John Milton: Poet, Priest and Prophet

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


  John Spencer Hill


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Milton Agonistes:   The Date of Samson Agonistes

[195]   There has, in recent years, been no more contentious issue among Miltonists than the date of Samson Agonistes.   Until thirty years ago it was almost universally accepted that the play was Milton's last poetic composition--an assumption based on Jonathan Richardson's assertion, in his influential Life of Milton (1734), that "His Time was Now [i.e. after 1660] Employ'd in Writing and Publishing, particularly Paradise Lost. and after That, Paradise Regain'd and Samson Agonistes".1   This "traditional" dating--which places the compositon of the drama in 1667-70--came under heavy fire for the first time in 1949, in a special Milton number of Philological Quarterly containing essays by W.R. Parker and Allan H. Gilbert.   Parker argued that Samson Agonistes was begun in 1646-7 and completed in 1653; Gilbert, on the other hand, assigned its composition to the early 1640s:   "My own impression . . . is that the tragedy is essentially an early work, following soon after the making of the notes in the Cambridge Manuscript."2   Since 1949 the dispute has raged hotly and, sometimes, acrimoniously. Gilbert's suggestion has attracted no real support; but Parker's hypothesis--forcefully reasserted by Parker himself and taken up by a number of other scholars as well--has had considerable influence.3   At the same time, however, the traditional date has been ably defended,4 and it is fair to say that, at the present time, scholarly opinion strongly favours a 1667-70 dating.
      There remains one further dating proposal, which places the composition of Samson Agonistes in 1660-1--that is, immediately after the Restoration.   Although this conjecture is an old one, having been first suggested in 1796, it has been largely ignored and has been advanced in a serious way by only one modern critic, A.S.P. Woodhouse:   "I do not believe that the poem was the product or reflection of a normal mood, but rather of a state of depression not very difficult to imagine in the poet whose world had collapsed around him and who was blind, disillusioned, ill, and essentially alone.   Such must have been the prevailing mood of [196] 1660-1, when the poem, I suggest, was most probably written."5   Unfortunately, Woodhouse does not develop this proposal in detail--though his argument is far from being the "ill-supported plea" that John Carey (PM, p. 332) claims it to be.   For a number of years I have believed that a 1660-1 dating has much to recommend it; and the more I have worked with Samson Agonistes and the more familiar I have become with the experience and attitudes of Milton himself, the more convinced I have become of the essential rightness of Woodhouse's thesis.   To my knowledge, his original motion has never been seconded--nor, although it has often been dismissed, has it been refuted.   The argument, then, at least merits reconsideration.
      There are some few preliminary observations to be briefly made, however, before coming to the major argument.   First, nothing whatever is known for certain about the composition of Samson Agonistes.   The contemporary biographers give us no help:   Edward Phillips (1694) freely admits that "It cannot certainly be concluded when he wrote his excellent Tragedy entitled Samson Agonistes";6 the anonymous biographer says only that the drama was finished after the Restoration and gives no hint as to when it was begun; John Phillips and Toland (1698) mention it but say nothing about its composition; and neither Aubrey (1681) nor Wood (1691) even mentions the work.   W.R. Parker is quite correct in asserting that "not a scrap of evidence has ever been published to show that it was written late in Milton's life" (MB, II, pp. 903-4); but it is equally true--despite Parker's claims to the contrary--that there is no solid evidence to show that it was written in middle life.   Certainty on the matter is beyond possibility; and any attempt--including my own--to establish when the poem was written is necessarily grounded on inference and speculation.   Second, I am not convinced that Milton's imagery and poetic style provide any real help in determining the date of Samson Agonistes.   On the one hand, the complicated statistical studies of Miltonic prosody have been inconclusive--indeed, contradictory.7   And, on the other hand, since Milton frequently re-uses phrases and images employed in earlier pieces, I am profoundly distrustful of arguments relying on parallel images in different works as a basis for dating.8   Third, since Samson Agonistes not only employs rhyme but draws attention to its use, I believe that the play must pre-date 1667, when Milton added to late issues of the first edition of Paradise Lost 9 a note on "The Verse" in [197] which he inveighs against "the troublesome and modem bondage of rhyming" (PM, p. 457).
      The major reason for wishing to assign Samson Agonistes to 1660-1 depends upon biographical considerations.   Biographical readings of the play are, of course, not new.   The tradition seems to begin with Bishop Thomas Newton who suggested in his Life of Milton (1749) that Milton was attracted to the Samson story by the similarity between his own post-Restoration situation and that of the blind Hebrew champion surrounded by the Philistines.   Although others supported Newton's view, it was left for David Masson to develop fully the possibilities of the biographical approach:

