalila's lies with several of his own: "I before all the daughters of my Tribe/ And of my Nation chose thee from among / My enemies, lov'd thee, as too well thou knew'st, / Too well," 871-8 (because I thought I could use my marriage to you to infiltrate your people); I "unbosom'd all my secrets to thee / Not out of levity, but overpow'r'd / By thy request, who could deny thee nothing," 879-81 (because I was too stupid not to give in to your "flattering prayers and sighs / And amorous reproaches" (392-3), your "blandisht parleys, feminine assaults, / Tongue batteries" (503-4) and you wore me out at bedtime, when "over-watch't, and wearied out . . . / men seek most repose and rest" 404-5); "Why then / Didst thou at first receive me for thy husband, / Then, as since then, thy country's foe profest?"(883-94) (You were my wife; your loyalty was to me, not to your country, or to the idols you call gods, and I hoped to use that loyalty against you and your people).
"Let me obtain forgiveness of thee, Samson," Dalila answers; "Afford me
place to show what recompense / Towards thee I intend for what I have misdone,
/ Misguided" (909-12), whereupon she offers him a second opportunity to
abuse his talent, not by burying it (as Manoa has suggested), but by employing
it for a purpose altogether different from that for which it was intended.
"Life hath yet many solaces, enjoy'd / Where other senses want not their
delights, / At home in leisure and domestic ease" (915-17), she coos, inviting
Samson to descend into what Aquinas called delectationes venereae,
conjugal sex and unnamed marital hedonism (907-928) which will capitalize
on those incidental aspects of her husband's strength that contribute to
his virility, and lead him to a different kind of sloth. Samson's refusal
is phrased in allusions to Circe that resonate with images of the Whore
of Babylon and are entwined as well with subtle linkages even to the serpent
of Eve, a connection which will be reinforced both by the choral observation
that Dalila is "a manifest serpent by her sting," and by Samson's dismissal
of his errant bride as a "viper" (997, 1001) "I know thy trains," he says,
Though dearly to my cost . . .
Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms
So much of Adder's wisdom I have learn't
To fence my ear against thy sorceries, (932-7)
In this declaration, Samson aligns himself with the only classical warrior ever celebrated for his intellect, who likewise refused to let himself be transformed into a beast by his passion for a beautiful seductress -- and his conversion from an Achilles to an Odysseus to a type of Christ begins. Indignantly now, Dalila reminds her implacable husband that, no matter what he may think of her, "fame if not double-fac't is double-mouth'd / And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds" (971-2); she may be a villainess in the eyes of Samson and his tribe, "of falsehood most unconjugal traduc't" (979) but "in [her] country where [she] most desire[s]," she "shall be named among the famousest of Women," her "tomb / With odors visited and annual flowers" (971-96). The reverse is likewise true: Manoa also will erect a monument to his son, and arrange to have "the [Danite] Virgins . . . visit [Samson's] Tomb with flowers" after Samson "heroic'ly hath finish'd / A life Heroic" (1710-11); but what Samson does not yet comprehend (and Irene Samuel and Joseph Wittreich do) is that, but for his consecration to the God of Milton's "fit audience," the Nazarite is at this juncture little better morally than his Philistine snare. Dalila's assertion that, under the same circumstances, Samson would have done exactly as she did is more than likely accurate, because within the classical framework of the play and under the terms of the established agon, their places are absolutely interchangeable: despite Samson's self-righteous posturing about the obligations of the marital contract he would willingly have violated himself had he had the chance ("being once a wife, for me thou wast to leave / Parents and country" 885-6),  Dalila is an Achilles to her husband's Hector in the sense of their respective worth to semi-barbaric societies that valorize victory over virtue, and each is both as good and as bad as the other, depending on the evaluator's point of view. Dalila's people understandably hate Samson for his slaughter of "a thousand foreskins, the flower of Palestine" and the many other atrocities he has committed against the Philistine empire, just as the Danites and their descendants (including the extended definition of "Samson's people" that includes the Miltonic audience) justifiably hate Dalila and her tribe for what they have done to Samson. We applaud brave Achilles for his conquest of the Trojans, but we weep with ancient Priam nonetheless, and we would have grieved as sincerely with Peleus to see the body of Achilles dragged along behind the desecrating chariot had the situation been reversed.  Dalila, like her successor in temptation, holds a mirror up to Samson's nature: she shows him not only what he is now (blind and physically "helpless" as a result of his affliction, but possessed of sufficient insight and "wisdom . . . more than mean"(206) to mount a successful defense against the "cunning sorceress" who is a most "accomplisht snare" (see Kranidas, "Dalila's Role" 125-37), as well as what he must nevermore be again (a gullible body-oriented killing machine who like a Norse berserker acts on impulse before he thinks, and serves himself and his personal glory before his mission and his God).
The introduction at Dalila's departure of the vainglorious blowhard Harapha
of Gath (the Miltonic fabrication whose name in Hebrew means simply "the
giant") represents the third opportunity that the dramatic Samson is given
to make unprofitable use of the talent the Lord has invested in him, this
time for the satisfaction of his own ego. Classically heroic and as boorishly
self-impressed as any other "primitive ruffian of a half-savage legend"
 and operating in a world in which might
without question makes right, Harapha represents the best and the worst
of everything the Nazarite once was, "bulk without spirit vast," brawn without
brains, action without reason, a parody of manhood masquerading as a superman.
 In a curious inversion of Satan's Book IV
encounter with Uzziel, Ithuriel, and Zephon in Paradise Lost (810-51),
Samson's confrontation with this swaggering boor forces him at least temporarily
to see himself as others see him, and to realize both what he was, and what
he has become, a Janus-like perspective that is unavailable to the fallen
archangel.  From Harapha's classical point
of view, Samson is a fallen "petty God," once "admir'd of all and dreaded
/ On hostile ground" (even among those who like the goliath of Gath are
"of stock renown'd / As Og or Anak and the Emims old / That Kiriathaim held"
1079-81), now degenerated into a powerless "blind man" who "ha[th] need
much washing to be toucht" (1107); to engage him in combat would "stain
[the] honor" of "noble warriors" of the kind he himself once was, for Samson
is now "no worthy match / For valor to assail" (1164-5). From the Nazarite's
own perspective, and especially in the image reflected in his mind's eye
through the filter of Harapha's taunts, the champion who was "design'd for
great exploits" and destined to be Israel's "great Deliverer,"
great in hopes
With youthful courage and magnanimous thoughts
Of birth from Heav'n foretold and high exploits,
Full of divine instinct, after some proof
Of acts indeed heroic, far beyond
The Sons of Anak . . .
