A Thought on "Samson Agonistes"
I think it’s natural, though perhaps it’s merely nominal, that the biblical figure with whom I most associate is Daniel. He’s the man, with the mighty exception of that ageless and relentless Moses, upon whom I look in continual fascination. I do so as I thumb through the dramatis personae of that great and dramatic book atop which he, bearded of face yet bereft of a land once promised, rests. Of course, there are others who likewise compel me.
Solomon’s wisdom is a temptation, Adam’s temptation an unwisdom—yet both are an excitement to the literary soul. The commitment of Abraham to filicide is a blind faith the likes of which we might make infrequent good use, and the clemency of Joseph toward his covetous brothers is a mercy that we’d do well always to apply. David, picaresque literary hero and profligate king, equally charms me, but my name is rather Dan than Dave and so I lay bare my bias. David can have his harem and his kingdom. Daniel will continue to possess me.
At least if I’m to take seriously the pious suggestion of my parents (whose religious devotion tended more toward outward custom than to inner creed), Daniel is the person for whom I’m named—a recognition of which I’ve become quite proud with the accumulation of my days and the softened religious enmity of my youth. Etymologically divine, our shared name means something along the lines of “God is my Judge”, as He is that of everyone, but the immediacy of his judgment is felt by Daniel and by me to be especially acute. While He, if we’re to believe that which we’re told, is omnipotent, the eye by which we Daniels are judged is particularly intimate and powerfully felt. In the simple act of writing out our names, we find no escape. This is the theophoric effect—daunting for he who owns the name, but euphonic to every biblically-tuned ear. We feel as we utter to every cordial passerby our practiced and polite introduction (Hello, my name is…Daniel—the “El” of which is of great significance) the forceful invigilation of His judgmental gaze.
More important than our name, however, is the fact that Daniel is the prophet by whom I’m inspired, the literary character of whom I’m enamored. Rendering into quiescent dormancy a den of ferocious lions, Daniel—availed of God’s animal-taming touch—was able to escape his doom unscathed. Of course, many Babylonians (including women and children) were subsequently made to die the death that he’d evaded, but this sanguinary consequence bothers our hero not. As a Jewish slave-turned-sage, the idea of self-preservation was most vital at a time when he was taken as a captive from his land. He went on to explicate in sagacious and startling detail a bevy of kingly dreams. Combining cosmos and chaos, politics and religion, he foresaw everything from the Diadochi (or the "division") of Alexander the Great to the great apocalypse that would come preordained at the end of time.
Daniel, you see, is the character with whom I feel the deepest connection—nominal though it might be. And anyone who stands or kneels or supplicates in awe before that same bible has his or her own. In the case of John Milton, the epical English poet and polemicist about whom I’ll now turn to speak, the biblical figure to whom he felt most innately attached was Samson. The title and subject of his final play, Samson Agonistes, makes this manifestly clear.
Yet manifest clarity, in sight though not in mind, was an attribute of which Milton and Samson were cruelly dispossessed. The former, as a result of overly ambitious and precocious study in his youth, hastened upon himself an uninvited blindness. The true cause of his visual affliction is still unknown, but most literary scholars moonlighting as anatomists blame it on his incessant and strenuous reading schedule (which often dove deep into the ill-lit seventeenth-century night). He was already an esteemed classicist and polyglot before the boys with whom he grew up could think. Ultimately, his insatiable reading habit was that from which his brilliance sprung, but his brilliance hastened his blindness. In the absence of his sight and in his elder age, he wrote two of the greatest pieces of literature to be read by English eyes. Samson Agonistes, you probably could guess, was one. The other, Paradise Lost, goes without my mention of it.
Samson, on the contrary (the biblical and not the Miltonic figure), was shorn of his sight in a far more brutal and sanguinary way. He wasn’t exactly the effete intellectual squinting to see a trickle of words from Aristotle or Polybius in the dead of night. That was the injurious path chosen by Milton. Less a man of quiet reason than of violent action, Samson was taken in by a Philistine paramour by whom he was devilishly betrayed. Prior to that, of course, he’d succeeded in wrestling to the ground and divesting of life a rapacious lion—acknowledging but refusing to take a page from Daniel’s slightly less virile book (I, like Daniel, wouldn’t dare approach a feline inhospitably). A herculean Hebrew, or a Hebraic Heracles, Samson didn’t—as did his Greek counterpart—proceed to wear the skin of his victim atop his own. He instead salvaged from a decaying donkey an idle jawbone with which he then used mercilessly to beat a Philistine army.
Seemingly indomitable, there was a catch—not unlike that an Achilles’ heel. Samson’s strength and the perpetuation of his amazing feats were conditional; all of his power resided in his hair. It was, so to speak, a coiffured covenant that he enjoyed with God. Should his famous locks be shorn from his head, he’d lose immediately, though not irretrievably, his army-defying strength.
Delilah, the sweet-sounding Philistine and consummate femme fatale to which there is no biblical equal, made this so. After a cat-and-mouse game of question and deception, she extracted from the robust Samson the tightly-held secret of his strength. With the furious alacrity of a woman scorned, she promptly ordered a servant to shave Samson’s hair while he was asleep. Awakening freshly impotent from a consuming sleep, Samson was now dangerously vulnerable in a hostile land. Sensing his exposure, the Philistines set upon him and gouged out his eyes in a very un-Oedipal way. They then placed fetters upon his wrists and legs and made him a common slave destined forevermore to grind wheat into grain in a mill.