But in the entire idea of the drama what else have we than a representation of the Puritan and Republican Milton in his secret antagonism to all the powers and all the fashions of the Restoration?   Who are the Philistines but the partisans of the Restoration, all and sundry, its authors and abettors before the fact, and its multitudinous applauders and sycophants through the nation afterwards?   Who are the Philistine lords and ladies, and captains, and priests, assembled in their seats within the covered part of the temple of Dagon on the day of festival?   Who but Charles himself, and the Duke of York, and the whole pell-mell of the Clarendons, Buckinghams, Buckhursts, Killigrews, Castlemaines, Moll Davises, Nell Gwynns, Sheldons, Morleys, and some hundreds of others . . . .   There were moments, I believe, in Milton's musings by himself, when it was a fell pleasure to him to imagine some exertion of his strength, like that legendary one of Samson's, by which, clutching the two central pillars of the Philistine temple, he might tug and strain till he brought down the whole fabric in crash upon the heads of the heathenish congregation, perishing himself in the act, but leaving England bettered by the carnage.   That was metaphorical musing only, a dream of the embers, all fantastical.   But was there not a very real sense in which he had been performing feats of strength under the gaze of the Philistine congregation, to their moral amazement, though not to their physical destruction?   Degraded at the Restoration, dismissed into obscurity, and thought of for some years, when thought of at all, only as a shackled wretch or monster, incapacitated for farther mischief or farther activity of any kind, had he not [198] re-emerged most gloriously?   By his Paradise Lost already, and now by his Paradise Regained and this very Samson Agonistes, he had entitled himself to the place of preeminency in the literature of that Philistine age, the Philistines themselves being the judges.     (LM, VI, pp. 676-7)

In our own century the biographical approach has been retained by James Holly Hanford, E.M.W. Tillyard, and A.S.P. Woodhouse.   Hanford, for example, writes:   "In Samson's career as a champion of God's people [Milton] could see his own earlier heroic efforts in behalf of the good old cause.   In the weakness which had betrayed him into the hands of a treacherous woman, he could read the causes of his own marriage disaster.   The circumstances which surrounded his hero in blindness and captivity naturally associated themselves with the poet's immediate situation in the Restoration.   The spiritual despair and the subsequent sense of God's favor represent an interpretation of the Biblical personality in the light of his own deepest personal emotion."10
      In recent years the biographical approach to Samson Agonistes has largely been ignored.   Either it is thought to be one of those self-evident truths too obvious for comment or, more often, it is seen to be a "dangerous" approach to the poem--a critical avenue known to exist but not much travelled by the better classes.   These attitudes are unfortunate, for they rob the poem of a legitimate level of meaning.   "Samson", warns Anthony Low, "is not Milton however, regardless of how much he may reflect Milton's experience.   To push autobiographical theories further, as their responsible exponents recognize, is to depart from the play itself."11   But surely there is a very real sense in which Samson is Milton--precisely because he does reflect so much of Milton's experience.   Masson comes, I believe, much closer to the truth of the matter:   "The marvel, then, is that this purely artistic drama, this strictly objective poetic creation, should have been all the while so profoundly and intensely subjective.   Nothing put forth by Milton in verse in his whole life is so vehement an exhibition of his personality, such a proclamation of his own thoughts about himself and about the world around him, as his Samson Agonistes.   But, indeed, there is no marvel in the matter.   The Hebrew Samson among the Philistines and the English Milton among the Londoners of the reign of Charles the Second were, to all poetic [199] intents, one and the same person." (LM, VI, p. 670)
      I suggested in an earlier chapter (Chap 3, above, p. 81) that Milton often used poetry as a vehicle for self-analysis and self-discovery.   In the Vacation Exercise, the Nativity Ode and Lycidas, as well as in Sonnets 7, 19 and 23, he turned to verse at critical moments in his life, and in each case the imposition of aesthetic pattern on private experience enabled him either to resolve a personal crisis or transcend a personal difficulty by transposing its solution from the realm of nature to that of grace.   Samson Agonistes is another case in point.   Milton's own greatest agon occurred in the months following the Restoration of Charles Stuart in May 1660.   For twenty years he had served as the prose prophet of the Puritan New Jerusalem.   With a full and unswerving conviction of national destiny and of his own prophetic vocatio specialis, he had laboured during these decades, sacrificing both his eyesight and his desire to write a great national poem, because he was certain that the Puritan cause was God's cause and that he, John Milton, had been especially elected to serve as the voice of God's reforming purpose to His chosen Englishmen.   These "certainties" could not remain unquestioned, however, after May 1660; and the collapse of the Puritan dream would necessarily have involved Milton in vocational reassessment and redefinition--the record of this experience being chronicled in Samson Agonistes.
      Virtually nothing is known of Milton's activities in the spring and summer of 1660.   On the advice of friends concerned with his safety he moved, according to Edward Phillips, "into a place of retirement and abscondence" in an unknown "Friend's House in Bartholomew-Close, where he liv'd till the Act of Oblivion came forth".12   This enforced isolation gave him the opportunity, and the need for vocational reconsideration gave him, I believe, the motive to begin the composition of Samson Agonistes.   And there is much in the play's tone and theme that will support this hypothesis.   Samson's isolation, bitterness and despair, for example, almost certainly reflect Milton's own situation and feelings at the Restoration; and blindness, which useful employment had made bearable in the prose works of the 1650s, would have become an intolerable burden to an active champion forced into retirement and inactivity.   But perhaps the most impressive parallels are the thematic ones.   Samson Agonistes is full of questions--many of which, as I have suggested in Chapter 5, centre on the vocational issues of the hero's inner calling to [200] regeneration and his special calling as Israel's prophesied deliverer:

Why was my breeding ordered and prescribed
As of a person separate to God,
Designed for great exploits; if I must die
Betrayed, captived, and both my eyes put out,
Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze . . .?       (30-4)

This is precisely the sort of question which Milton, the blind prophet of national regeneration, must have asked himself in the years 1660-1.   Like the degraded Hebrew champion, he must have been deeply troubled by the disparity between fact and promise in his career, between his actual position as the silenced and self-imprisoned spokesman of a lost cause and his expected career--a career underwritten by divine assurances and pledges, as recorded throughout the prose works--as God's chosen prophet and elect instrument in the work of establishing a regenerate nation.   Like the fallen Nazarite, he must have wondered how he could now be useful to God, if at all; and he must have canvassed the possibility that his zeal had led him, like Samson, to presumptuous action--that he had, perhaps, been seduced into seeing the Puritan dream as the divine plan for England through his own fervency and the warmth of his own religious convictions.   Perhaps Milton himself needed to be reminded that they also serve who only stand and wait.
      It seems to me, then, that Samson's experience, as Milton chose to present it in his play, provides a correlative to Milton's own vocational concerns immediately after the Restoration.   The year 1660 brought with it the need for Milton to rework the terms of his personal covenant with the Lord and Samson Agonistes was, I believe, the vehicle by which he was enabled to achieve emotional calm after the wreck of his hopes and vocational redefinition after the collapse of his prophetic calling.   At the level of "general vocation," he was led to see that, while Samson was no longer (as he had been in Areopagitica) a possible symbol for England as a corporate whole, his experience of rebirth could be used to represent mimetically the regeneration of those individual Englishmen responsive to the divine invitation to establish the "paradise within".   In terms of "special vocation", the fallen [201] Samson's return to divine service provided an analogue to Milton's own discovery--a discovery made, I imagine, in the very process of composing the play--that God had not abandoned him and that he was still expected to employ his divinely implanted talents in God's service.   If the Restoration was, for Milton, a political death, it was at the same time a poetic rebirth; and to the "rousing motions" of his reanimated vocatio specialis we owe not only Samson Agonistes but Paradise Regained and the completion of Paradise Lost.
      In his argument for an early dating of Samson Agonistes, W.R. Parker makes two points which ought, I think, to be challenged.   First, he asserts that "Milton's tragedy, like his antiprelatical tracts, is almost devoid of theology" (MB, II, p. 907), and he goes on to define "theology" as comprehending the Fall, original sin, Satan, Hell, and the concept of immortality. And, he concludes, unless Samson Agonistes were written early--that is, before De Doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost--"its severe avoidance of theology . . . [is] difficult to explain" (ibid.).   Precisely the reverse seems to me to be true.   There is much more to Milton's theology than Parker admits:   as I have pointed out both in the Introduction and in Chapter 5, the doctrines of vocation, renovation and regeneration are essential aspects of Milton's soteriology and, as well, are important themes in his Samson Agonistes.   I would argue, then, that the drama is highly theological; and, given the nature of its theological concerns, I do not see how it is possible that the tragedy could have been composed before the doctrines on which it depends had been worked out in De Doctrina Christiana.   In the second place, Parker, having noted that none of the alleged personal or political allusions in Samson Agonistes can be shown to belong to a period later than 1662, concludes as follows:   "If [these alleged allusions] seem to argue composition in 1661-2, then Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost were composed simultaneously --which is highly unlikely in view of Milton's known habits of composition." (MB, II, p. 907)   Two points may be made in reply.   