Fearless of danger, (524-529)
is now "ridiculous, despoil'd, / Shav'n, and disarmed among [his] enemies" (539-40) "effeminately vanquish't . . . blind, disheart'n'd, sham'd, dishonor'd, quell'd" (562-3).  Destined from his nativity to be "a person separate to God," he is now a sinner separate from God, with no idea "to what [he] can be useful, wherein serve / [His] nation, and the work from Heav'n impos'd" (562-3, 565), having no eyes now to guide his mighty limbs. Even Manoa seems to believe that God has no further use for his powerful son, though the old man prays and protests to the contrary. God, says Manoa (who is truly more blind than Samson), will surely assert his might against Dagon (Allen 55);
But for thee what shall be done?
Thou must not in the meanwhile here forgot
Lie in this miserable loathsome plight
Up to this point, Samson has trained his body but not his intellect to
be of service to the Almighty, valuing his "Heav'n-gifted strength" only
in terms of the glory it accrues for him in the physical, material world
(so that what remains of it after his transgression is not a blessing but
his "bane . . . the source of all [his] miseries / So many, and so huge,
that each apart / Would ask a life to wail" 63-6). Like Odysseus returning
home to Ithaca at the end of the Trojan War, Samson the mighty slayer of
men must learn a new way of looking at himself and the world if he is to
be useful to his "nation, and the work from Heav'n impos'd": he must step
out of clock time into eternity and pass from type to ectype, from the "gloriously
active battling" of magnanimitas (Harris 279) to "the better" and
"truest" "fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom" (PL IX: 31-2)
as his offer to beat a fully-armored giant with only (a shepherd's?) oaken
staff suggests he somehow knows, even before he realizes what he is doing.
The time for "tilting Furniture" and fisticuffs, "hitherto the only Argument
/ Heroic deem'd" (PL IX: 28-9) has passed, and its death-knell is
signalled by the fact that Samson dares "disparage glorious arms / Which
greatest heroes have in battle worn" (PL IX: 1130-1) dismissing
thy gorgeous arms, thy Helmet
And Brigandine of brass, thy broad Habergeon,
Vant-brace and Greaves, and Gauntlet, add thy Spear
A Weaver's beam, and seven-times-folded shield
as so much "clatter'd Iron" (1119-24), a pronouncement misread by the giant as the effect of "spells, black enchantments, [or] some Magician's art" (1132-3) which are the only things in his pagan conception stronger than the sons of "Og or Anak and the Emims old" who subdued entire nations thus attired. Just as the weapon of the future will be a simple shepherd's crook whose power derives from "trust in the living God"(1140) (whence the Nazarite also receives his strength), so the heroes who come after the Miltonic Samson must not only love and serve the Lord their God with all their strength and with all their might, but with all their hearts and souls (and minds) as well.  (Jesus' rejection of classical wisdom and literature in Book IV of Paradise Regained (285-384) serves much the same purpose, in that it signals the end of an intellectual world dominated by Ptolemy and Aristotle, by Homer and Vergil, by epic and tragedy, as the epitome of mortal excellence and achievement.)
Though the "tongue-doughty Giant" (1181) proves an unfit match for his
blind and shackled would-be adversary ("Go, baffl'd coward, lest I run upon
thee, / Though in these chains" 1237-8), he does not go off in "a sultry
chafe" (1246) without teaching the Nazarite something critical to the latter's
regeneration. Samson may feel omnipotent when his might is at its zenith,
but he is neither divine in the Judaeo-Christian sense (a "petty God"),
nor divine in the classical sense (a petty god), and it is not now,
nor has it ever been, Samson's place to "challenge Dagon to the test"(1151)
either directly or vicariously on the Almighty's behalf. Though he accepts
responsibility for having put "God, Besides whom is no God [in the position
to be] compar'd with idols, / Disglorifi'd, blasphem'd, and had in scorn,
/ By th' Idolatrous rout amidst thir wine" (440-43), even this mea culpa
becomes "an hubristic assumption of accountability, for no one is 'sole
Author . . . sole cause" (376) of his destiny, and no one's default can
cause the true God to be 'Disglorifi'd, blasphem'd' by an 'Idolatrous rout'"
(Hoffman 201). Samson and Manoa have placed false value on Samson's "shame"
in this regard, for, as Samson has clearly recognized some five hundred
lines earlier (an observation perhaps forgotten at this moment in the Nazarite's
zeal to defend and reassert his challenged manhood), "all contést is now
/ 'Twixt God and Dagon . . . , / [Who] hath presum'd / . . . to enter lists
with God, / His Deity comparing and preferring / Before the God of Abraham"
(461-5): Samson "does not see that the strife was always between God and
Dagon," that "he is merely God's agent, as are all men"(Hoffman 201). It
was God who at his birth gave Samson the strength he vaunts as Heaven's
self-appointed champion, and the Almighty who likewise took that power away
when Samson violated the terms of the covenant entered into on his behalf
by Manoa and his wife before the Nazarite was born: He from whom every entity
in the universe derives its allotted puissance needs no mortal "second"
to assist Him in prevailing over His own works and creatures, and it is
indeed "presumptuous" of Samson so to appoint himself, especially in view
of the fact that he does so from a position of disfavour. In the best of
times, as Harapha ungently reminds him, that is not what his talent is for.
"Presume not on thy God, whate'er he be," snorts the giant of Gath in response
to Samson's challenge;
Thee he regards not, owns not, hath cut off
Quite from his people, and delivered up
Into thy Enemies' hand, permitted them
To put out both thine eyes, and fetter'd send thee
Into the common Prison, there to grind
Among the Slaves and Asses thy comrades,
As good for nothing else, no better service . . . (1156-63)
The word "as" in the final line of this passage is more critical syntactically than perhaps it seems: God has left Samson to labor among slaves and asses as if he were good for nothing else, not because he is good for nothing else, and the distinction between Harapha's words and God's providence is thus an important one: it is only as a warrior that Samson's lack of eyesight makes him "useless," that vocation being merely one among any number of means by which his talent can still be employed in the service of the Almighty (or mis-employed in the service of Dalila and the Philistines). God will "use him further yet in some great service"(1500-1), not permitting him "to sit idle with so great a gift / Useless" (1498-9) but has not yet "restore[d] him [sufficient] eyesight to his strength" (1502) to come to that conclusion on his own:
Samson's inability to rise to the Son's contempt for 'ostentation vain of fleshly arm' ([Paradise Regained] III.387) ...is underlined by Milton in the Harapha episode. Whether or not we regard Harapha's visit as a temptation [and some critics do not], it is clear that Samson's response is seriously flawed. Wholly admirable is his trust in the living God, his willingness to acknowledge that God has inflicted these indignities on him justly; less admirable, at best, is his eagerness to engage Harapha in single combat, his pathetic belief that by clubbing Harapha to death he will demonstrate the glory of God (Madsen 95).
