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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 (viz., the marriage with a Philistine woman, the s slaughter of the Philistines at Ramach-Lechi, the i burning of the standing corn of the Philistines, the
carrying away of the gates of Gaza, or, perhaps, the i bursting of the bonds with which Delilah had thrice
bound him, and the revenge and death of Samson), or it 1 may point to a projected Trilogy, after the manner of
Æschylus, consisting of three dramas, each complete in it· self, the actions of all three, however, tending to a common i destiny. Thus Milton may have had in his mind the
marriage of Samson as the thesis, by which he "sought
an occasion against the Philistines” to deliver Israel · from their hands; his temporary but dazzling success
effected by means so ridiculously inadequate, as the
synthesis, in which he would figure as “Pursophorus' I or “Hybristes”; and lastly, his fall and revenge as the
antithesis, of the Trilogy. If ever such a threefold i drama had been in Milton's mind in 1641, it is not E difficult to imagine how the downfall of Puritanism
at the Restoration, his unhappy first marriage, and the 5 loss of eyesight, would have made him realize with
redoubled vividness the situations of the last drama of the Trilogy, while at the same time they would have untuned and unstrung his mind for the composition of the other two. How strongly the temper of his mind was influenced by these events, and how vividly that temper was reflected in the character of his compositions are, perhaps, sufficiently proved by the frequent political and personal allusions in Samson Agonistes.
The incidents of this drama are based upon the 13th, Source. 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of the Book of Judges.