ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 23

 - Samson Agonistes


This introduction to Samson Agonistes focuses on a psycho-sexual reading of the poem, with particular emphasis placed on the poem’s peculiar association of sexuality with violence. The characterization of Dalila and her similarity to Samson is discussed. The problems inherit in Miltonic heroism, especially self-sufficiency and the nature of heroic sacrifice, are expounded upon.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 23 - Samson Agonistes

Chapter 1. Introduction: Samson Agonistes [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: We ended the last lecture, or actually I ended my last lecture – The last lecture was Matt’s [Yale graduate student] – I ended my last lecture on Paradise Regained with the brief consideration of the riddle of the sphinx. Satan was compared to the sphinx who had thrown herself off the “Ismenian steep” when her riddle had been discovered. The Son of God, you’ll remember, was implicitly compared to Oedipus, who had figured out the riddle of his own identity by means of his exchange with the sphinx.

I think it can be said that Samson Agonistes is more explicitly concerned with riddles and with riddling even than Paradise Regained was. One of the key moments – although this isn’t anything that Milton does very much with – one of the key moments of the story of Samson that we get from the Book of Judges in the Bible involves Samson’s posing of this big riddle: the riddle of the honey and the lion. It’s Samson, at least in the Judges version of the story, who can be seen as assuming the role of the sphinx. He poses the riddles, and it’s really his duty throughout his life to know when it is you should reveal the answer to the riddle, to the secret. Samson Agonistes is, I think, profoundly interested in this problem and is continually asking the question: how do you know when it’s time–how do you know when it’s time to reveal your secrets? Or – to use the language that Milton uses in the seventh sonnet, “How soon hath Time?” – how do you know when it is that you have ripened? That’s a riddle that it’s the job of Samson in Samson Agonistes to figure out the answer to.

Chapter 2. When Was Samson Agonistes Written? [00:01:57]

Now, it’s one of the ironies of literary history that this poem, which is really all about riddles and secrets, surely poses the biggest riddle for the scholarly, the academic, study of Milton. It has proven nearly impossible for scholars of Milton to determine when it was that Samson Agonistes to determine authoritatively or definitively when it was that this text was written. In that respect, it’s utterly different from the other works of Milton’s that can be dated much more authoritatively. We do know this. It first appears in 1671; it’s published alongside Paradise Regained. So you have the title page of that 1671 volume, “Paradise Regained, a poem in four books,” and then in a little typeface, “To which is added Samson Agonistes.” Actually the Hughes edition reproduces for you just this title page – it’s on page 470. But there’s no hard evidence for the date of the composition of the poem, and there are conflicting accounts, as of course you can imagine, of the date of composition.

So I want to spend a little bit of time here, and I’ll just do this briefly, thinking about the various scholarly accounts of when it was that Milton wrote Samson Agonistes, because all of these theories, I think, concerning the placement of Samson Agonistes in the Miltonic canon assume in one way or another that this poem is autobiographical – that there’s some kind of intimate, autobiographical component to this remarkable work. The assumption is that on some level Samson Agonistes almost necessitates a type of biographical reading. So first, and this is the most popular theory of the dating of the poem and it’s the one I happen to, and that most people, subscribe to – it’s the theory that places Samson Agonistes as Milton’s last poem, which means that this is a poem that’s written well after the middle of the 1660s. Milton seems to have started writing Paradise Regained around 1665, so it would have been after that at some point, well into the Stuart restoration.

This reading really suggests, to the extent that this is a thematic reading of the poem, that Samson is like Milton, the great political hero or the erstwhile great political hero. Samson had almost led the Hebrews to freedom by destroying so many of the Philistines with his extraordinary, divinely inspired violence, but the Hebrew leaders failed to join Samson in this mission. They ruined their chance for freedom from the Philistine yoke. In the 1650s and in the 1660s, Milton was always continually representing himself in just this same light. With the help of Milton’s own aggressively propagandistic efforts, the English had begun to fulfill the promise of something like a full-fledged revolution, but the weak-minded parliamentary leaders had failed to carry it out; and out of some sort of moral weakness, the English people began to yearn again for subjection to the Stuart monarchy. It’s in response to the tone of political disappointment that we can read in Samson Agonistes that scholars are led to date this work as a late one, as a final poem – the final poem.