Having communicated by unwitting implication the precious piece of insight
that Samson is good for something better than mill-work in the prison of
the Philistines, the lumbering oracle stalks offstage, leaving the Danite
Chorus to worry that Harapha will instigate new miseries for their tribesman
as a result of his encounter with the "Slave enroll'd" who dared to call
him coward. "His Giantship's" departure "somewhat crestfall'n" is of little
importance to Samson, but his friends' expressions of concern elicit from
the Nazarite a grimly placid index of the profundity of his despair: like
Satan in Paradise Regained, he who is "Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill
with slaves" apprehends the worst that could befall him with acquiescence
rather than terror, observing with a calm more disturbing than his earlier
anguish that "come what will, my deadliest foe will prove / My speediest
friend, by death to rid me hence, / The worst that he can give, to me the
best" (III.207-11) "and in that calmer mood, comes so near an understanding
as to foreshadow unknowingly the triumphal catastrophe" (Harris 279) ("yet
so it may fall out, because thir end / Is hate, not help to me, it may with
mine / Draw thir own ruin who attempt the deed," 1265-7). As even Manoa
God had not permitted
[Samson's] strength again to grow up with his hair
. . .were not his purpose
To use him further in some great service,
Not to sit idle with so great a gift
Useless and thence ridiculous about him, (1495-1501)
and Samson's oft-repeated death-wish is therefore a form of presumption worse than any he has heretofore displayed. "Be penitent, and for thy fault contríte," the old man tells him earlier in the play, "but act not in thy own affliction, Son" (502-5):
God will relent, and quit thee all his debt;
Who ever more approves and more accepts
(Best pleas'd with humble and filial submission)
Him who imploring mercy sues for life,
Than who self-rigorous chooses death as due;
Which argues over-just, and self-displeas'd
For self-offense, more than for God offended. (508-514)
Manoa is as usual right for all of the wrong reasons: God does indeed expect "filial submission" of Samson, that is, a dutiful son's obedience to his loving Father in Heaven, but not the "filial submission" of Manoa's son to Manoa's urged avoidance of a punishment deserved: "wanting in a correct conception of God's wondrous ways, Manoa unwittingly substitutes himself for God, and seeks to persuade his son to accept the plans of a loving father instead of awaiting those of a loving God. If there is a temptation in this scene, it revolves around this substitute proposal" (Allen 55) that is, around the possibility of Samson's escape from his misery at Manoa's instigation, by means of a total retirement from the world that would be tantamount to another form of suicide. Nonetheless, the older man's counsel serves as a reminder to the Nazarite that above all else he must be patient, and wait not for that "speediest friend" who brings an easy release in death ("speedy death, / The close of all my miseries, and the balm" 650-1), but for God's forgiveness, "with prayers and vows renew'd" (520). As William O. Harris has demonstrated by way of Don Cameron Allen, Harapha's role "at one crucial moment at least . . . [is] a part long traditional in English literature the tempter to ultimate despair of God's forgiveness," "the terrible sin of tristitia," to which the only antidote is "fortitude, universally exemplified by Samson" in the "Christian literary and iconographical heritage that Milton knew so thoroughly" (Harris 277-90). In traditional interpretation, the virtue of fortitude consisted of "an active sphere of magnanimous deeds and a more exalted sphere of patient endurance, the latter often assuming the task of resisting the ultimate despair of God's mercy" (285); thus, the role of the "personification of Patience who [in Sonnet XIX] replies to prevent the murmur of the near-despairing Milton writhing in blind isolation from God's purposes for his life" (286) and the role of the Chorus in Samson Agonistes, which responds to Samson's declaration of hopelessness of God's mercy that "sight bereav'd / May chance to number thee with those / Whom Patience finally must crown," the Deliverer of the Nation first and foremost "his own Deliverer, and Victor over all . . . ." (1287-96). . . .
It is not Samson's resistance to the repetition of temptations alone . . . that is of primary importance, but what makes this negative resistance possible, his progressive response to the renewed calling of the renovation of his natural powers and thence his awareness of new faculties that, as Hebraic Hercules, he stupidly never dreamed he potentially had until he recognizes that his real strength was never in his hair but in the living God and that all his actions have been perverse and inadequate parodies of the significance of his calling . . . . Each of Samson's temptations is itself a parody related to the Law and containing distorted elements of the truth of what is really demanded under the Law. They reminiscently underline, ironically, the increasingly parodic quality of Samson's own earlier acts, chiefly motivated by the impercipient preoccupation with his function as national hero and his own natural strength which made him his own idol (Barker 55).
In other words, were Samson to obey Manoa's well-meaning but nonetheless misguided paternal demands that he return
"Home to his Father's house" in the wrong manner and before the providential "right" time, the Nazarite would honour his earthly father by dishonouring himself, just as he brought false honour and empty glory to himself by his conquest of Timnath without bringing true honour or glory to his Father in Heaven.  If he had not obeyed the "rousing motions" of his own libido, and had waited instead for the true "rousing motions" of the divine Spirit to guide him, he would not be "eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves"; and if he had more reverently considered the proper uses of his God-given strength and the mission for which it was intended in his confrontations with the enemy at Timnath, at Lehi, and at Gaza, he would not have made a mockery of the Lord's vengeance by trivializing his conquests with self-serving riddles and games.
