Samson Agonistes

by John Milton

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Suffices that to me strength is my bane,
And proves the sourse of all my miseries;
So many, and so huge, that each apart [ 65 ]
Would ask a life to wail, but chief of all,
O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies, O worse then chains,
Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct, [ 70 ]

In this early passage from the poem, Samson laments his difficult situation, and the reader first meets Samson while he is in a state of deep despair. In particular, Samson suffers a great deal from his blindness because it is a condition he has brought upon himself by his own lack of awareness of his wife Delilah's potential for treachery. In this way, Samson's physical blindness parallels his figurative blindness to the truth, which is a common trope in tragedies of Aristotelian origin. As well, John Milton, the poet behind Samson Agonistes, was blind himself; this passage, as well as others that address Samson's grief and his frustration with his state of blindness, have significant poignancy. When Samson feels separated from God, the source of light for all the world that cannot illuminate his ever-present darkness, the reader of this closet play may wonder if the poet himself could relate to such a sense of desolate isolation.

My griefs not only pain me
As a lingring disease,
But finding no redress, ferment and rage,
Nor less then wounds immedicable [ 620 ]
Ranckle, and fester, and gangrene,
To black mortification.
Thoughts my Tormenters arm'd with deadly stings
Mangle my apprehensive tenderest parts,
Exasperate, exulcerate, and raise [ 625 ]
Dire inflammation which no cooling herb
Or medcinal liquor can asswage,
Nor breath of Vernal Air from snowy Alp.
Sleep hath forsook and giv'n me o're
To deaths benumming Opium as my only cure. [ 630 ]
Thence faintings, swounings of despair,
And sense of Heav'ns desertion.

Samson speaks frankly to Manoa, his father, about his distress that is brought on by both physical and emotional suffering. No matter his physical pain, which is significant and profound, Samson's most intense anguish stems from his suspicion that God has deserted him. Manoa mistakenly understands Samson to be most upset about his imprisonment. This spiritual sickness impacts Samson on physical, psychological, and emotional levels; he cannot sleep nor can he find relief in medicine. The poet's use of illness and physical pain as a metaphor for spiritual agony heightens the pathos of Samson's character while emphasizing the lack of understanding between father and son.

Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake
My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint.
At distance I forgive thee, go with that;
Bewail thy falshood, and the pious works [ 955 ]
It hath brought forth to make thee memorable
Among illustrious women, faithful wives:
Cherish thy hast'n'd widowhood with the gold
Of Matrimonial treason: so farwel.

Samson expresses his frustration and anger to Delilah, his wife, by confronting her about her treachery directly and aggressively. At this moment in the poem, Delilah has just tried to show Samson some tenderness, but he rejects her affection with a threat to harm her as she has harmed him. Samson claims to have forgiven her, but only if she maintains her distance from him. The closeness that she attempts with her intimate gesture enrages him and prevents him from feeling mercifully towards her when she claims that she had to betray him out of loyalty to her people. Samson's harshness towards Delilah...

(This entire section contains 858 words.)

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extends to all women in general, as Delilah's disloyal behavior seems to him to be representative of the female sex.

He tugg'd, he shook, till down thy came and drew [ 1650 ]
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sate beneath,
Lords, Ladies, Captains, Councellors, or Priests,
Thir choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this but each Philistian City round [ 1655 ]
Met from all parts to solemnize this Feast.
Samson with these immixt, inevitably
Pulld down the same destruction on himself;

When the Messenger tells Manoa about Samson's death, a death of Samson's own doing, the Messenger is following a tragic convention: the climactic moment in the play has taken place 'off stage,' and the Messenger must report the momentous occasion to other characters, much like the climaxes of the traditional tragedies from Aristotle's day. Manoa has tried to show his support for Samson by attempting to have Samson released from prison to ease his suffering, so hearing of Samson's death is sure to have a significant impact on Manoa; however, Manoa is not characterized as fully understanding Samson's state of mind. After all, Samson does not want to involve himself with the Philistines ever again, and Manoa's attempt to get Samson freed may have necessitated shady dealings with the Philistines of one kind or another—dealings which would have drawn Samson's disapproval no matter the outcome. The fact that Manoa was not with his son at the moment of his son's death is consistent with the notion that Manoa perhaps does not fully understand Samson; perhaps Manoa did not deserve to be in Samson's company at the moment at which Samson dies.