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  • The Distant Hero of Samson Agonistes
  • Brendan Quigley

If Samson Agonistes tells us something about the meaning of heroism as such, our first goal as readers of the poem as a tragedy should be to determine what that is. The task is a difficult one, if only because the allure of grander meanings is difficult to resist. Given the rich exegetical tradition that attends the colorful biblical history of the hero, and John Milton's own apparent commitment to justifying the dispose of a secretive providence, it is hard to avoid being tempted by the promise of an insight into the nature of the obscure relationship between the human and the divine, or at the very least between Samson and his God, whether, like Mary Ann Radzinowicz, we find that promise largely fulfilled or, like Stanley Fish, we find ourselves impotent interpreters in the face of an inscrutable enigma. But only if we suspend our desire to know just where Samson finally stands in relation to his God, and what kind of hero he finally is—whether proto-Christian, regenerate servant of providence or all too human, licentious warrior—can we attend to what the poem has to tell us just about heroism as such, prior to what the philosopher calls ontical determinations. Such is the argument I make in the following pages, but it is an argument rooted not so much in my own tendentious attachment to the thesis that the question of tragedy and heroism simply must precede the question of religious identity, as in Milton's attachment to that thesis. If Milton indeed wants to create a religious hero, a "knight of faith," in Samson Agonistes, he does so in the first place by creating a hero, and he does so decisively.1

The shortest path to determining what heroism means in Samson Agonistes, and to demonstrating that there the question of heroism precedes that of religious identity, leads through the poem's decisive moments, those moments of decision where what is being decided is the question of heroism itself. The first section of my argument here focuses on two such moments, the moment when Samson decides whether to forgive the "traitress" Dalila for betraying him to the Philistines, and the moment when he decides whether to attend the idolaters' feast at the Temple of Dagon, that badly designed theater where the toppling of two pillars will allow the hero to destroy the [End Page 529] "choice nobility and flower" of his Philistian enemy.2 However much the Samson who emerges from this reading differs from the multivalent Samson discovered by modern readers of the poem, my point is not at all to suggest that Samson Agonistes is not riven with uncertainty. The critical difficulty lies in locating this uncertainty with enough precision so that we do not lose sight of the unequivocally heroic Samson in the general celebration of ambiguity. The second section of this essay demonstrates that what remains undecidable in Samson Agonistes is precisely and only the religious status of the hero, the nature of his relation to God, and it demonstrates further that the necessity of this undecidability is rooted only in Samson's true character as hero, for as hero Samson is silent and separate, and so, strictly speaking, unknowable. It is because the knight of faith is first a hero that we cannot know that he is a knight of faith. Such ignorance, to be sure, by no means prevents us from merely believing, with Samson's own father and the Danites of the Chorus, that God has indeed returned to his faithful hero. For the God who demands heroic silence of his knight of faith, who demands the separation of the Nazarite, can only return secretly to his hero. Fish's skeptical argument that "what remains hidden" in the account of Samson's spectacular catastrophic act "is the relation of that spectacle to Samson's inner state (so important to the regenerationist reading of the play), or to God's will and design" may therefore be right just because Samson, as Radzinowicz claims, "began in isolation and alienation, but ended in self-sacrifice with 'God not parted from him.'"3...


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pp. 529-551
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