Having come through the initial phases of his spiritually regenerative
rite of passage undefeated (in anticipation of Jesus' more accomplished
rejection out of hand of the temptations of the flesh, the world, and the
Devil), Samson, too, is given the final challenge of an impossible choice,
a "catch-22" proposition from the noonday devil that, like Jesus on the
temple spire, he can neither reject nor accept without sinning. Summoned
by his captors to "make sport" for their people at the festival of Dagon,
and commanded to display his God-given talents at a midday feast of thanksgiving
to be offered to the pagan idol in celebration of the Philistine empire's
triumph over the Israelites (that which was accomplished in part at the
cost of Samson's freedom and his sight), the Nazarite's first reaction is
indignantly solipsistic: he is an Ebrew forbidden to participate in the
heathen rites of the Dagonalia, and the Philistine lords have demanded of
him all that he will tolerate; he cannot come (1321). Told by the officer
who has been sent to lead him to the festival that this answer will not
content those who summon him, Samson remains both adamant and defiant: they
will not "make a game of [his] calamities." "Have they not Sword-players,
and ev'ry sort / Of Gymnic Artists, Wrestlers, Riders, Runners, / Jugglers
and Dancers, Antics, Mummers, Mimics?" he snarls, "but they must pick mee
out with shackles tir'd, / And over-labor'd at thir public Mill, /To make
them sport with blind activity? . . . / Return the way thou cam'st, I will
not come" (1319-32). Again the officer presses the prisoner to reconsider,
advising him with unexpected compassion to "regard himself" -- which Samson
literally cannot do, for he can neither see himself as he is, nor accept
himself for what he has become. Powerless despite his strength, the blind
and filthy mill slave in "ill-fitted weeds / O'erworn and soil'd" (121-2)
seems momentarily to forget his present miseries, and in a flash of irritation
at these insults to his Nazarite pride, wonders haughtily aloud if his enemies
"can . . . think [him] so broken, so debas'd / With corporal servitude,
that [his] mind ever / Will condescend to such absurd demands?" (1335-6).
Obviously, from a Philistine perspective, the demands are neither "absurd"
nor susceptible of their object's condescension; the summoners are his lords
and masters, they have given him an order, and it is not within his options
to elect to disobey. In Samson's mind, however, this is anything but the
case. Though he has used his strength to serve "the Philistines, / Idolatrous,
uncircumcis'd, unclean" in the past, grinding their flour amid "the Slaves
and Asses," heretofore he has done so "not in thir Idol-worship, but by
labor / Honest and lawful to deserve [his] food / Of those who have [him]
in their civil power" (1363-7); compliance with this latest summons would
disgrace him by his own consent ("although thir drudge, to be thir fool
or jester, / And in my midst of sorrow and heart-grief / To show them feats
and play before thir god / The worst of all indignities, yet on me / Join'd
with extreme contempt?"), and again, he "will not come" (1338-42). When
the Chorus urges him once more to take stock of the situation, and reconsider
his response ("Expect another message more imperious, / More Lordly thund'ring
than thou well wilt bear"), Samson at last apprehends the only cogent argument
among the many lesser principles on which he might stand in his refusal
to honour the Philistine's dictum, which is that he must not "abuse this
Consecrated gift / Of strength returning with [his] hair" (1354-5)
by prostituting holy things to Idols;
A Nazarite in place abominable
Vaunting my strength in honor to thir Dagon?
Besides how vile, contemptible, ridiculous,
What act more execrably unclean, profane? (1358-62)
Samson of course recognises on the other hand that if he does not go as bidden, his tormentors will "find such Engines to assail / And hamper [him], as [he shall] come of force, / Though [he were] firmlier fastened than a rock" (1396-8) and drag him to the temple unwilling, perhaps to slaughter him there in their furious indignation at the arrogance of a "slave, / Our Captive, at the public Mill our drudge" (1392-4) who dares ignore their "sending and command" (1394). He must not go, and he cannot stay: the situation "leads to an impasse, at which point the "rousing motions" remove all obstacles: Samson's struggle has finally been integrated into God's design" (Mueller 237).
Samson must neither commit suicide by refusing to obey the messenger, nor sin by appearing at Dagon's feast [though he clearly must do one or the other]. Without a revelation, Samson is caught [as Jesus is caught on the temple spire, helpless to refuse, and helpless to obey]. Only when he realizes that God [who would otherwise be angered by his attendance at the pagan festival] 'may dispense with me or thee [ / Present in Temples at Idolatrous Rites / ] For some important cause' (1377-79) does [Samson] feel 'Some rousing motions' as God reclaims a willful instrument (Miller, 178).
The decision reflected in his humble declaration with "calm of mind, all passion spent" (1775-8) that "I with this Messenger will go along" (1384) is the action that completes Samson's final movement from the "Prison within Prison / Inseparably dark" (153-4) that is has been his "Sepulcher, a moving Grave"(102) throughout the poem, carrying him "a little onward . . . a little further on" (1-2) toward the bank bathed with the "breath of Heav'n fresh blowing, pure and sweet, / With day-spring born" (9-11) that was his objective from the start. Conflation of the notion that Samson's "strength [is] again returning with [his] hair" and the idea that God "may dispense with me or thee / Present in Temples at Idolatrous Rites / For some important cause" takes the Nazarite from the "dark, dark," darkness of tristitia "amid the blaze of noon"(80-2) toward faith and the "hope of day," the "first created Beam" and "great Word" of illumination and Son-light he anticipates and imitates without fully comprehending. "The Sun," he says, to him "is dark / And silent as the Moon"(87), but there is an implied assurance at the end of the play in the fact that the Father, who also "oft seems to hide his face" has "unexpectedly return[ed], / And to his faithful Champion in place / Bore witness gloriously" (1749-52): Samson "participates in the festival in a way that is ironic in respect to its nature as a celebration of a pagan god," by honoring, "not the god whose festival this is supposed to be, but the God whose instrument he is" (Cirillo 227) and becomes "by his own willing choice, a chosen son of [that] God" (Martz 213); his "triumph is present in eternity because the Son's offer of redemption is made in eternity" (Cirillo 216). He, too, will be a partaker in that reward.
While Samson's service to God before his fall had been loyal, it had also been presumptuous. But the opposite of presumption is not, as the 'tongue-doughty' Harapha hopes it will be, a retreat into despair. Presumption and despair are two sides of the same coin, which is willed ignorance of God. The opposite of such ignorance is faith, which seeks genuine understanding, trusting that a knowledge of the Truth is attainable. . . . [Samson's] faith in God's righteousness . . . is rewarded with the discovery of what he has gropingly sought, a rationally and morally governed universe. That discovery has brought with it victory over the ultimate enemy, over his own sin and despair. And Samson is ready, from now on, to meet not what 'may chance' (1295), but what God will offer (Bennett 236-7).
