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previously written (1630), and which were prefixed to the second folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1632
“What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
Still the unlawfulness of dramatic entertainments had always been a tenet of those stricter English Puritans with whom Milton even then felt a political sympathy; and Prynne's famous Histriomastix, in which he denounced stageplays and all connected with them through a thousand quarto pages (1632), had helped to confirm Puritanism in this tenet. As Prynne's treatise had been out more than a year before the Arcades and Comus were written, it is clear that he had not converted Milton to his opinion. While the more rigid and less educated of the Puritans undoubtedly went with Prynne in condemning the stage altogether, Milton, I should say, before the time of his journey to Italy (1638–39), was one of those who retained a pride in the drama as the form of literature in which, for two generations, English genius had been most productive. Lamenting, with others, the corrupt condition into which the national drama had fallen in baser hands, and the immoral accompaniments of the degraded stage, he had seen no reason to recant his enthusiastic tribute to the memory of Shakespeare, or to be ashamed of his own contribution to the dramatic literature of England in his two model masques.
Gradually, however, with Milton's growing seriousness amid the events and duties that awaited him after his return from his Italian journey, and especially after the meeting of the Long Parliament (Nov. 3, 1640), there came a change in his notions of the drama. From this period there is evidence that his sympathy with the Prynne view of things, at least as far as regarded the English stage, was more considerable than it had been—that, while he regarded all literature as recently infected with baseness and corruption, ani requiring to be taught again its true relation to the spiritual needs and uses of a great nation, he felt an especial dislike to the popular literature of stageplays, as then written and acted. From this period, if I mistake not, he was practically against theatre-going, as unworthy of a serious man, considering the contrast between what was to be seen within the theatres and what was in course of transaction without them ; nor, if his two masques and his eulogy on Shakespeare had remained to be written now, do I think he would have judged it opportune to write them. Certainly he would not now have written the masques for actual performance, public or private. And yet he had not abandoned his admiration of the drama as a form of literature. On the contrary, he was still convinced that no form of literature was nobler, more capable of conveying the highest and most salutary conceptions of the mind of a great poet. When, immediately after his return from Italy, he was preparing himself for that great English poem upon which he proposed to bestow his full strength, and debating with himself what should be its subject and what its form, what do we find ? We find him, for a while (The Reason of Church Government, Introd. to Book II.), balancing the claims of the epic, the dramatic, and the lyric, and concluding that in any one of these a great Christian poet might have congenial scope, and the benefit of grand precedents
and models. He discusses the claims of the Epic first, and thinks highly of them, but proceeds immediately to inquire
“ whether those dramatic con“stitutions in which Sophocles and Euripides reign shall be found more “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation,” adding, “The Scripture also affords
us a divine Pastoral Drama in the Song of Solomon, consisting of two “persons and a double chorus, as Origen rightly judges;
and the Apocalypse “ of St. John is the majestic image of a high and stately Tragedy, shutting up “and intermingling her solemn scenes and acts with a sevenfold chorus of
hallelujahs and harping symphonies; and this my opinion the grave “authority of Paræus, commenting that book, is sufficient to confirm.” Here we have certainly a proof that no amount of sympathy which Milton may have felt with the Puritan dislike of stage-plays had affected his admiration of the dramatic form of poesy as practised by the ancient Greek tragedians and others. Accordingly, it was to the dramatic form, rather than to either the epic or the lyric, that Milton then inclined in his meditations of some great English poem to be written by himself. As we have already seen (Introduction to Paradise Lost, pp. II, 12), he threw aside his first notion of an epic on King Arthur, and began to collect possible subjects for dramas from Scriptural History, and from the early history of Britain. He collected and jotted down the titles of no fewer than sixty possible tragedies on subjects from the Old and New Testaments, and thirty-eight possible tragedies on subjects of English and Scottish History-among which latter, curiously enough, was one on the subject of Macbeth. From this extraordinary collection of possible subjects Paradise Lost already stood out as that which most fascinated him ; but even that subject was to be treated dramatically.
