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.