Now, the second theory of the date of the composition of Samson Agonistes places it in the late 1640s, in the period somewhere between 1647 and 1653. This reading suggests that Samson Agonistes constitutes Milton’s first great response to the onset of his blindness. By placing the poem in this period – and you can tell what scholars are responding to in the poem with this theory. They’re clearly trying to make some sense of the tremendous amount of pathos, and you could actually say the tremendous amount of self-pity, that charges Milton’s treatment of Samson’s blindness.

Now, the third theory of the poem’s composition places it even earlier in Milton’s career during the early 1640s. This is the period in which Milton was writing the divorce pamphlets. In this account, the center of the poem becomes a reflection, or some sort of representation, of the betrayal Milton must have experienced himself when his wife of six weeks, Mary Powell, left him – just abandoned him it seemed. She went home to her parents. Now in the poem, in Samson Agonistes, Dalila you’ll remember – she was a Philistine. She was a member of a political tribe that had so oppressed the Hebrews – and Mary Powell’s family had all been royalist during the English civil wars, and so to some extent perhaps Mary Powell herself was a royalist. The leanings, at least, of the Powell family, it has been conjectured, contributed significantly to what turned out to be merely the temporary erosion of Milton’s first marriage. According to this theory then, the main thrust of Samson Agonistes isn’t exclusively political, but it’s domestic – or domestic and political. Milton uses a biblical story to reinvent, and in some way to work through, the private disaster that was the early portion of his marriage to Mary Powell.

Now, I think the third theory is – it has to be wrong, that Samson Agonistes was written so early in Milton’s career in the 1640s. But I am personally much too invested in the notion that this is the last poem to have its status be relinquished as a post-Restoration work. Nonetheless, I want to think about that third option that I’ve just mentioned and to focus on the nature of Milton’s representation of the relation of Samson to Dalila in this poem, which is an undeniably powerful aspect of this work.

Let me just digress here for a moment and explain to you why I pronounce her name “Dalila” [pron. DA-lee-lah] and not “Delilah” [pron. da-LYE-lah]. When I use the word “Delilah” in this lecture, that will be referring to the character in the Old Testament from the Book of Judges – the name with an h on the end. Milton doesn’t have an h on the end. He uses the Latin spellings from the Latin Bible of all of the characters in Samson Agonistes. So the father is Manoa rather than Manoah. He makes up the name Harapha, but it’s along the same sort of Latin lines of Dalila and Manoa. Who knows why Milton wants to classicize these names rather than using the English transliteration of the Hebrew! It’s been conjectured that it just sounds prettier. You have a line like “the sumptuous Dalila floating this way,” those extraordinary dactyls that seem incredibly so sensual and seductive. You couldn’t have that with Delilah, “the sumptuous Delilah floating this way.” It just doesn’t – it’s not as sexy.

Okay. That was just a pronunciation digression. Now the evidence for the scholars who date this poem as a really early one is usually taken from a scene in Milton’s life that actually was narrated for us by Milton’s nephew, Edward Phillips. So I’m going to ask you to turn to Milton’s nephew’s, Edward Phillips’, biography of Milton at the end of the Hughes edition – this is page 1032 in the Hughes. This is Phillips’ account of how Milton and Mary Powell reunited, and it’s an absolutely adorable narrative. It involves an elaborate trick staged by friends of both Milton and of Powell. So we learn here – it’s an amazing little window onto what the texture of this man’s life was like – that Milton was evidently in the habit, in the six weeks he lived alone as the abandoned husband, of visiting a friend. We don’t know who this guy was, but according to Phillips – this is the top of the right-hand column – it was at Blackborough’s house that the scheme to reunite the couple, to reunite them, was pulled off. I’m quoting here from Phillips:

One time above the rest, he [John Milton] making his usual visit, the wife was ready in another room, and on a sudden he was surprised to see one whom he thought to have never seen more, making submission and begging pardon on her knees before him. He might probably at first make some show of aversion and rejection; but partly his own generous nature [this is the loving Phillips who so admires the uncle], more inclinable to reconciliation than to perseverance in anger and revenge, and partly the strong intercession of friends on both sides, soon brought him to an act of oblivion and a firm league of peace for the future.