All this was before the year 1642. On the 2d of September in that yearthe King having a few days before raised his standard at Nottingham, and given the signal for the Civil War—there was passed the famous ordinance of Parliament suppressing stage-plays “while the public troubles last,” and shutting up the London theatres. From that date onwards to the Restoration, or for nearly eighteen years, the Drama, in the sense of the Acted Drama, was in abeyance in England. This fact may have co-operated with other reasons in determining Milton—when he did at length find leisure for returning to his scheme of a great_English poem-to abandon the dramatic form he had formerly favoured. True, the mere discontinuance of stage-plays in England, as an amusement inconsistent with Puritan ideas, and intolerable in the state of the times, cannot, even though Milton approved of such discontinuance (as he doubtless did), have altered his former convictions in favour of the dramatic form of poetry, according to its noblest ancient models—especially as he could have had no thought, when meditating his Scriptural Tragedies, of adapting them for actual performance. Such a tragedy as he had meant to write would not have been the least in conflict with the real operative element in the contemporary Puritan antipathy to the Drama. Still the Dramatic form itself had fallen into discredit; and there were weaker brethren with whom it would have been useless to' reason on the distinction between the written Drama and the acted Drama, between the noblest tragedy on the ancient Greek model and the worst of those English stage-plays, of the reign of Charles, from which the nation had been compelled to desist. Milton does not seem to have been indifferent to this feeling. The tone of his reference to Shakespeare in his Eikovokhattns, published in 1649, suggests that, if he had not then really abated his allegiance to Shakespeare, he at least agreed so far with the ordinary Puritanism around him as not to think Shakespeareworship the particular doctrine then required by the English mind.
For some such reason, among others, Milton, when he set himself at length (in 1658) to redeem his long-given pledge of a great English poem, and chose for his subject Paradise Lost, deliberately gave up his first intention of treating that subject in the dramatic form. When that poem was given to the world (1667) it was as an epic. Its companion, Paradise Regained, published in 1671, was also an epic.
But, though it was thus as an epic poet that Milton chose mainly and finally to appear before the world, he was so far faithful to his old affection for the Drama as to leave to the world one experiment of his mature art in that form. Samson Agonistes was an attestation that the poet who in his earlier years had written the beautiful pastoral drama of Comus had never ceased to like that form of poesy, but to the last believed it suitable, with modifications, for his severer and sterner purposes.
At what time Samson was written is not definitely ascertained; but it was certainly after the Restoration, and probably after 1667. It was published in 1671, in the same volume with Paradise Regained (see title of the volume, &c. in Introd. to Paradise Regained, p. 284). For a time the connexion thus established between Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes was kept up in subsequent editions ; but since 1688 I know of no publication of these two poems together by themselves. There have been one or two editions of the Samson by itself; but it has generally appeared either in collective editions of all the poems, or in editions of the minor poems apart from Paradise Lost.
How came Milton to select such a subject as that of Samson Agonistes for one of his latest poems, if not the very latest ?
To this question it is partly an answer to say that the exploits of the Hebrew Samson had long before struck · him as capable of treatment in an English tragedy. Among his jottings, in 1640-41, of subjects for possible Scripture Tragedies, we find these two, occurring as the 19th and 20th in the total list-“ Samson Pursophorus or Hybristes, or Samson Marrying, or Ramath-Lechi,” Judges xv.; and “ Dagonalia,” Judges xvi.
That is to say, Milton, in 1640-41, thought there might be two sacred dramas founded on the accounts of Samson's life in the Book of Judges—the one on Samson's first marriage with a Philistian woman, and his feuds with the Philistines growing out of that incident, when he was Pursophorus (i.e. The Firebrandbringer) or Hybristes (i.e. Violent); the other on the closing scene of his life, when he took' his final vengeance on the Philistines in their feast to Dagon. These subjects, however, do not seem then to have had such attractions for Milton as some of the others in the list; for they are merely jotted down as above, whereas to some of the others, such as
*" Abram from Morea,” and “Sodom,” are appended sketches of the plot or hints for the treatment. Why, then, did Milton, in his later life, neglect so many other subjects of which he had kept his early notes, and cling so tenaciously to the story of Samson ?
The reason is not far to seek; nor need we seek it in the fact that he had seen Italian, Latin, and even English, poems on the story of Samson, which may have reminded him of the theme. Todd and other commentators have dug up the titles of some such old poems, without being able to prove that
they suggested anything to Milton. The truth is that the capabilities of the theme, perceived by him through mere poetic tact as early as 1640-41, had been brought home to him, with singular force and intimacy, by the experience of his own subsequent life. The story of Samson must have seemed to Milton a metaphor or allegory of much of his own life in its later stages. He also, in his veteran days, alter the Restoration, was a champion at bay, a prophet-warrior left alone among men of a different faith and different mannersPhilistines, who exulted in the ruin of his cause, and wreaked their wrath upon him for his past services to that cause by insults, calumnies, and jeers at his misfortunes and the cause itself. He also was blind, as Samson had been-groping about among the malignant conditions that had befallen him, helplessly dependent on the guiding of others, and berest of the external consolations and means of resistance to his scorners that might have come to him through sight. He also had to live mainly in the imagery of the past. In that past, too, there were similarities in his case to that of Samson. Like Samson, substantially, he had been a Nazarite—no drinker of wine or strong drink, but one who had always been an ascetic in his dedicated service to great designs. And the chief blunder in his life, that which had gone nearest to wreck it, and had left the most marring consequences and the most painful reflections, was the very blunder of which, twice-repeated, Samson had to accuse himself. Like Samson, he had married a Philistine woman-one not of his own tribe, and having no thoughts or interests in common with his own; and, like Samson, he had suffered indignities from this wise and her relations, till he had learnt to rue the match. The consequences of Milton's unhappy first marriage (1643) in his temper and opinions form a marked train in his biography, extending far beyond their apparent end in the publication of his Divorce Pamphlets, followed by his hasty reconciliation with his wife after her two years' desertion of him (1645). Although, from that time, he lived with his first wife, without further audible complaint, till her death about 1652, and although his two subsequent marriages were happier, the recollection of his first marriage (and it was only the wife of this first marriage that he had ever seen) seems always to have been a sore in Milton's mind, and to have affected his thoughts of the marriage-institution itself, and of the ways and character of women. In this respect also he could find coincidences between his own life and that of Samson, which recommended the story of Samson
with far more poignancy to him in his later life than when he first looked at it s in the inexperience of his early manhood. In short, there must have rushed • upon Milton, contemplating in his later life the story of the blind Samson among
the Philistines, so many similarities with his own case, that there is little wonder
that he then selected this subject for poetic treatment. While writing Samson i Agonistes (i.e. Samson the Agonist, Athlete, or Wrestler) he must have been s secretly conscious throughout that he was representing much of his own feelings
and experience; and the reader of the poem that knows anything of Milton's life has this pressed upon him at every turn. Probably the best introduction to the poem would be to read the Biblical history of Samson (Judges xiii. -xvi.) with the facts of Milton's life one's mind.
The poem was put forth, however, with no intimation to this effect. That, į indeed, might have been an obstacle to its passing the censorship. Readers
were left to gather the fact for themselves, according to the degree of their + information, and their quickness in interpreting. In the prose preface which
Milton thought fit to prefix to the poem-entitled “Of that sort of Dramatic
Poem which is called Tragedy”—he concerns himself not at all with the matter of the poem, or his own meaning in it, but only with its literary form. He explains why, towards the grave close of his life, he has not thought it inconsistent to write what might be called a Tragedy, and what particular kind of Tragedy he has taken care to write. The preface ought to be carefully read, in connexion with the remarks already made on Milton's early taste for the dramatic form of poesy, and the variations to which that taste had been subjected by circumstances. It will be noted that a large portion of the preface is apologetic. Although, after the Restoration, the drama had revived in England, and men were once more familiar with stage-plays, Milton evidently felt that many of his countrymen still retained their Puritanic horror of the Drama, and of all related to it—nay, that this horror might well be increased by the spectacle of the sort of plays supplied to the re-opened theatres by Dryden, Wycherley, and the other caterers for the amusement of Charles II. and his Court. An explanation might be demanded why, when the Drama was thus becoming a greater abomination than ever, a man like Milton should give his countenance in any way to the dramatic form of poetry. Accordingly, Milton does explain, and in such a way as to distinguish as widely as possible between the Tragedy he has written and the stage-dramas then popular. “Tragedy,
as it was anciently composed,” he says, “hath been ever held the gravest, “moralest, and most profitable of all other poems.” In order to fortify this statement he repeats Aristotle's definition of Tragedy, and reminds his readers that “philosophers and other gravest writers” frequently cite from the old tragic poets-nay, that St. Paul himself had quoted a verse of Euripides, and that, according to the judgment of a Protestant commentator on the Apocalypse, that book might be viewed as a tragedy of peculiar structure, with choruses between the acts. Some of the most eminent and active men in history, he adds, including one of the Fathers of the Christian Church, had written or attempted Tragedies. All this, he says, is "mentioned to vindicate Tragedy from the “small esteem, or rather infamy, which in the account of many it undergoes “at this day, with other common interludes; happening through the poet's “error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity, or introducing “ trivial and vulgar persons; which by all judicious hath been counted absurd, “and brought in without discretion, corruptly to gratify the people.” It is impossible not to see, in the carefulness of this apology, that Milton felt that he was treading on perilous ground, and might give offence to the weaker brethren by his use of the dramatic form at all, especially for a sacred subject. It is hardly possible either to avoid seeing, in the reference to the “error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity,” an allusion to Shakespeare, as well as to Dryden and the post-Restoration dramatists.
Samson Agonistes, therefore, was offered to the world as a tragedy avowedly of a different order from that which had been established in England. It was a tragedy of the severe classic order, according to that noble Greek model which had been kept up by none of the modern nations, unless it might be the Italians. In reading it, not Shakespeare, nor Ben Jonson, nor Massinger, must be thought of, but Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Claiming this in general terms, the poet calls especial attention to his fidelity to ancient Greek precedents in two particulars—his use of the chorus, and his observation of the rule of unity in time. The tragedy, he says, never having been intended for the stage, but only to be read, the division into acts and scenes is omitted.