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ARGUMENT. SAMSON, made captive, blind,* and now in the prison at Gaza, there to labour as in a common
workhouse, on a festival day, in the general cessation from labour, comes forth into the open air, to a place nigh, somewhat retired, there to sit a while and bemoan his condition; where he happens at length to be visited by certain friends and equals of his tribe, which make the Chorus, who seek to comfort him what they can; then by his own father Manoah, who endeavours the like, and withal tells him his purpose to procure his liberty by ransom ; lastly, that this feast was proclaimed by the Philistines as a day of thanksgiving for their deliverance from the hands of Samson, which yet more troubles him. Manoah then departs to prosecute his endeavour with the Philistine lords for Samson's redemption; who in the mean while is visited by other persons, and lastly by a public officer to require his coming to the feast before the lords and people, to play or show his strength in their presence; he at first refuses, dismissing the public officer with absolute denial to come; at length, persuaded inwardly that this was from God, he yields to go along with him, who came now the second time with great threatenings to fetch him : the Chorus yet remaining on the place, Manoah returns full of joyful hope, to procure ere long his son's deliverance : in the midst of which discourse a Hebrew comes in haste, confusedly at first, and afterwards more distinctly, relating the catastrophe, what Samson had done to the Philistines, and by accident to himself; wherewith the tragedy ends.
The Scene before the Prison in Gaza.
* Samson, made captive, blind, &c. Mr. Upton is the first critic who has observed, what yet is obvious, that in this tragedy Samson "imprisoned and blind, and the captive state of Israel, livelily represent our blind poet with the républican party, after the Restoration, afflicted and persecuted.” See his “Crit. Observ. on Shakspeare,” 1748, p. 144. I must add, that Milton, who artfully envelops much of his own history and of the times in this drama, had long before used the character and situation of Samson for a temporary allegory in "The Reason of Church Government,” b. ii. conclusion. He supposes Samson to be a king, who, being disciplined in temperance, grows perfect in strength, his illustrious and sunny locks being the laws: while these are undiminished and unshorn, with the jaw-bone of an ass, that is, with the word of his meanest officer, he defeats thousands of his adversaries: but, reclining his head on the lap of flattering prelates, while he sleeps, they cut off those bright tresses of his laws and prerogatives, once his ornament and defence, delivering him over to violent and oppressive counsellors ; who, like the Philistines, extinguish the eyes of his natural discernment, forcing him to grind in the prison-house of their insidious designs against his power: “till he, knowing this prelatical razor to have bereft him of his wonted might, nourish again his puissant hair, the golden beams of law and right; and they, sternly shook, thunder with ruin upon the heads of those his evil counsellors, but not without great affliction to himself."-T. WARTON.
The younger Richardson, in his manuscript observations on this tragedy, has noticed the allusions of the poet to the history of himself and of his own days.
"he remarks, “was written when the saints were oppressed, and in little appearance of ever seeing their own times again : therefore the conclusion is with a view to comfort them, as well as himself, by so great an example of Providence, 'Aye watching o'er his saints with eye unseene,' as he writes on the glass window at Chalfont. This Milton loves to allude to in all his writings, and is the great moral of this tragedy, as Mr. Pope observed to me: and considering this point farther some days afterwards, I am persuaded Milton must have a view to himself in Samson.”—TODD.
SAMSON (Attendant leading him).
a A little onward, &c. Milton, after the example of the Greek tragedians, whom he professes to imitate, opens his drama with introducing one of its principal personages, explaining the story upon which it is founded.—THYER.
The incident, however, and the formulary of the expression, are from the Hecuba of Euripides, who thus leads on the giant sorrows of Priam's aged queen :
HEC. Lead me, ye Trojan dames, a little onward,
A little onward lead an aged matron,
b To these dark steps.
c For yonder bank. The scene of this tragedy is much the same as that of the Edipus Coloneus in Sophocles, where blind Edipus is conducted in like manner, and represented sitting upon a little hill near Athens : but yet I think there is scarcely a single thought the same in the two pieces ; and I am sure the Greek tragedy can have no pretence to be esteemed better, but only because it is two thousand years older.--Newton.
d The breath of heaven. This line and the next are exquisite.