And Mary Powell and John Milton get back together again, and they have a child – they have a few children. This scene bears an obvious resemblance to the initial entrance of Dalila into the poem, Samson Agonistes.

Now there’s no proof, of course, that Milton’s Samson is a reworking of this biographical event in the stormy life that was Milton’s domestic – the stormy career [laughs] of Milton’s domestic life. There’s no proof that this event ever happened at all. My guess actually is that Phillips, who’s writing this biographical narrative well after the publication of Samson Agonistes, is actually staging his account of this moment in Milton’s life in some way as a reworking of the analogous moment from Samson Agonistes. I think he’s giving us an imaginative engagement of Samson Agonistes, and it’s probably because he wants to stave off what he knows will be the easy, obvious biographical reading that we will bring to Milton’s poetic representation of a perfectly disastrous marriage.

So I don’t actually trust Phillips’ biography here, but I want to linger on this passage for just another moment because I think it starts to illuminate one of the most puzzling aspects of Samson Agonistes. Look at Phillips’ metaphor in the last sentence that I just quoted: Milton’s “own generous nature… brought him to an act of oblivion and a firm league of peace for the future…” Phillips is alluding here to actual political events, political events that took place not in the 1640s – when we know this reunion occurred – but after the Restoration. The Act of Oblivion and the League of Peace are both actual political events that followed the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660.

So the royalists in 1660 passed the Act of Oblivion, and the Act of Oblivion prohibited any further punishment of Puritans who were seen to have behaved seditiously during the revolution. So in a gesture of magnanimity, the royalists were agreeing to be oblivious. They would forget – they would forget the crimes of the Puritan parliamentarians. One of the most notable beneficiaries, in fact, of this Act of Oblivion was Milton himself, Milton whose life was, I think, really mercifully spared after the Restoration. He could easily have been prosecuted and executed for his composition of the regicide treatises.

I think it’s fascinating what Phillips is doing here. He situates the relation of husband and wife in the context of a political accord, a political agreement between two warring parties. In doing so, he’s reproducing, I think, one of the strangest aspects, and it is a really strange aspect, of this poem: that’s the remarkable conjunction of the representation of love and the representation of war – the militaristic nature of sexual relations in Samson Agonistes and also the disturbingly sexual nature of political conflict as it’s represented in Samson Agonistes. We’ll pursue that in a moment.

One of the curious elements of Phillips’ account of Mary Powell’s return is the implicit reversal, I think, of political identities here. Milton becomes the royalist passing the Act of Oblivion by way of forgiving Mary Powell; so these domestic enemies, Powell and Milton, have become – it’s as if they’ve become mirror images of one another. The moral alignment of their identities suddenly becomes, in this retelling of it, vague and indistinct. In a lot of ways, they’re kind of pictured like Satan and the Son of God in Paradise Regained. Satan in so many ways seems to be the Son of God’s evil twin. They’re mirror images of one another, but obviously they represent utterly different things. The Son, you’ll remember, in Paradise Regained only discovers his identity in that poem in opposition to Satan. This is something that the late poems of Milton are continually doing: they’re exploring what we can think of as the dialectical nature of identification. Virtue cannot exist in a vacuum. In fact, I think for Milton, the knowledge of oneself can’t come about in a vacuum. Any virtuous identity will inevitably be the product of some kind of antithetical process, of some sort of agonistic encounter with one’s opposite.

Chapter 3. Samson Agonistes: The Most Intense Expression of Misogyny in the Miltonic Canon [00:17:14]

Now, the antithetical construction of the hero’s identity is really central to this poem, Samson Agonistes, and I think keeping this in mind will help us try to make sense of some of its most troubling components. I think the components [laughs] of Samson Agonistes are as troubling as anything you’ll find anywhere in the reading for this course. For me what’s most troubling is this fact – and this is an undeniable, unquestionable fact: Samson Agonistes gives us the intensest expression of misogyny that you will find in the Miltonic canon. That’s because this poem goes further, I think, than any of Milton’s other poems in narrowing the problem of identity – and this is a problem that Milton has been concerned with all along – but narrowing this larger problem of identity to the much more circumscribed and much more focused problem of sexual identity.

