Milton Studies XXXIII. The Miltonic Samson. Edited by Albert C. Labriola and Michael Lieb. Pp. xii + 204. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Reviewed by Alan Rudrum firstname.lastname@example.org
We are told in Albert Labriola's Introduction that this, the sixth extra issue of Milton Studies, grew out of the Milton Seminar, devoted entirely to Samson Agonistes, held at Duquesne University in October 1994. As it happens, I was on a rare visit to the East at that time, looking at Vaughan's medical books, now in Philadelphia, and was privileged to be a guest in that distinguished gathering, which engendered a memorable intensity of debate. The volume under review is not a collection of papers read at the seminar, which was a two day event, but represents the editors' sense that the ‘intense interest’ of the occasion called for such a volume.
The phrase ‘of my own accord’ (line 1643) which figures so prominently in Joseph Wittreich's Interpreting Samson Agonistes, was vigorously discussed in Pittsburgh, and Michael Lieb's ‘ “Our Living Dread”: The God of Samson Agonistes,’ first delivered at the Fifth International Milton Symposium in Bangor, 1995, might be read as an extension of that discussion. There is more than one possible level of answer to the view that these words represent an admission on Samson's part that he does not act by divine commission, and at least two of them were set forth in Pittsburgh. First, the phrase occurs in a speech, reported by the messenger, in which Samson addresses the Lords of Philistia. It should not therefore be treated as if it were the commentary of a ‘reliable narrator.’ Samson is under no moral obligation of frankness towards his enemies. Second, while ‘by one's own unsolicited assent; of one's own spontaneous motion’ is the usual meaning of the phrase ‘of one's own accord’ (and the sense Samson intends the Philistian lords to take), Milton is here thinking, as so often, philologically. He knew very well how to write in English while thinking in Latin, and would have known, as Diane McColley pointed out in Pittsburgh, that the verb ‘accord’ means literally to ‘bring heart to heart’ and therefore to reconcile oneself with another. Words which are meant to be interpreted by the Philistian lords in their common sense are dramatically ironical enough, referring in their hidden meaning to Samson's own individual empowerment through reconciliation with God.
Michael Lieb in effect takes this suggestion one step further, by grounding Samson's phrase not in human but in divine usage, pointing out that ‘throughout Hebrew scriptures, God acts “of his own accord” in the swearing of oaths. In his final act, then, Samson ‘is “our living dread” incarnate.’ At Bangor some thought Lieb's interpretation strained and unnecessary; I was not alone in liking the Occam's razor of J. Martin Evans's approach to ‘of my own accord’ in his RES review of Wittreich's book. However, in its fuller, and perhaps revised form, it is convincing, and adds a meaningful extension to the plausible range of readings of the phrase. It should be added that the essay offers a good deal more, to those of us who are not Hebraists and who have not opened The Idea of the Holy for some time, and I found especially enlightening the use made of I Samuel iv-v.
Norman T. Burns, in Milton's Antinomianism and Samson's, also makes compelling use of biblical material (Phinehas, Abraham and Isaac, Jael and Sisera) His essay begins with an account of a letter written by Cromwell to Lord Philip Wharton during the Irish campaign. Cromwell sought to allay Wharton's scruples, in relation to the purging of Parliament and the execution of the king, by reference to Phinehas, whose murder of an Israelite and his Midianite mistress caused God to call a halt to the plague with which He had punished the idolatry of His people. (How many readers of this review will be able, as I was, to read the story in a bible acquired in childhood as a beneficiary of Lord Philip Wharton's will?) Burns gives equal weight to biblical narratives illustrative of antinomianism and to the understanding of those narratives evinced by Milton and some of his contemporaries. It bears upon the same point as Lieb's paper, namely the question of how we are to judge, in terms of Milton's sensibility and understanding rather than of ours, Samson's action in the catastrophe of the drama. It ranks with Blair Worden's ‘Milton, Samson Agonistes, and the Restoration,’ as among the indispensable recent essays on Samson, bringing together wide reading and cogent argument in a manner that compels admiration.