One leaves Milton's tragic poem with the conviction that, as a result of
the prodigal having come "Home to his Father's house" (1733) at last, Samson
will not look long for the Saviour his final deed anticipates: "the katharsis
of Samson, his reconciliation with God, is a complex, problematic, and mysterious
solution of the drama, which is not without its own very bitter and deeply
felt sense of tragedy" (Mueller 246), but "there can and must be no doubt
that 'all is best.' The ultimate good of the reunion of God and Samson must
not be called in question even though it will remain shrouded in mystery
forever," as technically it must, for Milton's play to remain within the
realm of tragedy.  Even if it is true that,
"although he dimly foreshadows the humiliation of his Saviour, Samson remains
blind to the spiritual significance of his suffering," and "cannot know
. . . that [he] must . . . remain in bondage until the death of One who
will in truth, not in shadow, prosecute the means of [his] deliverance and
return [him] home to [his] Father's house" (Madsen 95), Samson has served,
by executing "with winged expedition / Swift as the lightning glance" (1283-5)
the internal promptings of his Master's bidding, just as he has served by
standing and waiting between the temple pillars for the revelation of His
will, using his talent only for "labor / Honest and lawful to deserve his
food" (1365-6) -- and not burying it or prostituting it to the perverted
ends promoted by Dalila and Harapha -- until the providential time is right
to exert it in God's glory. "By his fall, Samson is conformed to the image
of the first Adam; by his humiliation, self-emptying, and sacrificial death,
he is transformed into the image of the second. As he stands, head bowed
and arms outstretched between the pillars, Milton's readers, familiar with
Samson as a type of Christ, would not fail to detect the imago Christi"(Hawkins
228): in both respects, he "heroicly hath finished / A life Heroic" (1710-11)
and indeed, "nothing is here for tears" (1721). But despite his spiritual
progress, and despite his imperfect vision of the Promised Land, like Moses
at the end of Exodus or Virgil at the end of Il Paradiso, Samson
cannot cross the desert into the land of milk and honey: he lacks a coherent
understanding and acceptance of God's grace. Though there are many parallels
between Samson and David,  the former is
unsatisfying and even disturbing as a Christian exemplum because, until
the last, his morality is predicated on the Hammurabian lex talionis,
not New Testament mercy: "strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O
God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes" he
says, moments before he brings down the house on the Dagonites (Judges 16:28).
Thus it is not repudiation as much as it is redirection of the bloody acts
of his past that is the basis for his final act of heroism, a gesture that
even so requires numinous abilities the average human being does not possess.
Milton will have to turn to a lesser man to find the path to a greater.
1. Even to one who looks on them with indulgent affection, the plenitude of Milton's declarations of robust self-respect is something of an embarrassment. Clearly, Milton the young classicist sought fama; Milton the elder statesman hungered after grace. I cite but a few of the many examples of his earlier boisterousness:
In Ad Patrem in 1637 (at the age of 29), Milton tells his father that, having received the gift of knowledge via the generous education his parents have provided for him, "however humble my present place in the company of learned men, I shall sit with the ivy and laurel of a victor. I shall no longer mingle unknown with the dull rabble, and my walk shall be far from the sight of vulgar eyes" (Hughes 85).
In the concluding paragraph of the same poem, the author addresses his literary progeny: "And you, my juvenile verses and amusements, if only you dare hope for immortality and a life and a glimpse of the light beyond your master's funeral pyre . . . perhaps you will preserve this eulogy and the name of the father whom my song honors as an example to remote ages" (Hughes 86).
Ten years later, while replacing a lost volume of his own poetry at the request of his friend, John Rowse (Ad Joannem Rousium, Hughes 148), Milton expresses confidence that,
You then, my labors-whatever my sterile brain has produced-have hardly been in vain. Now at last I bid you look forward to quiet rest . . . [in] the alert protection of Rowse, where the insolent noise of the crowd shall never enter and the vulgar mob of readers shall forever be excluded. But our distant descendants and a more sensitive age will perhaps render a more nearly just judgment of things out of its unprejudiced heart. Then, when envy has been buried, a sane posterity will know what my deserts are-thanks to Rowse.
Though such remarks have often been used against him as a demonstration of his arrogance, it is important to remember (in his defence) that "contemporary" writers like Donne and Shakespeare frequently expressed intimations of the immortality of their works, and that, as he wrote in The Reason of Church Government (CPW I: 842), Milton believed that
he that holds himself in true reverence and esteem, both for the dignity of Gods image upon him and for the price of his redemption, which he thinks is visibly markt upon his forehead, accounts himselfe both a fit person to do the noblest and godliest deeds, and much better worth then to deject and defile with such a debasement and such a pollution as sin is, himselfe so highly ransom'd and ennobl'd. . . . Nor can he fear so much the offence and reproach of others, as he dreads and would blush at the reflection of his own severe and modest eye upon himselfe, if it should see him doing or imagining that which is sinfull, though in the deepest secrecy.
As a result, Milton argued in An Apology Against a Pamphlet Called "A Modest Confutation of the Animadversions Upon the Remonstrant Against smectymnuus," (CPW I: 890) that, possessed of "a certain nicenesse of nature, an honest haughtinesse and self-esteem either of what [he] was, or what [he] might be (which let envie call pride)," he
was confirmed in [the] opinion that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himselfe to bee a true Poem, that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroick men, or famous Cities, unless he have in himselfe the experience and the practice of all that which is praise-worthy.
2. I refer in this respect primarily to the consequences of each hero's misguided faith in the zeal of his nation for liberation, and in Milton's case to the disintegration of the "Good Old Cause" and its ramifications in terms of the personal life, social status, and situation of the poet at the return of Charles II, not specifically or even necessarily to the onset of Milton's blindness.
3. The phrase comes from the Hughes translation (Complete Poems and Major Prose, 825), which reads:
And with respect to myself, though I have accurately examined my conduct, and scrutinized my soul, I call thee, O God, the searcher of hearts, to witness, that I am not conscious, either in the more early or in the later parts of my life, of having committed any enormity which might deservedly have marked me out for such a calamitous visitation.