The masculine hero’s identity can only be established by contraries, by some sort of antithetical process. Samson can only identify himself as a hero by rejecting, by actively excluding, absolutely everything that’s not masculine, rejecting everything that’s not heroic, and rejecting everything that’s not Samson. It becomes a kind of violent process of rejection. The character, Samson, is continually impelled, it seems, by a powerful need to expel all forms of sensual pleasure – the types of pleasure that we know to be prized and sanctioned by Milton – that Milton will identify in Samson Agonistes as types of femininity, and all of this has to be expelled by Samson from Samson.

As you reread the poem, I think you’ll be shocked – if you haven’t been shocked already – by the violence of the really weirdly sexualized rhetoric that makes up so much of the metaphorical texture of this poem. I’ll give you just one example – there are innumerable examples. You may have noticed how this poem refers routinely to the Philistine enemies as “the uncircumcised.” On some level this is to be expected. The Bible refers to heathens as the uncircumcised, and so this is conventional we could say; but Milton, of course, needlessly goes further than that. He actually refers to the enemies of the Hebrews as “foreskins”: “With his sword of bone Samson slew a thousand foreskins.” This is an unbelievable synecdoche, synecdoche being the rhetorical trope of using a part for a whole, and Milton, as far as I can tell, had absolutely no precedent whatsoever for the use of this particular synecdoche to refer to an entire people, the uncircumcised enemies of the Hebrews.

There’s a kind of sexual violence continually [laughs] welling up in the rhetoric used to describe political violence. Think about what that [laughs] implies. To slay a thousand foreskins is in some way to imagine a military victory as something like a mass circumcision or, symbolically, some type of mass castration. This is just one of many examples of a related kind of figurative pattern in Samson Agonistes. Political violence seems so continually to be figured in the literary rhetoric of this poem as a sexual cleansing, as a kind of purging – the painful excision of something unclean, something presumably unnecessary, and something excessively sensual.

Look, for example, at the way this text sexualizes the key event in Samson’s life, which is of course, the loss of his hair. Look at Samson’s account of the moment at which he lost his strength. This is page 564 in the Hughes, lines 529 and following. Now in the Book of Judges, Samson tells Delilah that the secret of his strength lies in his hair only after her continued verbal assaults. She pleads with him, she nags him – she pleads with him unremittingly to tell her his secret, and finally he just relents. That’s the scriptural story; but in Samson’s account in Milton’s story, Dalila doesn’t harass Samson in to telling the secret – she seduces him. Look at line 529. This is Samson talking, and here he describes himself as the cock of the walk here:

Fearless of danger, like a petty God
I walk’d about admir’d of all and dreaded
On hostile ground, none daring my affront.
Then swoll’n with pride into the snare I fell
Of fair fallacious looks, venereal trains,
Softn’d with pleasure and voluptuous life…

Now, the voluptuous life that he’s describing here in line 534 is – what is this? I think this is what we would have to name the life of marriage. The woman he’s calling a deceitful concubine is actually, in Milton’s telling of the story, Samson’s wife, and there’s a profound confusion about the cause of his weakness here. Was it the actual act of his head being shaved or simply the condition of marriage itself?

Listen to Milton’s figuration of the event of the cutting of his hair, and you tell me if this isn’t unusually charged, even for Milton, with a pretty intense degree of sexual anxiety:

At length to lay my head and hallow’d pledge
Of all my strength in the lascivious lap
Of a deceitful Concubine who shore me
Like a tame Wether, all my precious fleece…

You have an image here of sexual intercourse – this has been suggested in a brilliant reading of this poem by John Guillory – embedded in the image of Samson’s head in Dalila’s lascivious lap. Her violation of Samson, her cutting of his hair, seems almost inextricable here from a perfectly simple, seemingly – it’s never simple of course – but an act of conjugal intercourse.

But the figurative chain doesn’t end there. It gets better or worse [laughs] depending on your perspective, because in this play marital intercourse is equated, at least figuratively, with castration – the cutting off of the hallowed pledge of Samson’s strength. Samson makes this explicit when he describes himself as “a tame Wether.” “Well, what is a wether?” you ask. A wether is a castrated ram. The slayer of a thousand foreskins is himself slain, and part of the intensely violent figurative world of Samson Agonistes – this is a world that continually identifies Dalila’s betrayal as a kind of castration, and castration itself is nothing more than the male experience in marriage. A darker or more anxious reading of the relation between the sexes you’ll have a difficult time finding.

Chapter 4. Dalila’s Dialogue [00:25:38]

Let’s look now at Dalila’s own language. Turn to page 570 in the Hughes, around line 803. I think Dalila’s language is in a lot of ways just as powerful, though it’s configured a little differently. Much more than Samson, Dalila contradicts herself throughout this poem, and the contradictions have proven baffling to the poem’s critics. One way of reading the character, Dalila, is to insist that her contradictions point out, emphasize, her mendacity. These are just simply lies that she’s telling, and in a lot of ways, Milton does seem to be setting her up as a type of Satan, Satan who on Mount Niphates at the beginning of Book Four of Paradise Lost was continually contradicting himself.

Critics have typically dismissed Dalila’s explanations, her justifications of her behavior, with the assumption that Milton is simply trying to discredit her. It’s not an unjustifiable assumption, and I think that’s because the central contradiction of her discourse involves her use of two types of arguments. The first is an erotic, a romantic, argument and the second argument she deploys is a political one. Once again, it’s this conjunction, the conjunction of the sexual and the political, that in this poem proves so unsettling and so puzzling. So let’s look at Dalila’s reasons for betraying her husband. This is her first argument, line 803. She’s essentially saying, “I wanted you at home. You were always going out. You were working all the time”:

I knew that liberty
Would draw thee forth to perilous enterprises,
While I at home sate full of cares and fears
Wailing thy absence in my widow’d bed;
Here I should still enjoy thee day and night [here at home]
Mine and Loves prisoner…

“I unmanned you,” she’s saying, “because I loved you so much.” That’s the gist of the argument.

Dalila’s second argument is entirely different, and it’s distinct from the complaint of the housewife that we just looked at. Look at the very bottom of page 571 – this is line 857 and following. Here Dalila tells us that she had to betray Samson for political reasons; she had to do it to liberate her people, the Philistines:

[T]he Priest
Was not behind [Dalila says] but ever at my ear,
Preaching how meritorious with the gods
It would be to ensnare an irreligious
Dishonorer of Dagon: what had I
To oppose against such powerful arguments?
Only my love of thee held long debate,
And combated in silence all these reasons
With hard contest: at length that grounded maxim
So rife and celebrated in the mouths
Of wisest men; that to the public good
Private respects must yield, with grave authority
Took full possession of me and prevail’d;
Vertue, as I thought, truth, duty so enjoyning.

And Dalila here gives us an extraordinary revelation: on some level, she turns out to be the mirror image of the great, heroic Samson. She plays the same role as the deliverer of her people – she’s the deliverer of the Philistines – that Samson plays for the Hebrews. She defends the gentile god, Dagon, and Samson, her husband, defends the Hebrew god, Yahweh or Jehovah. They’re in direct competition here. They’re political opposites, and Milton is playing with something approaching a sort of cultural relativism by means of his representation of this competition.

There is, however, a difference between them, and it’s a difference we have no choice but to deal with. The difference between them is that Dalila, the wife, sacrifices private concerns for a public commitment to her people. In her words, she yields “private respects” to “the public good.” This is precisely what Samson was supposed to do, but of course, this is exactly what Samson failed to do. So in a lot of ways, these two explanations, these two arguments of Dalila’s, contradict one another. On the literal level of the plot the first motive, the motive appropriate for a wife, is revealed as a lie; but the presence of these two conflicting motives bespeaks more, I think, than the mere fact that Dalila is a liar or that in some way Dalila is a satanic figure who’s just a very embodiment of evil. These two conflicting arguments really speak to Samson’s deepest anxieties and perhaps the deepest anxieties of this poem, Samson Agonistes.

