Samson Agonistes by John Milton

Persons in the Drama

Manoa, the father of Samson
Dalila, his wife
Hurapha, of Gath
Public Officer
Chorus of Danites

The scene is placed before the prison in Gaza.

Samson: A little onward send thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on;
For yonder bank hath choice of sun or shade.
There I am wont to sit, when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil.
Daily in the common prison else enjoined me,
Where I, a prisoner chained, scarce freely draw
The air, imprisoned also, close and damp,
Unwholesome draught. But here I feel amends
The breath of Heaven fresh blowing, pure and sweet,
With day-spring born; here leave me to respire.
This day a solemn feast the people hold
To Dagon, their sea-idol, and forbid
Laborious works. Hence, with leave
Retiring from the popular noise, I seek
This unfrequented place to find some ease—
Oh, wherefore was my birth from Heaven foretold
Twice by an angel, if I must die
Betrayed, captive, and both my eyes put out,
Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze?

O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age!
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annulled, which might in part my grief have eased.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created beam, and thou great Word,
"Let there be light, and light was over all,"
Why am I thus bereaved thy prime decree?
 The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night,
Hid in her vacant inter-lunar cave.

Chorus: This, this is he; softly a while;
Let us not break in upon him.
O change beyond report, thought, or belief!
See how he lies at random, carelessly diffused,
With languished head unpropt,
As one past hope, abandoned.
Which shall I fast bewail—
Thy bondage or lost sight,
Prison within prison
Inseparably dark?
Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)
The dungeon of thyself;
To lowest pitch of abject fortune thou are fallen.

Samson: I hear the sound of words; their sense the air
Dissolves unjointed ere it reach my ear.

Chorus: He speaks; let us draw nigh. Matchless in might,
The glory late of Israel, now the grief!
We come, thy friends and neighbours not unknown,
From Eshtaol and Zora's fruitful vale,
To visit or bewail thee.

Samson: Your coming, friends, revives me.

Tell me, friends,
Am I not sung and proverbed for a fool
In every street?

Chorus: Wisest men
Have erred, and by bad women been deceived;
And shall again, pretend they ne'er so wise.
In seeking just occasion to provoke
The Philistine, thy country's enemy,
Thou never wast remiss, I bear thee witness.
But see! here comes thy reverend sire,
 With careful step, locks white as down,
Old Manoa: advise
Forthwith how thou ought'st to receive him.

Manoa: Brethren and men of Dan, if old respect,
As I suppose, towards your once gloried friend,
My son, now captive, hither hath informed
Your younger feet, while mine, cast back with age,
Came lagging after, say if he be here.

Chorus: As signal now in low dejected state
As erst in highest, behold him where he lies.

Manoa: O miserable change! Is this the man,
That invincible Samson, far renowned,
The dread of Israel's foes?

Samson: Nothing of all these evils hath befallen me
But justly.

Manoa: True; but thou bear'st
Enough, and more, the burden of that fault;
Bitterly hast thou paid, and still art paying,
That rigid score. A worse thing yet remains;
This day the Philistines a popular feast
Here celebrate in Gaza, and proclaim
Great pomp, and sacrifice, and praises loud,
To Dagon, as their god who hath delivered
Thee, Samson, bound and blind, into their hands.

Samson: Father, I do acknowledge and confess
That I this honour, I this pomp, have brought
To Dagon, and advanced his praises high
Among the heathen round. The contest is now
'Twixt God and Dagon. Dagon hath presumed,
Me overthrown, to enter lists with God.
Dagon must stoop, and shall ere long receive
Such a discomfit as shall quite despoil him
Of all these boasted trophies won on me,
And with confusion blank his worshippers.

Manoa: But for thee what shall be done?
Thou must not in the meanwhile, here forgot,
Lie in this miserable, loathsome plight,
 Neglected. I already have made way
To some Philistine lords, with whom to treat
About thy ransom.

Samson: Spare that proposal, father; let me here
As I deserve, pay on my punishment,
And expiate, if possible, my crime.

Manoa: Be penitent, and for thy fault contrite;
But act not in thy own affliction, son.
Repent the sin; but if the punishment
Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.

Samson: Nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself;
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest

Manoa: I, however,
Must not omit a father's timely care
To prosecute the means of thy deliverance
By ransom, or how else.

Chorus: But who is this? what thing of sea or land—
Female of sex it seems—
That, so bedecked, ornate, and gay,
Comes this way sailing?
Some rich Philistian matron she may seem;
And now at nearer view no other certain
Than Dalila, thy wife.

Samson: My wife! My traitress! Let her not come near me.

Dalila: With doubtful feet and wavering resolution
I came, still dreading thy displeasure, Samson.

Samson: Out, out, hyena! These are thy wonted arts,
And arts of every woman false like thee—
To break all faith, all vows, deceive, betray;
Then, as repentant, to submit, beseech
A reconcilement, move with feigned remorse.

Dalila: Let me obtain forgiveness of thee, Samson,
I to the lords will intercede, not doubting
 Their favourable ear, that I may fetch thee
From forth this loathsome prison-house, to abide
With me, where my redoubled love and care,
With nursing diligence, to me glad office,
May ever tend about thee to old age.

Samson: No, no; of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I long since are twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accursed
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught.

Dalila: Let me approach at least, and touch thy hand.

Samson: Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake
My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint.
At distance I forgive thee; go with that;
Bewail thy falsehood, and the pious works
It hath brought forth to make thee memorable
Among illustrious women, faithful wives.

Dalila: I see thou art implacable, more deaf
To prayers than winds and seas. Yet winds to seas
Are reconciled at length, and sea to shore.
My name, perhaps, among the circumcised
In Dan, in Judah, and the bordering tribes
To all posterity may stand defamed.
But in my country, where I most desire,
I shall be named among the famousest
Of women, sung at solemn festivals,
Living and dead recorded, who to save
Her country from a fierce destroyer, chose
Above the faith of wedlock bands; my tomb
With odours visited and annual flowers.

Chorus: She's gone—a manifest serpent by her sting—
Discovered in the end, till now concealed.
This idol's day hath been to thee no day of rest,
Labouring thy mind
More than the working day thy hands.
 And yet, perhaps, more trouble is behind;
For I descry this way
Some other tending; in his hand
A sceptre or quaint staff he bears,
A public officer, and now at hand.
His message will be short and voluble.

Officer: Hebrews, the prisoner Samson here I seek.

Chorus: His manacles remark him; there he sits.

Officer: Samson, to thee our lords thus bid me say.
This day to Dagon is a solemn feast,
With sacrifices, triumph, pomp, and games;
Thy strength they know surpassing human rate,
And now some public proof thereof require
To honour this great feast and great assembly.
Rise, therefore, with all speed, and come along,
Where I will see thee heartened and fresh clad,
To appear as fit before the illustrious lords.

Samson: Thou know'st I am an Hebrew; therefore tell them
Our law forbids at their religious rites
My presence; for that cause I cannot come.

Officer: This answer, be assured will not content them.

Samson: Return the way thou camest;
I will not come.

Officer: Regard thyself; this will offend them highly.

Samson: Can they think me so broken, so debased
With corporal servitude, that my mind ever
Will condescend to such absurd commands?
Joined with extreme contempt! I will not come.

Officer: I am sorry what this stoutness will produce.

Chorus: He's gone, and who knows how he may report
Thy words by adding fuel to the flames.
Expect another message more imperious.

Samson: Shall I abuse this consecrated gift
Of strength, again returning with my hair,
 After my great transgression!—so requite
Favour renewed, and add a greater sin
By prostituting holy things to idols.

Chorus: Where the heart joins not, outward acts defile not.

Samson: Be of good courage; I begin to feel
Some rousing motions in me, which dispose
To something extraordinary my thoughts.
I with this messenger will go along—
If there be aught of presage in the mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.

Chorus: In time thou hast resolved: the man returns.

Officer: Samson, this second message from our lords
To thee I am bid say: Art thou our slave,
And dar'st thou, at our sending and command,
Dispute thy coming? Come without delay;
Or we shall find such engines to assail
And hamper thee, as thou shalt come of force,
Though thou wert firmlier fastened than a rock.

Samson: Because they shall not trail me through their streets
Like a wild beast, I am content to go.

Officer: I praise thy resolution. Doff these links:
By this compliance thou wilt win the lords
To favour, and perhaps to set thee free.

Samson: Brethren, farewell. Your company along
I will not wish, lest it perhaps offend them
To see me girt with friends.
Happen what may, of me expect to hear
Nothing dishonourable, impure, unworthy
Our God, our Law, my nation, or myself.

Chorus: Go, and the Holy One
Of Israel be thy guide.

Manoa: Peace with you, brethren! My inducement hither
Was not at present here to find my son.
 By order of the lords new parted hence
To come and play before them at their feast.
I heard all as I came; I had no will,
Lest I should see him forced to things unseemly.
But that which moved my coming now was chiefly
To give ye part with me what hope I have
With good success to work his liberty.

Chorus: That hope would much rejoice us to partake
With thee.

Manoa: What noise or shout was that? It tore the sky.

Chorus: Doubtless the people shouting to behold
Their once great dread, captive and blind before them,
Or at some proof of strength, before them shown.

Manoa: His ransom, if my whole inheritance
May compass it, shall willingly be paid
And numbered down. Much rather I shall choose
To live the poorest in my tribe, than richest,
And he in that calamitous prison left.
No, I am fixed not to part hence without him.
For his redemption all my patrimony,
If need be, I am ready to forego
And quit. Not wanting him, I shall want nothing.
It shall be my delight to tend his eyes,
And view him sitting in his house, ennobled
With all those high exploits by him achieved.

