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

HANNIBAL HAMLIN hamlin.22 at osu.edu
Mon Feb 25 10:42:10 EST 2008

Milton is always capable of being idiosyncratic, of course (and therefore falling outside of any context), but another interesting 17th c. treatment of Sampson is in Donne's Biathanatos, where he is listed as a suicide.  Of course, the treatise is a defence of suicide, so Sampson is still heroic (and Jesus too is suggested as a kind of suicide).  Donne knew he was playing with fire here, which is why the work was not published in his lifetime, but it was published during Milton's (1644).  I'm not arguing Milton read Biathanatos, or even that Donne's work is relevant to SA, but it is evidence that 17th c. readers could interpret the Bible in many different ways, some orthodox, some heretical.  Comparing Milton against the Bible is useful and can be illuminating, but it doesn't prove anything in itself.  The Bible is, and was, open to a variety of interpretations, and so is Samson Agonistes.  Drawing the two works together just adds to the interpretive possibilities; it doesn't
 reduce them.  Ultimately, we have to come back to the literary text, and we have to deal with the fact that he didn't include the biblical prayer, and that he used an obviously ambiguous phrase in describing Samson's appearance (the "as" again, and I'll repeat my invocation of Spenser, whom Milton knew thoroughly).


Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
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----- Original Message -----
From: Sara van den Berg <vandens at slu.edu>
Date: Saturday, February 23, 2008 9:31 pm
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] RE: Samson's prayer for revengr

> If you want to contextualize the poem in terms of 17th c English 
> Christians, then it is worth noting that Samson was a 
> controversial 
> figure in 17th c sermons.  Some were pro-Samson; others were not.  
> Some 
> sermons treated Samson as a type of Christ; others did not.  
> Joseph 
> Wittreich surveys the debate in his book on SA.  Another context, 
> of 
> course, is the publication of SA with PR, a juxtaposition that 
> invites 
> Milton's readers to compare/contrast Samson and Christ.  The 
> questions 
> just keep getting bigger.
> Sara van den Berg
> Rovira wrote:
> > I think we need to distinguish between OT source material and
> > Christian evaluations of the source material, first of all.  There's
> > nothing morally questionable within the context of the OT law in
> > Samson's killing of these thousands of occupiers.  Samson was God's
> > appointed judge, the Philistines were on land belonging to God's
> > people, Samson was fulfilling his God-ordained role as the deliverer
> > of Israel.  The entire cycle of command-disobedience-foreign
> > oppression-repentance-deliverance is spelled out very clearly in the
> > latter chapters of Deuteronomy.  Only a Christian who has been 
> taught> that revenge is wrong would take issue with Samson's act, 
> and only
> > then insofar as he perceived Samson as motivated by a desire for
> > personal revenge.  To the extent that Samson was God's agent for the
> > delivery of Israel from foreign oppression, even many Christian
> > readers would not necessarily take issue with his act.  Those in
> > pacifist Christian traditions would morally condemn Samson.  Those
> > working from within some kind of just war theory would not,
> > necessarily.  The question is at least open.
> >
> > The more important question is, of course, would Milton take issue
> > with Samson's act?  Given his allegiances in the English civil war,
> > it's hard for me to believe he would take issue with Samson's 
> revenge> as an act of political deliverance even if he did feel 
> differently> about the act as an act of personal revenge. Neither 
> is it hard to
> > imagine Milton self-identifying with Samson; blind and trapped in
> > chains by a pagan ruling class.
> >
> > Nor is it hard to imagine that Milton could have written the 
> scene to
> > make Samson's prayer clearly heard by the messenger.  The messenger
> > simply had to be close enough to Samson to hear the prayer and close
> > enough to an exit to escape the building's collapse.  I suspect that
> > the messenger was set at some distance because that is what we are
> > from Samson's character, and perhaps, in Milton's mind, he was 
> at some
> > distance even from himself regarding the restoration of the monarchy
> > -- to fight it would be to bring down England.  Is it worth it?  
> Is it
> > right?  Is it God that Samson speaks to?
> >
> > Jim R
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