The prospect of domestic pleasure is invariably a dangerous one for Samson, and that’s because domestic success, success at home, for Samson is indistinguishable from political defeat. Dalila’s two arguments are utterly – it’s as if inside of Samson’s head they’re utterly intermingled with one another, inextricable in Samson’s psyche. In the severely restricted, circumscribed world of this hero’s consciousness, domestic comfort and political failure turn out to be something like one and the same thing. In both instances the hero is seen to have relinquished his masculinity. He has undergone a humiliating defeat, and with this dual identification of Dalila as wife and as fierce warrior, you have a powerful sense of the fragility of masculine heroic consciousness as it’s represented in this text.

Okay. Turn now to Dalila’s final offer to Samson. This is at line 920, the middle of the Hughes’ page 573. The most tempting and the most terrifying offer of Dalila’s is her offer to nurse Samson – he’s old, he’s blind – to nurse him after his release from the prison. So Dalila tells Samson:

I to the Lords will intercede, not doubting
Thir favourable ear, that I may fetch thee
From forth this loathsom prison-house to abide
With me, where my redoubl’d love and care
With nursing diligence, to me glad office,
May ever tend about thee to old age…

With her “nursing diligence,” Dalila can be Samson’s nurse. Better yet, she can function as Samson’s mother – I think that’s essentially the gist of her argument – since it is already claimed we know – this was at line 633 – he’s claimed that he is a nursling of God. He’s been struggling throughout this text to establish himself as a child not of human parents, certainly not of the perfectly sweet nature but the kind of addled dad of his, Manoa, but he’s a child solely, exclusively of God himself.

It’s Dalila’s offer to nurse Samson that elicits his most violent, most powerful, fit of rage. It’s horrible. Look at line 952. Dalila says: “Let me approach at least, and touch thy hand.” And Samson’s response? Shocking: “Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake / my sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint.” Dalila’s simple offer to touch Samson’s hand has received [laughs] an extraordinarily extreme reaction. It’s usually thought – this is typically how we read this, I think – that the fierce remembrance that will awaken Samson is his memory of his powerful desire for her, a memory that he has to forestall with this violent rejection.

But I think the violence of this reaction surely exceeds the violence merely of a remembered sexual passion. This is too intense even for that, and I think it’s possible to see in this reaction to Dalila’s offer to nurse Samson another memory that has been suppressed. It’s not just the remembrance of sexual love. Our best clue to this suppressed memory might come from that aspect of the story of Samson from the Book of Judges that has been most noticeably suppressed – perhaps it’s been circumcised – from Milton’s own poem. You’ll remember from your reading of the poem that Milton is continually referring to the heavenly messenger who descended to prophecy Samson’s greatness.

This was happening well before Samson was actually born – but to whom? To whom did this heavenly messenger speak? According to the Judges story, the angel spoke to Samson’s mother, a character who figures prominently in the scriptural original of the story but who is very carefully excluded from the text of Samson Agonistes. I’m indebted for this point to a wonderful reading of this poem by – I think she’s a great Milton critic, her name is Stevie Davies. In Samson’s violent rejection of Dalila, in his rejection of her offer to nurse him in his old age, Samson is rejecting on some level the very existence of his mother. He’s denying the obvious fact that he had ever been mothered at all, which is another way, of course, of denying his humanity, of denying his status as a creature and his createdness.

Chapter 5. Samson: The Nursling of God [00:36:42]

Now, it has been years now – Milton has for years addressed himself to the attraction and also to the danger of the fantasy of heroic self-sufficiency. I’ll just remind you of Book Five of Paradise Lost in which Milton explored the fantasy of self-creation, Satan’s remarkable and of course implausible claim that he was self-begot. Satan needed to deny, he wanted to deny, God’s agency in his creation. Now Samson’s case is related but, of course, it’s a little different. Samson wants more than anything to be a nursling of God, and it’s as if he needs to deny that he had ever had any tie to the womb or to the breast of an earthly mother if he is to be the nursling exclusively of God. Of course, it’s the fact, the existence of the mother, that is the thing that guarantees the truth, which is that he is inescapably human; but like us, Samson obviously owes a fundamental physical debt, a fundamental physiological debt and obligation, to a mother.

