Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > Samson Agonistes
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 18. Samson Agonistes.

Our diminishing acquaintance with the circumstances of Paradise Regained as compared with those of Paradise Lost dwindles to almost nothing when we come to Paradise Regained’s companion in print. No Ellwood boasts its suggestion; although there are two Samson subjects for dramas in the Cambridge list neither of these has any detail appended to it, and one refers to an early episode (the fox tails and fire brands) of the hero’s life. And, though the other, Dagonalia, is concerned with the catastrophe, it does not follow that the subject would have been treated in the actual way of Agonistes. Nor is much to be learnt from the short preface “Of that sort of Dramatic Poem called Tragedy.” Although longer and less defiant than the afterthought on “The Verse” of Paradise Lost, it is mainly explanatory of differences from the accepted English form, the poet specially objecting to tragicomic admixture, disclaiming stage intention and maintaining the unities of action and time, without mentioning that of place, which, however is, in fact, observed. His comment on his choric metres is less enigmatical than that on the Rous ode in Latin  10  which, however, should be taken with it. It merely disclaims regular strophic arrangement.   51
  The poem itself is of the very highest interest, and does not need any doubtful—hardly any certain—external support. There is scarcely anything, in poetry—Dante again excepted—which combines poetical and personal appeal in so striking a fashion. The parallel of Samson and Milton himself is extraordinary, even at first blush, and the poet, with his strong autobiographical tendency, has brought it out still further. The blindness, the triumph of political enemies, the failing strength and closing life (see, especially the poignant lines  11  “So much I feel my genial spirits droop … And I shall shortly be with them that rest”), the unbroken and undaunted resolution—all are in both. And there are less certain, but most suggestive, added touches. There is no need to make the story of the first marriage worse by confounding Mary Powell with Dalila, nor can the cases be made to cover each other by the utmost violence or the most perverted ingenuity. But, in the Dalila passages of Samson, there certainly is that combination of susceptibility to feminine charms and distrustful revolt against them which is thoroughly Miltonic. One cannot but see in the altercation with Harapha what Milton would have liked to say—if he never said it—to an “over-crowing” malignant; and the whole tissue of situations is worked into similarity, now actual, now allegoric.   52
  But, quite independently of this, Samson Agonistes, from the purely literary point of view, is a poem of the highest interest and of the greatest beauty. An acting play, we are told, it was never meant to be; but, even of the acting quality, it has probably as much as any English play on the strict classical model can have. It has certainly more than either Cornelia or Philotas, than either Merope or Erechtheus. As a poem, dramatised in a given form, it needs no allowance and no apology. Both the style and the versification, to some extent, show that “drooping of the genial spirits” which has been quoted: they are harder and stiffer. But there is even more art, if less “bloomy flush of life”; and the art is almost more imposing than ever, if less graceful. When Mark Pattison thought that, to critics who maintain that beauty is the only characteristic of poetry, Samson “will seem tame, flat, meaningless and artificial,” he showed clearly that he did not understand the point of view to which he was referring.   53
  Above all, the choruses give us not only much splendid verse, but an extraordinary abundance of special points of interest. To begin with, there is—and this point is not Samsonic—the submission to the once loved, then slighted, enchantress rime. The first two or three choruses or choric scenes are blank; rime, not regular, but on a sort of further unregularísed Lycidas scheme, reappears with the striking epiphonema “God of our Fathers, what is man”  12  and is never wholly abandoned afterwards. Nevertheless, the poet continues his ceaseless experimentation in the mere forms of verse, putting rime out of the question—varying the assortment of his lengths, associating different feet on an extension of the same bold principle which had underlain the versification of Paradise Lost and, in places, venturing on entirely new rhythms, his intention in which is not yet quite certain, as in the famous “O how comely it is and how reviving” and “When their hearts were jocund and sublime.”   54
  And all this art is used for the presentation of a picture of really great action and high passion, a picture which, if we were ignorant of, and insusceptible to, all Biblical associations, if we knew nothing about Milton’s personal history, would appeal to the eternal human interests. It may be that, in his central and, as the phrase goes, greatest, works, Milton had sometimes forgotten this appeal. He had not done so in his earlier and happier period; and though the time was late and hardly happy, he had returned to it now.  13    55

Note 10. See post. [ back ]
Note 11. Ll. 594–8. [ back ]
Note 12. L. 667. [ back ]
Note 13. Later than Paradise Regained and Samson, and in the year before his death, Milton published (adding the tractate Of Education) a second edition of his minor poems (Poems, etc. upon Several Occasions) with Thomas Dring. He omitted the English prefatory matter not his own to Comus, but added On the Death of a fair Infant and At a Vacation Exercise, and all his later minor verse except the Fairfax, Vane, Cromwell and Cyriack Skinner II sonnets. Some, but not all, copies of this included a new portrait instead of the old libel. And it is of rather more than merely bibliographical importance to remember that here, also, as in the 1645 issue, and as in Lawes’s editio princeps, Comus is not called Comus but simply A Mask. [ back ]

  Paradise Regained Milton’s prose works  

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