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SAMSON'S MIDDLE: ARISTOTLE AND DR. JOHNSON M. E. GRENANDER ALL [Milton's] originality," wrote Professor A. S. P. Woodhouse recently, "-and it is great-is revealed in his adaptation of traditional poetic forms, never in wilful departure from them....'" Yet the student who assumes that Samson Agonistes is a classical tragedy, and attempts to follow the suggestion made by William Riley Parker and F. Michael Krouse" that it be studied in the light of Aristotle's Poetics, cracks his head immediately against the stone wall of Samuel johnson's resounding dictum, that while it has a beginning and an end which Aristotle himself would have approved, Samson has no middle. Since Johnson's time, a host of critics have ranged themselves on one side or the other of the argument concerning Samson's allegedly absent middle. Krouse added to the controversy an illuminating survey of seventeenth-century and earlier conceptions of the biblical story. Parker's special contribution was to measure Milton's play against classical Greek tragedies. Both, however, suggested the possibility of further analysis in terms of the Poetics. The whole dispute, whose bibliography alone runs to a couple of pages, and which is too familiar to Milton scholars to rehearse here, centres around Aristotle's well-known doctrine that tragedy is primarily an imitation of an action, and that the action should have a beginning, middle, and end. Johnson, thundering against Samson Agonistes as "the tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded," denounced it as having no middle, since "the intermediate parts have neither cause nor consequence, neither hasten nor retard the catastrophe ." "Nothing passes between the first act and the last, that either hastens or delays the death of Samson. The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely fill a single act."· These are strong strictures, indeed, and critics since Johnson's time have been violent in agreeing or disagreeing with them. The Johnsonian view, in general, has been upheld by Tupper and Knowlton; it has been attacked by Cumberland, Percival, Baum, Jebb, and Krouse. lA. S. P. Woodhouse, "Pattern in Paradise Lost,n University of Toronto Quarterly , XXII (1953), 114. See also the same writer's "Samson .A.gonistes and Milton's Experience," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, XLIII (1949), 174-5; throughout this paper, Woodhouse treats Samson as a classical tragedy. 2W. R. .Parker, Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes (Baltimore, 1937), vii; F. M. Krouse, Milton's Samson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton, 1949),131. 3The Rambler, no. 139; The Livts of th6 Most Eminent English Poet! (London, 1790), I, 249. 377 Vol. XXIV, no. 4, July, 1955 378 UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY None of these critics, however, has studied the problem in the light of the Poetics, though both Parker and Krouse, as indicated above, pointed out the value such a study would have. Hence this paper will undertake an examination of certain Aristotelian criteria applicable to Samson Agonistes in an effort to justify Milton's plot against Johnson's charges and to introduce some new concepts to the discussion of its structure. I It is my contention that, from an Aristotelian point of view, Samson Agonistes has a true beginning, middle, and end; and that all the incidents and episodes are related by necessity and/or probability, on the level either of plot or of character. To implement this view, certain passages from the Poetics need to be scrutinized with some care, since they illuminate those aspects of Samson's plot which Johnson criticized. The passage Johnson had in mind is, of course, the famous one (Poetics, 7) where Aristotle says: ... a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude.... Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 377-389
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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