First, we know very little indeed about Milton's habits of composition, and yet what little we do know will not support Parker's contention:   the Nativity Ode and Elegy 6, for example, seem to have been composed simultaneously, and so, too, do De Doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost, at least in the period 1658-60.   Second, what is more surprising than that the two poems should have been written together is the fact that Paradise Lost flows on with no hint, apart from a few lines early in Book VII (lines 24-8), of the [202] great spiritual agon through which its author had passed in the process of its composition.   Surely it is strange that an event so momentous (both in personal and in national terms) as the Restoration should have left so little mark on the poem itself--unless, that is, there were an intervening work in which the problems raised by this event were met and resolved.   The only possibility for such an intervening work is Samson Agonistes.
      My view of the matter, then, is that Samson Agonistes was begun shortly after May 1660 and that it was completed, probably, in the spring of 1661.   It may have been composed simultaneously with Paradise Lost; however, in view of the time factor and in view of Milton's need to resolve the vocational issues raised by the Restoration, I am inclined to believe that its composition interrupted and, at the same time, made it possible for Milton to continue with the writing of Paradise Lost.   It would, of course, have been suicidal to have published a poem containing such obvious and such censorious allusions to the restored regime with the taint of traitor and regicide still on him, and Milton wisely deferred the publication of Samson Agonistes for a decade, by which time his former republican activities had been somewhat atoned for by good behaviour and by which time his reputation had been restored (even among Royalists) by his achievement in Paradise Lost.   I shall conclude by allowing Professor Woodhouse, whose argument the foregoing pages have been designed to endorse and buttress with some further evidence, to summarise his own case:

If Samson Agonistes were the literary solace of Milton's months of hiding, there would be reason enough for its tone of bitterness and despair, for the apparent immediacy of its political allusions to Restoration England, and incidentally for the absence of Edward Phillips when it was composed.   On this view Milton would be seen as writing Samson Agonistes before completing Paradise Lost or dreaming of Paradise Regained, and perhaps as achieving by means of the tragedy a partial tranquillizing of his spirit necessary before he could do either . . . .   This is the hypothesis which I would advance, and it appears to me to cover all the principal phenomena, and to be called in question by no known evidence, internal or external.   As against Professor Parker's dates, it appears to offer an occasion wholly adequate to call into being the profound passions of the play; and it saves, and accounts for, those scarcely veiled allusions to [203] the lords of the Restoration and the leaders of the Puritan parties, which he would sacrifice.   As against Masson's date [i.e. 1667-70], it avoids the difficulty of the wide interval between the doctrine, temper and tone of Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained, and the startling contrast between the mood from which Samson takes its rise and the tranquillity, and even cheerfulness, which Milton, by universal testimony, manifested in his later years.13


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

  1. [226]

  2. Early Lives, ed. Darbishire, p. 275. *

  3. Gilbert, "Is Samson Agonistes Unfinished?", PQ, 28 (1949), 106.   Gilbert speculates that, in 1671, Milton's publisher may have asked the poet to supply him with something to flesh out the Paradise Regained volume and that Milton "thought of his old tragedy, had it found, and turned it over to the bookseller.   I incline to think that he did no further work on it . . ." (ibid.). *