As is the case in many instances, the Yale Prose version of Milton's Latin differs literally (but not idiomatically) from the Hughes text to a marked degree, and appears to sacrifice some of the poetic flavor of Milton's prose for the sake of greater linguistic precision:
For my part, I call upon Thee, my God, who knowest my inmost mind and all my thoughts, to witness that (although I have repeatedly examined myself on this point as earnestly as I could, and have searched all the corners of my life) I am conscious of nothing, or of no deed, either recent or remote, whose wickedness could justly occasion or invite upon me this supreme misfortune (CPW 4(2): 698).
4. I refer, of course, to the long passage of The Second Defense of the English People (in Don M. Wolfe, ed. Complete Prose Works, 1 Vol. IV, 582-592) in which an incensed and indignant Milton rebuts the allegations of "More, the barren and windy egg, from which issued that flatulent cry of the royal blood," i.e., "The Royal Blood Crying to Heaven for Vengeance on the English Parricides," that the poet is "a monster, dreadful, ugly, huge, deprived of sight . . . yet not huge, for there is nothing more feeble, bloodless, and pinched."
5. The translation is that given by Merritt Y. Hughes in Complete Poems and Major Prose, 824; the Yale Prose reads "let those who slander the judgments of God cease to speak evil and invent empty tales about me."
6. Carol Barton,"'They Also Perform the Duties of a Servant Who Only Remain Erect on Their Feet in a Specified Place in Readiness to Receive Orders': The Dynamics of Stasis in Sonnet XIX ('When I Consider How My Light is Spent')," Milton Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, no.4 (December 1998).
7. As Thomas Kranidas observes in "Manoa's Role in Samson Agonistes," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13:1 (Winter 1973), through much of the play, Samson's speeches are choked with relentless and "scathing self-contempt"; though the emotion is not as extreme in Sonnet XIX, it is similar. Rather than Adam and Eve's penitent mea culpas ("I'm sorry; I was wrong"), Samson and the poet of Sonnet XIX seem to be saying "How could I have been so stupid?", a fine but important distinction that alters the tone of the tragedy and the sonnet as it does nothing else in the canon.
8. Obviously, I do not agree with Irene Samuel ("Samson Agonistes as Tragedy," in Joseph A. Wittreich, Calm of Mind, 235-257) that those who envision the hero as "a martyr, a witness to Jehovah's truth, a prototypical saint, one of those who need only await Judgment Day to take their due place among the blessed" are "unwittingly supporting" Samuel Johnson's observation that "this is a tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded," or that neither "Milton's critical and religious thought, his view of tragedy, his habit as a poet, the detail he wrote into the play, the nature of tragedy generally or of tragedies like Samson in particular . . . [support] such a reading of the play" (235). As he was in all of his scripturally predicated texts, the poet was constrained in Samson by the well-known events of Judges, and can hardly be blamed for adhering to the archetype in a matter as important as Samson's final act of heroism-but he does avoid the "revenge" theme of the Old Testament story, and emphasizes the fact that "Samson with [the Philistines] intermixt, inevitably / Pull'd down the same destruction on himself" (1657-8). Though Milton did not advocate violence for its own sake, the author of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Eikonoklastes would have understood the moral necessity of Samson's last homicidal act, and as evidenced by Milton's positive reference to Samson in the famous passages of The Reason of Church Government and Areopagitica:
I cannot better liken the state and person of a king to that mighty Nazarite Samson; who being disciplin'd from his birth in the precepts and and practice of Temperance and Sobriety . . . grows up to a noble strength and perfection with those his illustrious and sunny locks the laws waving and curling about his godlike shoulders. And while he keeps them about him undiminisht and unshorn, he may with the jawbones of an Asse, that is, with the word of his meanest offices suppresse and put to confusion thousands of those that rise against his just power. But laying down his head among the strumpet flatteries of Prelats, while he sleeps and thinks no harme, they wickedly shaving off all those bright and waighty tresses of his laws, and just prerogatives which were his ornament and strength, deliver him over to indirect and violent councels, which as those Philistims put out the fair, and farr-sighted eyes of his natural discerning, and make him grinde in the prison house of their sinister ends and practices upon him (The Reason of Church Government, in Don M. Wolfe, ed., Complete Prose Works, Vol. I, 858-9),
and "Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks" (Areopagitica, in Ernest Sirluck, ed., Complete Prose Works, Vol. II, 557-8) he did not view him as an "embarrassment to the Hebrews."
9. See William O. Harris' excellent discussion of the differences between these two virtues in "Despair and 'Patience as the Truest Fortitude,'" in Critical Essays on Milton from ELH, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, 277-90. Harris' summary of Lodowick Bryskett's A Discourse of Civill Life (London, 1606) makes the point succinctly enough for our present purposes:
. . . Another Christian humanist, Lodowick Bryskett . . . bases his plan of princely instruction in A Discourse of Civill Life (London, 1606) upon the four cardinal virtues, culminating with an extensive treatment of fortitude, of which he says there are two kinds. The species which serves as 'a spurre to pricke men forward in defense of just and honest causes' is precisely that which Milton's Chorus exults to in the opening of the second ode [1268-96]. However, continues Bryskett, 'there is a kind of fortitude that hath no need of any such spurre of anger . . . And this is that blessed virtue which never suffereth a man to fall down from the height of his minde, being called by some men patience,'
a superior virtue because "'who so beareth stoutly aduersities, deserueth greater commendation and praise then they which ouercome their enemies, or by force win cities or countries, or otherwise defend their owne.'" Clearly, as Samson's repudiation of "tilting furniture" indicates, Milton was of this opinion, too.
10. See Joseph Wittreich's summary in the first chapter of Interpreting Samson Agonistes of the "debate" between Irene Samuel, Wendy Furman, Barbara Lewalski, Georgia Christopher, Mary Ann Radzinowicz, Stanley Fish, Thomas Kranidas, et al. as to whether or not Milton is attempting to portray Samson as a Christian martyr and model for emulation, or a classically flawed tragic hero condemned by his own brutality and immoral behaviour to die a vengeful death.
Though "typology is sufficiently elastic to read each of these adventures as anticipations of events in Christ's life," the exploits of the Biblical Samson are, as David M. Miller (John Milton: Poetry, 170-1) suggests, "without dignity":
He began by contracting marriage to a Philistian woman and then trapping her friends in a riddle game. When they solved the riddle by coercing Samson's wife, he killed thirty of them, and gave his wife to a friend. Later, Samson returned and demanded to sleep with the woman; and, when her father refused him the privilege, Samson tied the tails of 300 foxes together, set them on fire, and chased them through Philistian crops. Samson responded to their protests by slaughtering all within reach and by then running away. Not surprisingly, a Philistian army moved against the Israelites who, to save themselves, delivered Samson, bound, to the enemy. He broke the bonds and slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Later he visited a harlot in Gaza and carried off the city gates.
The Miltonic Samson is, on the other hand, "eloquently introspective," and endowed with "the conscience of a seventeenth century Puritan." Like his Biblical model, he prays "with head inclin'd / And eyes fast fixt" moments before he destroys the Temple of Dagon (1636-7), but the substance of his prayer is not revealed. This distinction between the two is an important one, since moments before his death, the Biblical Samson specifically prays, "O Lord GOD remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O GOD, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28): rather than any indication of his having felt the sort of "rousing motions" that would be consistent with a premonition that he has been restored to grace, and his strength has returned to him to carry out God's mission, it appears that in the last minutes of his life, God grants him one final and vengefully self-absorbed wish ("So Sampson grop'd the Temple's Posts in spite, / The World o'erwhelming to revenge his sight," observes Marvell). Milton also downplays the Biblical Samson's clear distrust of his Philistian bride, glossing over in six short lines (392-7) the fact that there were three earlier seduction attempts of the same kind and magnitude before Delilah was able to "vex" his "soul unto death" with her badgering (not seduce him with her feminine wiles) so that she succeeded in learning his secret, all of which Samson thwarted by lying to her about the source of his strength (Judges 16: 6-15).
It is understatement to say that the Biblical Samson is thus to a considerable degree the intellectual inferior of his literary counterpart, a fact which detracts commensurably from his ability to fulfill the Aristotelian requirement that he be an exemplary figure when he becomes a character in a classical tragedy. While Milton does not openly deviate from the Biblical precedent except in the addition of the "Greek" chorus of Danites and the creation of the berserker Harapha (whose hubristic taunts teach Samson what he has been, and must not be again), his commencement of the story in medias res is thus that much more understandable, since, by focusing on Samson "eyeless in Gaza," he is able to avoid direct discussion of the events that precipitated that condition.
11. Tragedy and classical doctrine would demand that Samson be punished for his hamartia by a fall from which he does not get up; comedy and Christian doctrine would demand that these potentially tragic circumstances end in a reunification, an at-one-ment, which is symbolized by the heavenly grace that restores Samson's "talent" to him once he has learned how to use it wisely; in Milton's play, both occur offstage. As Merritt Y. Hughes points out in his Introduction to Samson, "if Milton's drama realized his early hope of mastery 'in those Dramatick constitutions, wherein Sophocles and Euripides raigne," he may be forgiven for having produced a kind of isotope of tragedy something assayable as of the same general kind of metal, though of a better quality, perhaps, than most of the surviving Greek tragedies themselves" (Complete Poems and Major Prose, 546).
12. See Milton's letter to Leonard Philaras regarding the "Paris physician Thevenot, especially distinguished as an oculist," dated 28 September 1654.
13. Seeking with the "garlands" of his poetry to "redress that wrong" that wreathed his Savior's head with thorns, Marvell finds "the serpent old / That twining in his speckled breast, / About the flowers disguised does fold, / With wreaths of fame and interest." "Ah, foolish man," he cries, "that wouldst debase with them, / And mortal glory, Heaven's diadem!" The same problem (though not the same discomfort about it) afflicts the first of Donne's Holy Sonnets: "do not with a vile crown of frail bays, / Reward my muse's white sincerity," he says, "but what thy thorny crown gained, that give me / A crown of glory, which doth flower always . . . ."
14. Though he shares the stage with the Danite chorus and Manoa almost from the start, they serve as foils rather than antagonists, in the sense that (despite their sometimes tactless "comfort"), they are clearly on Samson's side, and sincerely want to help him: "your coming, Friends, revives me, for I learn / Now of my own experience, not by talk / How counterfeit a coin they are who friends / Bear in their Superscription . . . ." (Samson Agonistes, 186-9, in Merritt Y. Hughes, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 556). It takes 710 lines to get to Samson's confrontation with his first real adversary, Dalila, and there are 1758 lines in the poem.
15. Sir Maurice Bowra thus complains in Inspiration and Poetry, London, 1955 (128) that "Samson's fault is stressed so strongly that we hardly pity him, and if we feel any fear, it is less for him than for the Philistines." As Merritt Y. Hughes suggests, it is likely that, if Milton had heard the comment, it would have done no more than make him smile (Complete Poems and Major Prose, 546).
16. This is not to suggest that Eve operates on the same Machiavellian plane as Dalila, or that her motives for offering the specious alibis that attempt to paint her better than she is are at all the same; an important difference between the two is that Satan never suggests to Eve that what he offers her is contingent on her inducing Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (making her worse than Dalila, self-tempted), while Dalila betrays her man (in part) for the promise of eleven hundred pieces of silver from each of the Philistian lords (Judges 16:5), making her a type of Judas (and therefore worse than Eve).
17. The convention is Old Testament Hebrew (originating in Ecclesiastes) rather than pagan Philistine, in any case.
18. Moments before Samson's death, Manoa tells the Chorus that he has
. . . attempted one by one the Lords,
Either at home, or through the high street passing,
With supplication prone and father's tears
To accept of ransom for my Son thir pris'ner.
Some much averse I found and wondrous harsh
Contemptuous, proud, set on revenge and spite . . .
Others more moderate seeming, but thir aim
Private reward, for which both God and State
They easily would set to sale; a third
More generous far and civil, who confess'd
They had enough reveng'd, having reduc't
Thir foe to misery beneath thir fears . . . (1457-69)
This of course recalls the conclusion of the Iliad, where another victor is given the opportunity to demonstrate his heroic magnanimity to the father of his victim, and does so in a gesture that subverts his "war-machine" image.
19. This is how Don Cameron Allen views Samson himself in "The Idea as Pattern: Despair and Samson Agonistes," in Crump, Twentieth Century Interpretations, 52.
20. The one thing that, to my mind, Harapha is not is a buffoon, one of the "trivial or vulgar persons, which by all judicious hath bin counted absurd; and brought in without discretion, to gratifie the people," in keeping with the "error of intermixing Comic stuff with Tragic sadness and gravity" that has sometimes garnered tragedy "small esteem, or rather infamy . . . in the account of many" ("of that sort of dramatic poem which is called a tragedy," in Complete Prose Works, Vol. VIII, ed. Maurice Kelley, 135). His purpose is not to provide comic relief, but to "hold a mirror up to nature," and enhance Samson's progress toward total self-recognition by revealing one more aspect of what the hero has been, and must never be again.
