Samson Agonistes is Milton’s final work, and as such is remarkable for its lack of finality. The poem is maddeningly oblique; Milton gives no answers, and barely poses any questions. However, Milton succeeds in writing Christian tragedy in Samson Agonistes by presenting the ease with which a Christian can be guided away from a real interaction with his own faith. Samson’s blindness is the blindness of all Christians who seek the path of salvation without divine guidance, and his tragedy is the tragedy of all those who convince themselves they have found it on their own. While Milton is very much working under the circumscription of Greek tragedy, his choices of interlocutors for Sampson ...view middle of the document...
In the end, he soldiers blindly on, taking his “dark steps” on a journey of destruction that he can but guess will end in salvation. That preoccupation with salvation is apparent in the third line, in his “choice of Sun or shade,” with its clear echoes of heaven and hell. Milton apparently feels that there is some choice, embracing a belief in human agency as part of faith. Samson’s search for the balance between human initiative and divine grace figures as the overarching conflict in the poem.
Samson is a tricky protagonist. Simultaneously weak and strong, despairing and hopeful, blind and insightful, his commentary on faith and salvation remains circuitous and yet compelling. In a speech that weaves wildly between physical complaints and spiritual agonies, he compares the light of the sun to God’s creative action on earth, entirely failing to understand that the loss of the physical part of the simile, his sight, does not banish the divine part, his relationship with God.
O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies, O worse then chains,
Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct,
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all;
Why am I thus bereav'd thy prime decree?
Since light so necessary is to life,
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the Soul,
She all in every part; why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th' eye confin'd? (67-94)
Samson’s insistence on the sun and the eye—a physical man, he cannot escape physicality—leads him to believe that God can no longer act through him. He takes the metaphor too seriously, claiming that in being deprived of his sight he has been deprived of a chance for salvation, as if his blindness implies God’s blindness. Samson instead falls prey to the dangers of relying on himself to achieve salvation.
Milton opens up the psyche of his protagonist for the reader through a parade of characters, each with a different take on salvation and human agency. He begins with Samson’s tribesmen, who, while appropriating the role of a Greek chorus, provide the baseline for the theological beliefs that Samson is questioning. The chorus is sympathetic, but its understanding of Samson and the issues involved in his fate is shallow. To them, he is “that Heroic, that Renown'd,/ Irresistible Samson” (125-126) whom they are ready “to visit or bewail” (182), with no apparent care over which is more just. Despite unifying the chorus under one voice, Milton seems to suggest that a collective will never discover real truths.
If the Chorus represents the problems of relying on a group for guidance, the character of Manoa proves that a single advisor is just as fallible. Manoa is Samson’s earthly father, and Milton emphasizes this by Manoa’s earthly goal: physical liberty for his son, through a ransom deal with his captors. Manoa, like the chorus, sees only the old, heroic...