  4. Parker has written the following:   (i) "The Date of Samson Agonistes", PQ, 28 (1949), 145-66; (2) "The Date of 'Samson Agonistes':   A Postscript", Notes & Queries, 203 (1958), 201-2; (3) MB, I, 313-22 passim, and II, 903-17; and (4) "The Date of Samson Agonistes Again", in Calm of Mind:   Tercentenary Essays on Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, ed. J.A. Wittreich, Jr. (Cleveland and London, 1971), pp. 163-74.   Parker's position is endorsed by J.T. Shawcross (below, n 7) and by John Carey (PM, pp. 330-2) who prints Samson Agonistes--dated "1647-53?"--before Paradise Lost. *


  5. The traditional date is maintained by the following:   (i) Ants Oras (below, n 7); (2) Ernest Sirluck, "Milton's Idle Right Hand", JEGP, 60 (1961), 749-85--for SA, see pp. 773-81; George M. Muldrow, Milton and the Drama of the Soul (The Hague and Paris, 1970), pp. 240-62; and (4) Low, The Blaze of Noon (1974), pp. 223-9. *

  6. Woodhouse, "Samson Agonistes and Milton's Experience", Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd ser., 13 (1949), 170-1.   Before Woodhouse, the 1660-1 dating had been suggested by William Hayley, Life of Milton (1796), and by Charles Dunster (1809) and A.J. Church (1872) in their respective editions of Samson Agonistes. *

  7. Early Lives, ed. Darbishire, p. 75.   The fact that Edward Phillips, who followed his uncle's career intimately, does not know when Samson Agonistes was written implies that it was composed at a time when Phillips was not in close contact with Milton.   This information is not, however, very helpful; for, as Sirluck (above, n 4) points out, they were separated on a number of occasions:   "for example, Edward Phillips was living away from London in 1664-65 (also in 1650-51, and he may well have been away at other times).   And of course Milton was in hiding in 1660, and in Chalfont in 1665" (p. 778).   Even Parker, who clings to the importance of an alleged separation in 1647-8, now grudgingly admits that "There were, of course, later periods about which Phillips seems equally uninformed, and part or all of the composition of Samson Agonistes may belong to one of them" (MB, II, p. 906). *

  8. For a statistical analysis used to support the traditional dating of Samson Agonistes, see Ants Oras, "Milton's Blank Verse and the Chronology of His Major Poems", in SAMLA Studies in Milton, ed. J. Max Patrick (Gainesville, Fla., 1953), pp. 128-97; see also Oras's book Blank Verse and Chronology in Milton (Gainesville, 1966).   Oras's findings are disputed by John T. Shawcross, who uses statistical analysis to support Parker's dating of Samson Agonistes:   cf. Shawcross, "The Chronology of Milton's Major Poems", PMLA, 76 (1961), 345-58. *

  9. Parker (MB, II pp. 911-17) offers a long list, in parallel columns, of the "surprising number of words and phrases" shared by Samson Agonistes and the prose works of 1641-9.   But this critical procedure is a double-edged sword--as may be seen, for example, by comparing the imagery of Samson's initial soliloquy--
                                                    I seek
    This unfrequented place to find some ease,
    Ease to the body some, none to the mind,
    From restless thoughts, that like a deadly swarm
    Of hornets armed, no sooner found alone,
    But rush upon me thronging, and present
    Times past, what once I was, and what am now--       (16-22)

    with Christ's opening soliloquy in Paradise Regained:

              O what a multitude of thoughts at once
    Awakened in me swarm, while I consider
    [228]   What from within I feel myself, and hear
    What from without comes often to my ears,
    Ill sorting with my present state compared.       (I, 196-200) *

  10. Cf. MB, II, p. 904. *

  11. Hanford, John Milton, Englishman (New York, 1949), p. 213.   See also Hanford's seminal paper "Samson Agonistes and Milton in Old Age", in Studies in Shakespeare, Milton and Donne (New York, 1925), pp. 167-89. *

  12. Low, The Blaze of Noon, pp. 38-9. *

  13. Early Lives, ed. Darbishire, p. 74. *

  14. Woodhouse, "Samson Agonistes and Milton's Experience", 159-60. *

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Document Completed:   1:48 AM on 02/04/96