This is the point at which Milton picks up the story in media res. But the protagonist of his only tragedy was very deliberately chosen. As I am Daniel, Samson was Milton and Milton was Samson; the bard and the brute were one. Both blind and laboring in political landscapes unaccommodating to their personal creeds, Samson and Milton shared in their cosmic strife. Milton wrote (or, to be more precise, dictated to an amanuensis) this, his last work, during the inchoate days of the restoration of the previously exiled Stuart monarchy. An avid republican, he was a Cromwellian to the core, a Puritan through and through, and he never learned convincingly how to feign monarchical respect. The days of regicide and interregnum were through and the status quo ante of the Caroline kings had returned. The Philistine government in which Samson was bound reflected that English type from which Milton couldn’t escape. This was an obvious and rueful parallel of which Milton sought to make us aware.
And aware we are. This unusually gripping pathos, both of the biblical character languishing on the stage and the ailing author by whose mind he was re-drawn, is palpable in every scene and it can’t help but be noticed. The persons of which the play are composed are few and, by and large, the titular character of Samson dominates the dialogue. His lamentations and excoriations, respectively of his plight and of his wife, give lugubrious and pitiful momentum to the plot. He holds audience with his father, wife, and captor in that sequence and the tension grows with the order. At the outset, he hasn’t yet earned the agnomen of Agonistes (which means, in Latin, a sort of champion engaged in a struggle—be it internal or external—from which he’s expected victoriously to emerge), but the well-versed auditor of this familiar Jewish tale knows that inevitably, he will. But his victory isn’t fated to be complete, nor one from which he’s destined to emerge alive.
Brought to the temple of the pagan god Dagon for a celebration marking the anniversary of his own captivity, Samson—now known to the Philistines as the “eyeless wretch of Gaza” (a sobriquet, one might add, that would take on new life in a work by the English author Aldous Huxley)—pulled down the pillars between which he was made to stand. Imperceptibly, the hair that once crowned his head began its quiet regrowth. The guards by whom he was daily mistreated seemed, much to their eventual dismay, to have overlooked this subtle human fact. With it, and with the persistent fidelity by which Samson approached his devotion to the Jewish God, his erstwhile strength returned too. With new fuzz atop his head, a constant faith within his soul, and a rekindled fury inciting his heart, Samson rendered into dust the entire edifice under which thousands of happy Philistines were gathered. As a consequence of this murder-suicide pact, Samson, along with countless other inhabitants of that land, were killed in an instant.
With classical reticence (and a disdain for showing anything too gratuitously bloody on the stage), Milton refrained from displaying this final scene of massacre and “self-violence”. So sanguinary an image would be better suited for the eyes of the uncouth rabble; they were, after all, a group in whose crude mental palate little room existed for edification or for taste. Thankfully, the aged poet wasn’t reliant on them for his bread. For Milton, the portrayal of violence on the stage was an indignity, popular with the masses though it may be, but it was one to which he dared not deign. Instead, he concluded Samson Agonistes with a chorus—a fixture so essential to the tragedians of antiquity but lately ignored in the post-Elizabethan age. And it was those very tragedians—the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the eminent Euripides—to whom Milton in this fantastic work aspired (as he did to Homer, Virgil, and Dante in his far more famous Paradise Lost).
An unabashed classicist of perhaps pedantic ilk, Milton considered the Greek tragic style the best upon which he might hope to model his own. In so doing, he aligned himself with the contemporary dramatic predilections of the French—a people from whose own genius such playwrights and poets as Racine, Corneille, and Boileau would emerge. Though an inveterate geopolitical enemy of the English (and Milton was, at least for the better part of the middle of his life, a thoroughly geopolitical man), the French were a people to whom deviations from the classical construction of tragedy were inimical. They cringed at the thought of Marlowe and Shakespeare manipulating this ancient, Attic heritage into their own “tragic” form. Hamlet might as well have been a heretic and Doctor Faustus a fraud. Milton agreed with them passionately on this point. However progressive he might’ve been in his politics, he was a conservative when it came to the stage.
Milton made explicit his own Franco-Greco predilection in the introduction to Samson Agonistes. More aptly, this “introduction” might better be labeled an education of sorts, for it was Milton’s goal to re-introduce into the heedless post-Elizabethan frenzy among which he lived those concepts of the classics to which his British friends and neighbors had turned their backs. He sought here to enumerate the beautiful, inviolable, timeless, and necessary constraints by which a classical tragedy should be built—and as he hoped again it might be.
He began it by citing the ultimate authority on tragedy—the often overly-prosaic Aristotle. But Aristotle produced more than prose merely throughout the course of his intellectually diverse life. Adding “poetic critic” to his office of peripatetic, this educator of Alexander formulated the standards by which all tragic works were to be judged. Still we employ his criteria to this day, though Hegel (and his protégé Nietzsche) have had no small influence on our thought. On one point or another, each of those aforementioned thinkers diverge, but all held in agreement that unity was to be desired above all else—unity of time, of place, of persons, and of action. No work should exceed in its duration an allotment of twenty-four hours. From one sunrise to its next, this “circumscription of time”, as Milton called it, was deemed amply sufficient for every nightmare of which the tragedian might conceive to transpire. And so it transpired in Samson.
Tragedy aside, Milton viscerally felt himself in Samson—as I fancy myself in Daniel—and the sentiment shines throughout the entirety of his work. I can only hope, perhaps even pray, that this same type of divine permeation courses through mine. After all, Daniel is the hero to whose subtlety, longevity, brilliance, and tact I aspire. No dream, no thought, no portent is too inscrutable for him. Samson, on the other hand, is the demi-god to whom Milton is bound. No affliction, no deficit, no importunacy was unfamiliar to one that wasn't equally unknown to the other.