There’s a sense in this poem that the very existence of the mother, of any mother, seems to doom all of our attempts to think of ourselves as independent, as autonomous, and in any way self-sufficient beings, or to think of ourselves as beings whose primary debt can be exclusively to the heavenly father. Milton had been so bold in Paradise Regained to emphasize the thoroughgoing humanity of the Son of God. The Son of God in Paradise Regained had no more divine knowledge about his situation, it seemed, than we could possibly have had. It’s in that [laughs] poem where Milton should have been anxious about the humanity of the hero, but all of that theological anxiety that should have existed in Paradise Regained seems to have been displaced onto Samson Agonistes.

Turn to the very opening of Samson Agonistes, the exquisitely beautiful lines with which Milton begins this poem: “A little onward lend thy guiding hand / to these dark steps, a little further on…” Milton’s poem opens with these beautiful lines addressed by Samson to someone, presumably, who’s holding his hand, who is touching his hand and assisting his movements in his blindness – Samson’s wandering steps and slow. This sense of absolute dependence with which we begin this poem is overwhelming. It’s often argued that Milton is suggesting here something like Samson’s complete dependence on God. This is the nursling of God, after all. Samson’s ultimate victory comes from his absolute submission to the will of God.

This much we will learn at the end of the poem but the character – it’s a character in fact, it’s not the Divinity – the character leading Samson around at the opening of the play is never named. This character is never identified, and this mysterious omission certainly has to be purposeful; this is another clever argument forwarded by Stevie Davies. The unnamed character holding Samson’s hand reminds us here of another unnamed character in the Samson story, and that’s of course Samson’s mother. Samson as the champion of the Hebrews is supposed to be able to submit himself utterly to the will of the Father, not Manoa but the heavenly Father, but the play reminds us overwhelmingly and continually that even the greatest heroes are subject – and you can tell that Milton was an enormous fan of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Coriolanus, which explores a lot of the same problems – but even the greatest heroes are subject to other far less dignified forms of submission. That human figure most likely to lend a hand to unsteady steps is obviously the mother, the person in the child’s life who touches the child’s hand and serves as his first guide, first teacher.

In Paradise Regained, after all that we went through in Paradise Regained, Milton was able to allow the Son to return home to his mother’s house: “hee unobserv’d / Home to his Mother’s house private return’d.” The Son of God had successfully proven his son-ship to the heavenly Father, and he could thereby afford to return to the domestic space. Of course, it’s a domestic space that had been utterly purged of any type of sensuality, but in Samson Agonistes the space, the place of maternal affection and domestic peace – of just happiness in one’s domestic life – is continually threatening to contaminate the hero, and obviously this is a hero who’s a lot less well adjusted, we could say, than the Son of God.

That didn’t make any sense but on some level, at least to me, it does. Heroism in this poem depends on the hero’s ability to exclude, to expunge from his system, any attachment to the home, any dependency on an origin that could compete with the ultimate origin, which is of course that of the Heavenly Father. That’s why this poem is continually voicing its terrible conviction in the necessary exclusion of all things feminine. It’s in respect, I think, to this exclusion that we can best understand the horrible violence and the terrible misogyny charging the language of Samson Agonistes. This poem, this play that’s not really a play, seems to be arguing for the necessary exclusion of the feminine from the hero’s life. If that’s true, if that is one of the ultimate arguments that Samson Agonistes is actually making, then I think we also have in this poem the pained and also the painful rhetoric – we have the painful sense that Milton gives us of the cost of that exclusion. Here in Milton’s final poem, we have an acknowledgment that the process whereby one becomes a Miltonic hero is potentially ruinous.

Okay. That’s it for today. Next time we will be focusing on the relation of Samson Agonistes really to the rest of the entire Miltonic canon. Maybe we’ll have time for a brief consideration of what it is that Samson does for employment, what his job is. He is, of course, a professional terrorist. Okay.

[end of transcript]

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