21. Satan, too, must come to terms with the fact that his brightness is "diminisht," and that he "resembl[es] now / [his] sin and place of doom obscure and foul," even though he thinks himself unchanged. But where Satan is abashed to find himself thus degenerated and inferior to those who once looked up in awe to him ("Thus abasht the Devil stood," says Milton, "and felt how awful goodness is, and saw / Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pin'd / His loss"), one gets the distinct impression that Samson is ultimately disgusted by Harapha's swaggering bravado, and does not grieve a moment for the lost vocation that made them brothers.
22. As William O. Harris points out in "Despair and 'Patience as the Truest Fortitude in Samson Agonistes" (in Critical Essays on Milton from ELH, 279), Milton refers in the passage cited above to the "gloriously active battling performed by God's champion, whose chief virtue is 'Heroic magnitude of mind'or magnanimitas, the hallmark of all epic heroes, all Renaissance courtiers."
23. The Hebrew Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is, according to A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., 323) "above all a call of the chosen to obedience": "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." But asked by one of the Pharisees, "which was a lawyer," (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-37),
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . .
The difference between the two (the emphasis in the Old Testament on "might," which in all three synoptic gospels of the New Testament becomes "mind") is the difference between the classical and Christian concepts of heroism: it is not physical might and external action (magnanimitas), but strength of spirit and internal motion (patience, fortitude, and the ability to resist temptation and stand and wait), that Samson must learn to transcend the realm of clock-time and ascend into eternity.
24. Samson achieves the letter of the law without regard to the spirit: though he does defeat the Philistines at Timnath as expected, his gloating denigration of his victims before and after he has conquered them (the riddle he poses to his first wife's tribesmen, the inordinate revenge he exacts on them for having "plowed with his heifer" and frightened her into telling them the answer, the burning of the fields with a foxtail torch, the gratuitous removal of the gates of Gaza, and the three lies he tells Dalila before she finally beats him at his own game) is not for the glory of God, but for the self-satisfaction of Samson's voracious ego, and being undignified on its face tends to trivialize the mission he was chosen to perform.
25. Milton's "Aristotelian tragedy" properly ends (as it must) in separation and death, with Manoa and the Danites bereaved of their champion, whose body lies "soak't in his enemies' blood" offstage at the temple, the corpses of the Philistian villains (and Samson's other victims) strewn about him. Though the potential for reunion and (re)marriage in the sense of at-one-ment between Samson and God that would transform the play into a comedy is implicit in the final action, it will not properly or historically occur by Christian standards for some nine or ten centuries hence, at the birth and death of Jesus Christ; it is therefore arguably not "part of" the tragic action from the nominal perspective of the classical Aristotelian play that the work pretends to be for the purposes of its performance. Here again, I think the vexed question of whether or not Samson Agonistes is a tragedy (and there is a long and distinguished tradition of arguments on both sides) stems from the blending of pagan, Hebrew, and Christian perspectives that Milton conflates into a "unified" tripartite providential vision: from an Aristotelian (pagan) point of view, Samson's hamartia is the overweening pride (or hubris) that leads him not only to conquer but to bait his enemies (consider the episode of the foxes at Timnah, or his lying "confessions" to Dalila, which are reminiscent in this respect of Odysseus' arrogant "Noman" exchange with the Cyclops Polyphemus). In this context, Samson experiences his peripeteia before the play begins, at the moment when he is "shorn like a tame wether" by Dalila and blinded and shackled by her people; the anagnorisis occurs throughout the play, until the moment of catharsis, when the hero, who realizes that he has been unfaithful to his covenant with "the gods," rejects the easy life of luxuria proffered by Manoa and Dalila, and wearing the livery of an enforced slave, becomes through his one voluntary act of humility a true conqueror, "on his Enemies / Fully reveng'd." The cause for tears and wailing and knocking of the breast (the catharsis) comes from the reader's horrified realization that such a champion could fall so far as a result of his own blind arrogance and his "effeminate" yielding to the wiles of what Stein has called a "holy harlot" (170); in this context, Harapha's only purpose is dramatic, to put Samson back in touch with his slowly returning power.
From a Christian perspective, Samson's hamartia is still hubris, but this time it is a pride that persists after his ostensible fall, and prevents him from full acceptance of God's prevenient grace. The anagnorisis in this case is two-fold: the initial recognition of his own part in the calamities that have befallen him (including the chutzpah that permitted him to infer inspiration by analogy, and justify the promptings of his libido as the promptings of his God); and his later and more sombre recognition of the disuniting pride that transformed him from one separate to God into one separate from God, which (i) does not come until just before the moment of his death, and (ii) must be expiated with his pre-Christian life, to allow him by typology to become his own Deliverer, and thus partake of the universally deliverance of the Crucifixion when (some nine or ten centuries hence) the providential time is right. The catharsis for the Christian audience comes in the recognition that Samson, a Nazarite consecrate to God, is as susceptible of seduction as are any of us; is very nearly damned by his self-loathing and despair; and cannot begin to fulfill the destiny of delivering Israel before he has completed the work of saving himself. The tragedy is that, for Samson, there is as yet no Christ, and he must die to be reborn in the Christ-who-is-yet-to-come, redeemable but not til then redeemed. It is from the Christian perspective that we leave the play uncomfortable with the idea that it is a tragedy, for on Christian terms, here is occasion for joy (and to say otherwise is tantamount to blasphemy): the prodigal has returned to his Father's house, and, despite his death in ugliness and privation, his obedient reunification with the will of God at the moment of his expiration will lead to his joyful reunion with the Father and Son in Heaven.
26. Indeed, the resemblances are striking: David
ˇ was the slayer of the fictional Harapha's Biblical son, Goliath, in 1 Samuel 18: 49-51;
ˇ was sent by Saul to do battle with the Philistines, "For Saul said, Let not my hand be upon him, but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him," in 1 Samuel 18:17;
ˇ was promised Saul's daughter Michal in marriage "that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him," in 1 Samuel 18:21; and
ˇ brought two hundred Philistian foreskins to Saul as a dowry so that he might marry the king's daughter Michal, after the king's request that he bring him "an hundred," in 1 Samuel 18:25.
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Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).