[Milton-L] RE: Samson's prayer for revengr

Alan Rudrum rudrum at shaw.ca
Sat Feb 23 20:32:23 EST 2008

Derek Wood wrote:
> I wonder how Milton could have dramatised Samson's prayer, making it audible. It is an intimate, intensely private communion with God, not something to be shouted out for a crowd of unbelievers to share. The divine redactor in the Bible is inspired to know what Samson thinks or prays silently. Milton's messenger is not. He cannot know.The key word in SA is 'prayed;' .The echo directs us to Judges which tells us exactly what the prayer was.The dynamics of 'Imitating' from a divine text (we might say 'fictionalising') are different from imitating ordinary fiction. In Troilus and Criseyde, for instance, Chaucer cuts away huge passages of Il Filostrato to make Criseyde a quite different character from the shallow, sexy stereotypical woman in the original -- the original has no authority. With the Bible, it does. Many readers trying to civilise Samson' s murderous brutality imagine Milton is softening and humanising the harsh revenger of Judges by omitting the words of the prayer. Not so. He does not write 'planned' or 'hesitated.'  His own people think his revenge was 'dreadful'; much more than an eye for an eye here. The word 'revenge' occurs, I think, six times in the last part of the play
> Carey's review is, as usual, brilliantly original and provocative, compared with Ackroyd's rathher dull summary.Thank you Paul and Roy for the URL's. dw


Derek Wood's is the only Milton-L offering I have opened for some time, 
since I am much occupied, - among other things, still researching 
Christopher Hill.  So I do not know the context of his post, or what 
John Carey might have written lately.   But here is my account from HLQ 
Vol 65 (2002) [It actually came out in late 2003, I think;perhaps Susan 
Green will confirm?]. The following is from pages 470-471;   A further 
account of Derek Wood's book can be found on pages 482-488 of that 
article.  For those who have access to the on-line resource Literature 
Compass , a slightly altered version of the review is one of the 
"charter" essays in Vol. 1.

I would not bother to repeat myself on this matter, but for the fact 
that Derek Wood has rather frequently over the years done just that, as 
if he has failed to notice the reasons given in pages 482-488, which 
suggest that the validity of his book is seriously open to question.   
See especially the passage beginning on page 485 which begins "The 
fundamental flaw in Wood's book is his misunderstanding and consequent 
misuse of biblical material" and read down to the end of the essay. It 
seems reasonable to point out that intellectual integrity requires us to 
engage with responsible criticism of our work, rather than to ignore it. 
> Like Carey, [Irene] Samuel describes Samson as vengeful.  Certainly in 
> the biblical account, Samson prays "that I may be at once avenged of 
> the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28); but in Milton's poem 
> the Messenger relates that "he stood, as one who pray'd / Or some 
> great matter in his mind revolv'd" (1637-38).   The word "revenge" is 
> used four times in /Samson /Agonistes, three times by Manoa and once 
> by the Chorus, never by Samson.  Derek Wood asks, sensibly enough, 
> "Why should he shout out his prayer to his victims?  Milton's audience 
> knows Judges, as he knows they do."  However, Wood's conclusion is 
> less convincing:  The silent prayer /must/ be what the sacred text 
> says it is" (my emphasis).[1] <#_ftn1>  This assertion points to an 
> interestingly complex issue in the debate between traditionalist 
> interpreters and those who have expanded upon Carey, that is, the 
> question of what validly counts as context.  All Wood's "must"  means 
> is that his interpretation would be reinforced if we could be sure 
> that the Samson of the poem silently prayed in the exact words of 
> Judges; it raises by implication, but does not address, the question 
> of how we can be sure.  It seems to me at least as valid to argue that 
> the text's silence means that Milton is intending an important 
> difference between his and the biblical Samson at this point.
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> [1] <#_ftnref1> Derek N.C. Wood, '/Exiled from Light': Divine Law, 
> Morality, and Violence in Milton's/ /Samson Agonistes/, Toronto: 
> University of Toronto Press, 2001, 51.
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