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had published, in 1660, eleven years before the appearance of Milton's tragedy, a Dutch drama on the same subject, consisting of a dialogue in rhyming Dutch Alexandrines, with interspersed lyric choruses; and Mr. Edmundson devotes a special chapter of his ingenious little book to an account of this Samson of Vondel, and to specimens of those parallelisms between it and Milton's later Samson which demonstrate, as he thinks, Milton's continued furtive use, in this last poetical work of his no less than in his two epics, of the prior writings of his eminent Dutch contemporary. Now, of this particular chapter in Mr. Edmundson's book it may certainly be said that it is an interesting addition to our knowledge of Vondel, and worth reading on that account. Perhaps also it leaves a stronger impression of some acquaintance by Milton with Vondel's Samson, before he dictated his own Samson Agonistes, than Mr. Edmundson, with all his ingenuity, has been able to convey of Milton's possible acquaintance with Vondel in any other case. There, however, the interest stops. All Mr. Edmundson's deductions beyond that point are naught, just as are all his deductions from his Vondelian parallelisms with Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained,—vitiated as they are by that strange propensity which seems to attend every prolonged exercise of the wretched industry of parallelism-hunting, and doubly vitiated in this case by the facile adoption of the monstrous idea that a genius like Milton's ever did, or ever could, build itself, or any of its creations, on gathered scraps and petty pickings and stealings. Had Vondel never lived, we should have had Milton's Samson Agonistes all the same.
The real truth is that the capabilities of the theme, perceived by Milton through mere poetic tact as early as 1640-41, had been brought home to him, with singular force and intimacy, by the experience of his own subsequent life. The story of Samson must have seemed to Milton a metaphor or allegory of much of his own life in its later stages. He also, in his veteran days after the Restoration, was a champion at bay, a prophet-warrior left alone among men of a different faith and different manners, Philistines, who exulted in the ruin of his cause, and wreaked their wrath upon him for his past services to that cause by insults, calumnies, and jeers at his misfortunes and the cause itself. He also was blind, as Samson had been,-groping about among the malignant conditions that had befallen him, helplessly dependent on the guiding of others, and
bereft of the external consolations and means of resistance to his scorners that might have come to him through sight. He also had to live mainly in the imagery of the past. In that past, too, there were similarities in his case to that of Samson. Like Samson, substantially, he had been a Nazarite, - no drinker of wine or strong drink, but one who had always been even ascetic in his dedicated service to great designs. And the chief blunder in his life, that which had gone nearest to wreck it, and had left the most marring consequences and the most painful reflections, was the very blunder of which, twice-repeated, Samson had to accuse himself. Like Samson, he had married a Philistine woman,—one not of his own tribe, and having thoughts or interests in common with his own; and, like Samson, he had suffered indignities from this wife and her relations, till he had learnt to rue the match. The effects of Milton's unhappy first marriage (1643) on his temper and opinions are discernible in his biography far beyond their apparent end in the publication of his Divorce Pamphlets, followed by his hasty reconciliation with his wife after her two years' desertion of him (1645). Although, from that time, he lived with his first wife, without further audible complaint, till her death in 1652, and although his two subsequent marriages were happier, the recollection of his first marriage (and it was only the wife of this first marriage that he had ever seen) seems always to have dwelt in Milton's mind, and to have influenced his thoughts of the marriage-institution itself, and of the ways and character of women. In this respect also he could find coincidences between his own life and that of Samson, which recommended the story of Samson with far more poignancy to him in his later life than when he had first looked at it in the inexperience of his early manhood. In short, there must have rushed upon Milton, when he contemplated in his later life the story of the blind Samson
among the Philistines, so many similarities with his own case that there need be little wonder that he then selected this subject for poetic treatment. While writing Samson Agonistes (i.e. Samson the Agonist, Athlete, or Wrestler) he must have been secretly conscious throughout that he was representing much of his own feelings and experience; and the reader of the poem that knows anything of Milton's life has this pressed upon him at every turn. Probably the best introduction to the poem would be to read the Biblical history of Samson (Judges xiii. xvi.) with the facts of Milton's life in one's mind.
The poem was put forth, however, with no intimation to this effect. That, indeed, might have been an obstacle to its passing the censorship. Readers were left to gather the facts for themselves, according to the degree of their information, and their quickness in interpreting. In the prose preface which Milton thought fit to prefix to the poem,-entitled “ Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is called Tragedy,”—he concerns himself not at all with the matter of the poem, or his own meaning in it, but only with its literary form. He explains why, towards the grave close of his life, he has not thought it inconsistent to write what might be called a Tragedy, and what particular kind of Tragedy he has thought it worth while to write. The preface ought to be read in connexion with the remarks already made here on Milton's early taste for the dramatic form of poetry, and on the variations which that taste had undergone in the subsequent course of his life.
A large portion of the preface is apologetic. Although, after the Restoration, the Drama had revived in England, and people were once more familiar with theatres and stage-plays, Milton evidently felt that many of his countrymen still retained their Puritanic horror of the Drama, and that this horror might well have been increased by the spectacle of such plays as had been supplied to the re-opened theatres by Davenant, Dryden, Killigrew, Wycherley, and the other caterers for the amusement of Charles II. and his Court. An explanation might be demanded why when the Drama was thus, in the eyes of many, a greater abomination than ever, a man like Milton should give his countenance in any way to the dramatic form of poetry. Accordingly, Milton does explain this, and in such a way as to distinguish as widely as possible between the tragedy he had written and the stage-dramas then popular. “Tragedy, as it was anciently “composed,” he says, “hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, "and most profitable of all other poems." To fortify this statement, he repeats Aristotle's definition of Tragedy, and reminds his readers that “philosophers and other gravest writers” had frequently quoted from the old tragic poets,-nay, that St. Paul himself had quoted a verse of Euripides, and that, according to the judgment of a Protestant commentator on the Apocalypse, that book of the Biblical canon might be viewed as a tragedy of peculiar structure, with choruses between the acts. Some of the most eminent and active men in history, he adds, one of the Fathers of the Christian
Church included, had written or attempted tragedies. All this, he says, is "mentioned to vindicate Tragedy from the small esteem, or “ rather infamy, which in the account of many it undergoes at this “ day, with other common interludes; happening through the poet's “ error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity, or “ introducing trivial and vulgar persons; which by all judicious hath “ been counted absurd, and brought in without discretion, corruptly “ to gratify the people.” It is impossible not to see, in the carefulness of this apology, that Milton felt that he was treading on perilous ground, and might give offence to the weaker brethren by his use of the dramatic form at all, especially for a sacred subject. It is hardly possible, either, to avoid seeing, in the reference to the "error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity," an allusion to Shakespeare himself, as well as to Dryden and the other post-Restoration dramatists.
Samson Agonistes, therefore, was offered to the world as a tragedy avowedly of a different order from that which had been established in England. It was a tragedy of the severe classic order, according to that noble Greek model which had been kept up by none of the modern nations, unless it might be the Italians. In reading it, not Shakespeare, nor Ben Jonson, nor Massinger, must be thought of, but Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Claiming this in general terms, the poet calls especial attention to his fidelity to ancient Greek precedents in two particulars,—his use of the chorus, and his observation of the rule of unity in time. The tragedy, he says, never having been intended for the stage, but only to be read, the division into acts and scenes is omitted. He does not say, however (and this is worth noting), that, had it been possible to produce the tragedy on the stage in a becoming manner, he would have objected to the experiment. It is said that Bishop Atterbury, about 1722, had a scheme for bringing Milton's Samson on the stage at Westminster, the division into acts and names to be arranged by Pope. It was a finer compliment when Handel, in 1742, made Samson the subject of an Oratorio, and married his great music to Milton's words.