• To Dagon their sea-idol. Milton, as Dr. Newton observes, both here and in the “Paradise Lost," follows the opinion of those who describe this idol as part man, part fish, b. i. 462. Some also describe the idol as part woman and part fish :
Desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne, according to Calmet.-TODD.
But rush upon me thronging.
Times past what once I was, and what am now 8.
8 What once I was and what am now. As in “Paradise Lost,” book iv. 23 :
Now conscience wakes despair
h Twice by an angel. Once to his mother, and again to his father Manoah and his mother both ; and the second time the angel ascended in the flame of the altar, Judges xiii. 3, 11, 20.—NEwron.
Ask for this great deliverer now, &c. This may be considered as political, referring to the prospects there were, not long before, of the republican party overturning monarchy; and to that lately victorious party being now completely itself overcome, and subject to the yoke which it had once apparently removed and trampled on.—DUNSTER.
j But what is strength without a double share
Of wisdom ? &c. Ovid, “Met.” xiii. 363 :
Tu vires sine mente geris
-tu tantum corpore prodes,
Proudly secure, yet liable to fall
peace, I must not quarrel with the will
And Horace, “Od.” III. iv. 65:
Vis consilî expers mole ruit sua.--RICHARDSON.
k Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half. In these lines the poet seems to paint himself. The litigation of his will produced a collection of evidence relating to the testator, which renders the discovery of those longforgotten papers peculiarly interesting: they show very forcibly, and in new points of view, his domestic infelicity, and his amiable disposition. The tender and sublime poet, whose sensibility and sufferings were so great, appears to have been almost as unfortunate in his daughters as the Lear of Shakspeare. A servant declares in evidence, that her deceased master, a little before his last marriage, had lamented to her the ingratitude and cruelty of his children : he complained that they combined to defraud him in the economy of his house, and sold several of his books in the basest manner. His feelings on such an outrage, both as a parent and scholar, must have been singularly painful: perhaps they suggested to him these very pathetic lines.-HAYLEY.
As it appears, from the latest discoveries relating to the domestic life of Milton, that his wife was particularly attentive to him, and treated his infirmities with much tenderness, this passage seems to restrict the time when this drama was written to a period previous to his last marriage, or at least nearly to that immediate time, while the singular ill-treatment of his daughters was fresh in his memory. This also coincides with what Mr. Hayley has observed respecting its being written immediately after the execution of Sir Henry Vane, which took place June 14, 1662. Milton was then in his fifty-fourth year, in which we are told he married his third wife. This would make the “Agonistes” at least three years anterior to the “Paradise Regained,” of which we know he had not thought previous to the summer of 1665; when, on account of the plague raging in London, he retired to Chalfont, where an accidental expression of Elwood, on returning him the copy of “Paradise Lost,” laid the foundation of the second poem.—DUNSTER.
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
10 dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark. This is far more pathetic than the exclamation of Edipus, which the poet perhaps had now in mind, “Ed. Tyr.” v. 1337.—TODD.
Few passages in poetry are so affecting as this; and the tone of expression is peculiarly Miltonic.
m And silent as the moon. “Silens luna” is the moon at or near the change, and in conjunction with the sun. Plin. lib. xvi. cap. 39. The interlunar cave is here called “vacant,' quia luna ibi vacat opere et ministerio suo ;' because the moon is idle and useless, and makes no return of light.—MEADOWCOURT. There is very extraordinary power of poetry in the whole passage, down to verse 109.
With joint pace I hear
The tread of many feet. Virgil, “Æn.” ï. 731 :
subito cum creber ad aures Visus adesse pedum sonitus.--TODD.
Steering this way. If this be the right reading, the metaphor is extremely hard and abrupt. A common man would have said “bearing this way.”—WARBURTON. I believe “steering" is the right reading. So, in the “Ode on the Nativ.” ver. 146:
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering.