Jamelah Reads the Classics: Samson Agonistes

Though this was one of the shorter works in my queue of classics, I had the hardest time getting through it. I’m still not sure I actually read it, because I often found, when I’d reach the end of a page, I had no idea what was going on. This means, of course, that instead of paying attention, I was thinking about the pointless junk that usually occupies my attention — cheese, mullets, Wham! — your guess is as good as mine, really.

Be that as it may, Samson Agonistes is the story of Samson, told in the biblical book of Judges. (I have to give props to my Sunday School teachers from my childhood for my familiarity with the story, which I guess made me comfortable enough with it that I didn’t fear the inevitable mind wander.) For anyone who didn’t do the Sunday School thing, I’ll fill you in on the plot.

Samson was called by God to be the deliverer of his people, who were enslaved by the Philistines, and he had extraordinary strength. As part of the deal, he was never to cut his hair. Samson hooks up with Delilah (whose name, in Milton, is spelled Dalila), who is a spy sent to uncover the secret of Samson’s strength. She puts the pressure on, and because she’s so hot, he finally gives in and confesses that if his hair is cut, he won’t be Mr. Universe anymore, so, well, Delilah cuts his hair, Samson is captured, his eyes are put out, and he is made a slave. One day, when the Philistines are having this big to-do for one of their gods, Samson asks a boy to place him between two of the pillars of the temple, and his strength is returned long enough for him to push the pillars over and cause the building to collapse, thereby killing all the bad guys who have been enslaving his people.

That’s it, more or less.

So why does Samson Agonistes exist if all of this is readily available in the Bible? Well, Milton liked applying classical styles to biblical themes. He’d already taken on the epic with Paradise Lost, and with Samson Agonistes, he was going for the Greek tragedy (complete with chorus!), because, you know, Milty liked the way the Greeks worked it.


Anyway, briefly, here’s what I think of Samson Agonistes. Don’t read it ever, unless someone makes you. And even then, try to find a way out of it. But, if you someday decide not to heed my warning and try to read Samson Agonistes on your own, please remember the following important points:

1. Just because it says “Agonistes” right there in the title, that does not mean that Milton meant for this play to be an agony to read. No, apparently the word means “the struggler” and refers to Samson’s, um, struggle. I guess reading it made me Jamelah Agonistes, but whatever, let’s just move on.

2. It’s written in free verse. (Represent!) Kind of. It’s not Whitman, or anything, and it does employ the use of metrical feet, but not in any sort of systematic way, so you couldn’t say, for instance, that it’s written in dactylic hexameter, which you could if you were talking about the Iliad. For instance.

3. Published in 1671, the play came out 11 years after the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and since Milton wasn’t what one would call a supporter of the monarchy, you can find evidence within Samson Agonistes that the play is an allegorical critique of the day’s culture. No really, you can. If you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m sure you are.

4. Let us not forget that Milton was a smartypants when it came to issues of Christian theology, and one of the more interesting themes within Samson Agonistes is that of predestination vs. free will. You know, just because God chose Samson to be the deliverer of his people and gave him extraordinary strength (based on that “no hair cutting” clause), Samson still had the choice to let Delilah cut his mullet (though I’m sure it couldn’t have been a mullet — if his hair had never been cut, then there was no way for it to be business in the front) and had to bear the resulting consequences.

5. Perhaps Milton felt an affinity for ol’ blind Samson, since he himself was losing his eyesight. Or perhaps he didn’t. It’s a hell of a thing.

And there you have it, kids. My review of Samson Agonistes. John Milton may be my homeboy and all, but I definitely didn’t dig this the most. But that’s okay, because Jamelah Reads the ClassicsTM so you don’t have to.

I’m benevolent that way.

9 Responses

  1. another masterful summaryYou
    another masterful summary

    You really explain these things well. The most interesting parts were not the story itself, which I already knew, but the background info about Milton.
    Hey, here is a visual aid in case you are interested Samson & Delilah.

  2. Better you than meI do
    Better you than me

    I do believe I ‘read’ that book for a course in everything ever written that’s supposed to be read, 202. I do believe I spaced out in similar frequency, and I do appreciate your effort in beginning, ending and reporting on your successful mission, Jamelah.

    What’s next? Have you already leaped into the next item on your list, or are you gratefully recovering.

    My question: What is the aftermath of reading Samson Agonistes?

  3. Hi Bill, thanks. I think
    Hi Bill, thanks. I think writing about these things is, in general, more fun than reading them.

  4. hey judih!After finishing the
    hey judih!

    After finishing the review, I took the rest of yesterday off, but I’m really looking forward to the next book on the list, so I’ll probably start it today. I’m skipping right over the 18th century (who needs it?) and heading straight for Jane Austen.

    The aftermath of reading Milton’s closet drama involved, for me, at least, a lot of sitting with my head down on my desk, mumbling about predestination. And that’s a quality Friday activity if ever there was one.

    By the way, I think spacing out while reading adds something special to the experience. Many books are enhanced with that extra ADD flavor.

  5. Got away with it…Somehow I
    Got away with it…

    Somehow I escaped both high school AND college without reading Milton. I’ve always had a slight (and let me emphasize slight) inclination to read Paradise. In all honesty, I’d never heard of the piece that you reviewed, but hey-it WAS damn funny.

  6. Hi Jason — thanks. I
    Hi Jason — thanks. I actually do recommend Paradise Lost, because that Satan. What a scamp.

  7. benediction of the classics
    benediction of the classics upon man

    Northrop Frye said “we are our myths.”

    To me that is the one essential, absolute truth. It means that most all we know of our collective self is derived from our written heritage, our literature. The two principal sources of this written heritage are Homer and the Pentatuech of the Bible.

    “In a direct way Homer, who lived in the 8th century bc, was the parent of all succeeding Greek literature. Drama, historiography, and even philosophy all show the mark of the issues raised in the epics and of the techniques Homer used to approach them. For the later epic poets of Western literature, Homer was the greatest influence.”

    “It is commonly known that the Bible, in its hundreds of different translations, is the most widely distributed book in human history. Moreover, in all its forms, the Bible has been enormously influential, and not only among the religious communities that hold it sacred. The literature, art, and music of Western culture in particular are deeply indebted to biblical themes, motifs, and images.”

    (Quotes are from Encarta Encyclopedia.)

    QED: We are what we are largely because of our literature. It is the mirror that reflects upon the life and times of Ulysses, Moses, Caesar, Jesus, Chaucer, and Marx. It is the beacon that directs us forward through Shakespeare, Dickens, Thoreau, Steinbeck, and Orwell. The pen is mighty.

    But where is it today? I look for literary sites, find some, and become absorbed, overwhelmed into believing that “she was lying there in a dark pool of blood…” is how I must begin my novel, my short story; otherwise I am somehow completely out of touch. So I look up the word just to see what it means or if it has any meaning now.


  8. Well, I’m not sure how my
    Well, I’m not sure how my review of Samson Agonistes inspired all of this (if, indeed, it did), but in any case, I have a couple of points to make about your points.

    1. I think that more than the Pentateuch of the Bible has had an influence on Western culture. Certainly, the books of Moses have their importance, but I would venture that the poetry of David had more of an impact on literature than, say, levitical law. And then there’s the whole New Testament. For where would Milton have been without Christ and the notion of redemption? Though best known for Paradise Lost, he also wrote Paradise Regained.

    2. How we got from Homer and the Bible to mourning the lack of literary greats in the present escapes me, but in any case, I believe that the literary tradition is still alive, though in this day and age, would Milton even be able to get an agent? Who knows? I think that honestly, nobody can say who our Shakespeare or Milton or Thoreau or anybody else is, because we don’t have the benefit of time and distance to look at the writing of today and see what’s still standing 100 years later. Academia plays a role in whose work gets called literature, and this is how we end up with our canon. And though we can all speculate, we don’t know who’s going to make it into the canon from this generation. (Just as long as it’s not Jonathan Safran Foer, then it’s okay.) Maybe I’m just optimistic this morning, but I’m sure that our greats do, in fact, exist. They may not even be published yet, however. It’s anyone’s guess, yet just because it’s uncertain, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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