John Rogers begins ‘The Secret of Samson Agonistes’ by pointing out that Milton, as early as 1651, had raised the question of whether Samson's heroism ‘was instigated by God, or by his own valor.’ He suggests that scholars have assumed that Milton's final answer to that question is in Samson Agonistes, and that ‘the conflicting schools of Samson criticism’ are the result of the attempt to determine what that answer was. Rogers apparently rises above the battle, disclaiming any attempt to ‘adjudicate the conflict between these increasingly entrenched positions,’ desiring instead to understand ‘the function of what all critical parties must concede to be the evident ambiguity of Milton's representation of Samson's final action.’ ‘Wire-drawn’ is the phrase that comes to mind as one follows the argument of this paper; it is indeed ‘fine-spun, elaborately subtle, ingenious and refined.’ It also has its hilarious moments, as one contemplates the way in which Harvey's animals, like worms and snails, that are ‘ingender'd of putrefaction and keep not a species,’ are compared to the angels of Paradise Lost, and to Samson's desiderata of what a body should be. At times the argument seems strained, as for example at 117, when Rogers writes that ‘this realignment of Samson's strength with the length of his hair, one discouraged both by the redacted biblical text and its early modern Protestant exegetes, simply removes divine power from the realm of arbitrary will and restricts it to the far less exalted realm of ongoing and impersonal natural process.’ I fail to see this. It is now seven weeks since I had a haircut, and ‘impersonal natural process’ has not added a pound to my weight-lifting capacity. Nor do I see what is ‘astonishing’ (119) about Margaret Cavendish's idea that ‘the flesh is a sensitive organ, as well as the Eye, or the Ear.’ Certainly, as she is here quoted, the comment that ‘few of [her] contemporaries would have concurred that man. . . can look at will through “every several pore of the flesh.” ’ is tendentious. ‘Sentience’ and ‘sight’ are far from being synonyms. The argument of the paper is weakened insofar as these passages are vital to it. Nor is its documentation perfect. I was interested in Rogers' engagement with Stephen Fallon's argument that one of the most notable puzzles of the doctrinal component of Samson Agonistes is its failure to ‘fit the picture of the mature Milton's philosophy of substance,’ and therefore the more disappointed to find no page-reference. Despite his initial disclaimer of any attempt to ‘adjudicate the conflict,’ Rogers does express an opinion towards the end of his paper. He notes (126) that the traditional reading of Samson Agonistes has identified Samson's ‘rousing motions’ as providential, while ‘the revisionist reading has deemed them unauthorized and purely instinctive.’ Still other ‘analyses, those with which [he is] most sympathetic, have described them as both.’ Here he points to three essays I have not read, but as stated here I cannot see how these these views can be reconciled. Overall, my impression is not negative, and I am left with a sense of having failed to do justice to the learning and subtlety of this essay.
The three essays discussed above all relate to one of the principal contentions in Wittreich's Interpreting Samson Agonistes. Lieb calls the book ‘seminal,’ but his argument over Samson's ‘of my own accord’ is diametrically opposed to Wittreich's; Rogers writes that Wittreich ‘makes the strongest case for the ironic structure of the poem,’ but does not engage directly with Wittreich's work. Norman T. Burns minces no words and characterizes the arguments of Wittreich, and those of Helen Damico, as hopelessly “carnal.” Wittreich is also a presence (among others unnamed) in this collection's final essay, John T. Shawcross's ‘Misreading Milton,’ which, according to Labriola, ‘advocates liberty in interpretation while cautioning against licence.’ In my view licence is the hall-mark of this essay, which moves in a series of critical statements too crudely formulated to advance discussion . On the first page we read that ‘the two works [i.e. Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes] present differing answers to the question of misreading, while rejecting the concept.’ This recalls an anonymous course-evaluation a semester or so ago: ‘Remember, there are no wrong answers in English.’ Can we really believe that Milton would have been happy for his readers to have these poems mean anything the reader felt like making them mean? Of course not, and Shawcross doesn't believe it either. So why put it that way? On the same page we are given to understand that to label Dalila a serpent and regard Samson's fall as being entirely her fault ‘seems to be the most common attitude on the part of critics.’ What critics, pray? I haven't come across a single one of them. Shawcross treats Samson's speech to the Officer (1399-1409) as if it were to be taken ‘straight,’ writing of the ‘boastfulness’ in the beginning of the speech, and commenting that ‘there is a hint of acedia and of despair’ in ‘And for a life who will not change his purpose?’ Samson is talking to a Philistian official, is he not? In order to evaluate the status of this ‘hint of acedia and of despair’ the reader merely needs to remember what Samson had said but a few lines earlier, to the Chorus, before the officer's return. Once again, Samson is under no moral obligation to reveal his ‘rousing motions’ to Israel's enemies. Milton himself is quite explicit on the need to evaluate the dramaticity of speeches in dramatic poems. Just after this passage (197) unnamed critics are once again evoked: ‘Most prominently the episode with Dalila has been wrenched from its component position in much recent criticism, as if the work were almost totally summed up there.’ In support of this beating of straw men, Merritt Y. Hughes is called in aid, in his pointing out that ‘in the seventeenth century it was not clear that in a classical tragedy whose action occurred on the last day of the hero's life she had a proper place.’ How does this help? The fact that Milton included her in his drama suggests that he had a purpose in doing so. Shawcross's invocation of Hughes, here and in footnote 14, does not help because Hughes was not responding to ‘recent criticism’ (1957 is a long time ago in Milton criticism) but to the view that the drama ‘is one massive tirade against feminine wiles and guiles.’ Beginning with the assertion that Samson Agonistes rejects the concept of misreading, Shawcross ends on a reference to those (again unnamed) who ‘misread’ it ‘by giving independent weight to the extrabiblical episodes that Milton constructs.’
By odd coincidence, Sharon Achinstein's dealing with Samson's speech to the Officer (1399-1409) is the Achilles heel of an otherwise fine paper, ‘Samson Agonistes and the Drama of Dissent.’ She writes that Samson ‘refuses to be reduced to the moral status of a beast,’ quoting ‘They shall not trail me through thir streets / Like a wild beast’ (1402-3). To insist again, this is dramatic speech, as are the lines that follow (‘Master's commands come with a power resistless / To such as owe them absolute subjection’) and are not at all to be understood as negating Samson's earlier speech to the Chorus (1369-79). To do something in order to avoid doing it under physical compulsion is not at all the same thing as refusing to be reduced to the moral status of a beast, and Samson's oppressors have not removed ‘occasions for Samson to exert his free will.’ Samson does not go in order to avoid being ‘reduced to the moral status of a beast,’ but because ‘some rousing motions’ in him have disposed ‘to something extraordinary’ his thoughts. The analogy with Thomas Ellwood, arguing that because he was a prisoner he could not take the oath of allegiance freely, requires more careful handling than it is here given. I have suggested to students for the past thirty years or more that a lesson one might take from Samson Agonistes is ‘The only thing I have to do in this life to die. The rest is up to me.’ Samson, speaking to the Chorus, who are not his enemies, and whom he has no reason to deceive, states the only occasion for departing from this principle: where outward force constrains. That said, this is a fine piece of historical criticism, contextualizing the poem by reference to the position of dissenters and nonconformists in the Restoration, extending the work of N.H. Keeble's The Literary Culture of Nonconformity, and justifying the contention that Samson Agonistes ‘may be the most brilliant piece of political theory created in the seventeenth century if we think about political theory not only in terms of a discourse of abstraction, but also of contemplation, experience, and subjective experience.’
