From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.
Samson Agonistes,a tragedy by *Milton, published 1671, in the same volume as *Paradise Regained. Its composition was traditionally assigned to 1666-70, but W. R. Parker in his biography (1968) argues that it was written much earlier, possibly as early as 1647. A closet drama never intended for the stage, it is modelled on Greek tragedy, and has been frequently compared to Prometheus Bound by *Aeschylus or Oedipus at Colonus by *Sophocles: other critics have claimed that its spirit is more Hebraic (or indeed Christian) than Hellenic. Predominantly in blank verse, it also contains passages of great metrical freedom and originality, and some rhyme. Samson Agonistes (i.e. Samson the Wrestler, or Champion) deals with the last phase of the life of Samson of the Book of Judges when he is a prisoner of the Philistines and blind, a phase which many have compared to the assumed circumstance of the blind poet himself, after the collapse of the Commonwealth and his political hopes.
Samson, in prison at Gaza, is visited by friends of his tribe (the chorus) who comfort him; then by his old father Manoa, who holds out hopes of securing his release; then by his wife *Dalila, who seeks pardon and reconciliation, but being repudiated shows herself ’a manifest Serpent’; then by Harapha, a strong man of Gath, who taunts Samson. He is finally summoned to provide amusement by feats of strenght for the philistines, who are celebrating a feast to *Dagon. He goes, and presently a messenger brings news of his final feat of strength in which he pulled down the pillars of the place where the assembly was gathered, destroying himself as well as the entire throng. The tragedy, which has many passages questioning divine providence (’Just or unjust, alike seem miserable’), ends with the chorus’s conclusion that despite human doubts, all is for the best in the ’unsearchable dispose / of highest wisdom’: its last words, ’calm of mind all passion spent’, strike a note of Aristotelian *catharsis, and the whole piece conforms to the *neo-classical doctrine of unities.
Stanley Fish on Samson Agonistes:
Heads of an answer to Fish:
- The notion of unconscious meanings, tensions in the writer’s project, unresolved conflicting intentions.... etc. have vanished from this clear-cut distinction between meaning and significance (which, incidentally, reminds me of E. D. Hirsch rather than Fish—whither Deconstruction?). But a theorization of such tensions seem to be a prime critical tool in dealing with Milton, witness e.g. the issue of Satanic parallelisms with the Parliamentarians, and the Absolutist trappings of his God in ’Paradise Lost’.
- ’9/11 terrorist bombings are out of Milton’s context, and are therefore a matter of significance, not meaning’. OK (but let me point out that discussion of significance is well within the province of the literary critic’s activity, contrary to what Fish’s closing words would seem to imply. A discussion of Milton is also a discussion of the Milton semantic complex which includes his interpretations). OK ... BUT:
- The unresolved issue of the legitimacy or legitimation of political violence, is, indeed, part of Milton’s contemporary context, as is the issue of terrorist bombings of political and ideological landmarks causing indiscriminate death. It is indeed a prominent element in the aforementioned tensions. And if 9/11 as a massacre is outside his ken, Milton was well aware of another (intended) massacre, the Fifth of September, which has some uncanny parallels to the Samson suicide bombing of the Temple of Dagon. Not as far as the suicide is concerned, perhaps, but insofar as it should have been a spectacular and symbolic massacre of infidels en masse, together with their leaders, inspired and justified by a religious rationale. Milton had written while at Cambridge a Latin exercise on the Gunpowder Plot, "In quintum Novembris, Anno aetatis 17", with appropriate Protestant glee at the discomfiture of the plotters. Now, in old age, he seems to be writing a palinode, and a justification of the political and religious violence of "thralled discontent", on second thoughts. Of course, this time God was on ’his’ side, at least on the side of that part of his brain he was aware of.
- Fish’s distinction between meaning, significance, and appropriation are therefore too neat. They are illustrative as pointers, but reality’s much more of a mess and a mesh; and intention is also a much more complex affair than he allows it to be here. Actually, the tensions and the intentions in Milton and in his poems cannot be cut off from the tensions and intentions circulating in his own context, which is not (but also is, to a certain extent) our own.
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