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SAMSON AGONISTES was licensed in July, 1670, and was Date and published, in the same volume with Paradise Regained, Composition. in 1671. The date of its composition is uncertain. From the general tone of the drama, and from particular allusions (such as those to the desecration of Cromwell's remains, ll. 368 sq., in January, 1661, to the treatment of the remains of the other regicides at the same time, and to the trial of Vane, 11. 693 sq., in July, 1662), it is almost certain that the work was not taken in hand before the Restoration. We know from Aubrey's Memoir that from 1658 to 1663, or perhaps 1665 (in which year the Ms. was given to Ellwood), Milton was engaged upon Paradise Lost; and the well-known passage in Ellwood's Autobiography indicates that the years 1665 and 1666 were devoted to the writing of Paradise Regained. We are thus left to infer that the composition of Samson Agonistes proceeded side by side with that of one or the other of the two Epics, or that it was composed between 1666 and 1670. The choice between these two alternatives afforded by external evidence, is determined through evidence afforded by the drama itself. In simplicity of diction, in aphoristic condensation of thought, in chastened reserve of sentiment, in strength of didactic tone, in frequent recurrence of argument, in play of fancy habitually curbed and
checked, in splendour of imagery rarely revealed, in subordination of action to speech, and lastly in a certain “homeliness of greatness," * Samson Agonistes resembles Paradise Regained more closely than it does Paradise Lost. But this resemblance does not necessarily imply that the two works were composed at about the same period of the author's life, since characteristics common to both may yet be the result of a different cause in each: namely, in the case of the epic, the result of a determination to present divine truth in all the simplicity of a Gospel narrative, supported by Milton's own theology, and, in the case of the drama, of a plan to reproduce the severity of its model, the Greek classical drama. But one strong circumstance—namely the transition from that tone of confidence in the future vindication of the Puritan cause, so clearly marked in the former (P. R. ii. 35-57), to the extinction of hope and the weariness of life most touchingly depicted in the latter (S. A. 594 sq., and 1758)—indicates, as far as internal evidence can, that Samson Agonistes was a later utterance of Milton's spirit than Paradise Regained.
The exploits of Samson had, however, occurred to Milton long ago as subjects for dramas. In a list of Scripture subjects for tragedies drawn up in 1641, there occur the following :-“xvii. Samson marrying, or in Ramach-Lechi ; Judges xv. | xviii. Samson Pursophorus, † or Hybristes, # or Dagonalia, Judges xvi.”
* Professor Seeley, Lectures and Essays. + i.e. The Fire-brand Bringer.
I i.e. The Violent or the Insolent. This epithet is drawn, evidently, from Josephus (Antiq. v. 8, 10), who asserts that after the slaughter at Ramach-Lechi, Samson “held the Philistines in contempt.'
This may point to as many as five distinct subjects
The incidents of this drama are based upon the 13th, Source. 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of the Book of Judges.
In some matters of detail (as in ll. 27, 325, 386, 1197), Milton follows Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, v. 8). Attempts have been made to trace other possible sources to which Milton may have been indebted. Among such sources are, according to Todd, an Italian play of Samson by Roselli, 1554, a French tragedy of Samson, anonymous, 1622, and a Historie of Samson by Quarles, the Cavalier poet, 1632. Recent criticism fancies that it has discovered a source of Milton's drama in a play by the Dutch author Vondel
. Milton very probably was acquainted with these works, but any claim on their behalf as having inspired him may be silently dismissed.
Samson Agonistes is written on the model of the classical Greek tragedy. As such it contains a Chorus, whose odes may serve to divide the piece into what correspond to Acts in modern drama. Such a division, however, is not, as Twining points out, in the notes to Aristotle's Poetics, always feasible, nor does it always give the number of Acts as five. In the following division I have preferred to make each Act commence with the entry of a personage, rather than with the announcement of his approach :-Lines 1-114 constitute the Prologus or portion that precedes the entry of the Chorus upon the stage. This Greek prologue is a part of the action of the play, and is therefore different from the prologues of Latin and modern plays. Ll. 115-175 are the Parodos (or first Ode), sung by the Chorus as they enter, and advance towards the orchestra. Ll. 176-292 are the first Epeisodion (or Episode) which consists of dialogue between two choral odes. Ll. 293-325 are the first Stasimon (or second Ode), sung