David Loewenstein's ‘The Revenge of the Saint: Radical Religion and Politics in Samson Agonistes,’ also offers useful contextualizing, in the cause of a well-conducted argument that there is no need to turn the poem into ‘a drama of indeterminacy.’ Loewenstein brings to bear relevant primary material, and makes good use of that virtually indispensable work, Geoffrey Nuttall's The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. This essay, like a number of others in the book, supports a ‘traditional’ reading of the poem, while making it clear enough that the concept of the motions of the Spirit must be every bit as troubling to modern minds as T.S. Eliot thought it was. Once or twice I found myself in disagreement, or wishing that the argument had been pushed a little harder. For example, I do not think it is at all the message of the poem that the workings of the Spirit are ‘impromptu’ (163). Samson did not ‘decimate’ the ‘choice nobility and flower’ of the Philistines (172); ‘the vulgar only scaped who stood without’ (line 1659) suggests that more than one in ten of those who stood within perished. The argument about ‘patience’ (163) could have been pushed harder by a clearer account of the way in which Samson's final action combines both ‘patience’ and ‘heroic magnitude of mind,’ rendering the speech of the Chorus (1268-1296) ironical in retrospect.
Mary Beth Rose, in ‘Gender and the Heroics of Endurance,’ considers together Samson Agonistes, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and Mary Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage, in order to analyse ‘the ways in which modes of heroic identity intersect with conceptions of gender in late seventeenth-century England.’ These are interesting juxtapositions, supporting a critical argument in which holes may be picked, but which is, so far as I am aware, original and which may well have potential for further development and refinement. I do not myself experience Samson Agonistes as an ‘irresolute’ text (97), but agree that Oroonoko might fit that description. This does not invalidate the comparative use made of them here; but Mary Beth Rose's account of Samson Agonistes as concluding with ‘two distinctively gendered heroic positions that are represented as rivals and never reconciled’ ignores past discussion of the marriage of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ heroism in Samson's final action and seems to me inaccurate. As suggested above, in relation to David Loewenstein's essay, the ending precisely does ‘reconcile’ these two positions. Some might even be tempted to argue that in combining, in his final act, what are seen here as masculine and feminine roles, Samson indeed figures Christ, who summed up in himself the perfections of the maculine and feminine natures.
Janel Mueller's ‘Just Measures? Versification in Samson Agonistes’ seems likely to initiate a good deal of critical debate, about both the nature and the function of Milton's prosody. She argues that English iambic pentameter is ‘the best candidate for the verse design of Samson Agonistes on the grounds of adequacy and accuracy alike,’ but goes far beyond a technical analysis substantiating this argument. Her second section, in which prosodic analyses are brought to bear on interpretation, opens with the remark that ‘in pervasive senses the dynamic of iambic rhythm informs the drama of Samson Agonistes : weakness before strength, no way to strength but through weakness, and the advent of strength in a stroke, as a beat that signals the imposition of purposive order from above and beyond.’ Her analyses lead to the conclusion that the verse assigned to Samson ‘sets all the standards for what is expressively and prosodically right in this drama’ (67) and to its accompanying suggestion that prosody enables us to come to critical conclusions about matters on which we might not otherwise make up our minds, for example the sincerity of Dalila's attempt to reconcile with Samson. I personally do not agree that ‘at the levels of discursive speech and action. . . the interpretation of [Dalila's] character can be treated as an open question,’ but it is good to know that ‘any sense of an open question. . . is closed by the consistent and cumulatively damning connotations of the prosody with respect to Dalila’ (69 - 70). The ‘sound’ of Dalila's verse has always seemed to me expressive of insincerity, reinforcing the sense one derives from the shifting nature of what she has to say, as well as from her situation in law; it is good to know that subjective impression correlates with observable prosodic fact. However, all this is likely to open up huge dispute, which one hopes Janel Mueller will enjoy equally hugely. I disagree with her sharply on some details, but those disagreements can wait until the battle begins.