Chorus: Thy hopes are not ill founded, nor seem vain,
Of his delivery.

Manoa: I know your friendly minds, and—O what noise!
Mercy of Heaven! What hideous noise was that
Horribly loud, unlike the former shout.

Chorus: Noise call you it, or universal groan,
As if the whole inhabitation perished?
Blood, death, and deathful deeds, are in that noise,
Ruin, destruction at the utmost point.

Manoa: Of ruin indeed methought I heard the noise.
 Oh! it continues; the have slain my son.

Chorus: Thy son is rather slaying them; that outcry
From slaughter of one foe could not ascend.

Manoa: Some dismal accident it needs must be.
What shall we do—stay here, or run and see?

Chorus: Best keep together here, lest, running thither,
We unawares run into danger's mouth.
This evil on the Philistines is fallen:
From whom could else a general cry be heard?

Manoa: A little stay will bring some notice hither.

Chorus: I see one hither speeding—
An Hebrew, as I guess, and of our tribe.

Messenger: O, whither shall I run, or which way fly?
The sight of this so horrid spectacle,
Which erst my eyes beheld, and yet behold?

Manoa: The accident was loud, and here before thee
With rueful cry; yet what it was we know not.
Tell us the sum, the circumstance defer.

Messenger: Gaza yet stands; but all her sons are fallen,
All in a moment overwhelmed and fallen.

Manoa: Sad! but thou know'st to Israelites not saddest
The desolation of a hostile city.

Messenger: Feed on that first; there may in grief be surfeit.

Manoa: Relate by whom.

Messenger: By Samson.

Manoa: That still lessens
The sorrow and converts it nigh to joy.

Messenger: Ah! Manoa, I refrain too suddenly
To utter what will come at last too soon,
Lest evil tidings, with too rude eruption
Hitting thy aged ear, should pierce too deep.

Manoa: Suspense in news is torture; speak them out.

Messenger: Then take the worst in brief—Samson is dead.

Manoa: The worst indeed! O, all my hope's defeated
To free him hence! but Death, who sets all free,
Hath paid his ransom now and full discharge.
How died he?—death to life is crown or shame.
All by him fell, thou say'st; by whom fell he?
What glorious hand gave Samson his death's wound?

Messenger: Unwounded of his enemies he fell.

Manoa: Wearied with slaughter, then, or how? Explain.

Messenger: By his own hands.

Manoa: Self-violence! What cause
Brought him so soon at variance with himself
Among his foes?

Messenger: Inevitable cause—
At once both to destroy and be destroyed.
The edifice, where all were met to see him,
Upon their heads and on his own he pulled.
The building was a spacious theatre,
Half round on two main pillars vaulted high,
With seats where all the lords, and each degree
Of sort, might sit in order to behold.

Was Samson as a public servant brought,
In their state livery clad.
At sight of him the people with a shout
Rifted the air, clamoring their god with praise,
Who had made their dreadful enemy their thrall.
He patient, but undaunted, where they led him,
Came to the place; and what was set before him,
Which without help of eye might be assayed,
To heave, pull, draw, or break, he still performed
All with incredible, stupendous force,
None daring to appear antagonist
At length, for intermission sake, they led him
Between the pillars; he his guide requested,
 As over-tired, to let him lean awhile
With both his arms on those two massy pillars,
That to the arched roof gave main support.
He unsuspicious led him; which when Samson
Felt in his arms, with head awhile inclined,
And eyes fast fixed, he stood, as one who prayed,
Or some great matter in his mind revolved.
At last, with head erect, thus cried aloud,
"Hitherto, lords, what your commands imposed
I have performed, as reason was, obeying,
Not without wonder or delight beheld;
Now, of my own accord, such other trial
I mean to show you of my strength yet greater
As with amaze shall strike all who behold."
This uttered, straightening all his nerves, he bowed.
As with the force of winds and waters pent
When mountains tremble, those two massy pillars
With horrible convulsions to and fro
He tugged, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath,
Lords, ladies, captains, counsellors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this, but each Philistian city round,
Met from all parts to solemnise this feast.
Samson, with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scaped, who stood without.

Manoa: Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson, and heroically hath finished
A life heroic.
Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise or blame; nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.
Let us go find the body where it lies.

I, with what speed the while
 Will send for all my kindred, all my friends,
To fetch him hence, and solemnly attend,
With silent obsequy and funeral train,
Home to his father's house. There will I build him
A monument, and plant it round with shade
Of laurel evergreen and branching palm,
With all his trophies hung, and acts enrolled
In copious legend, or sweet lyric song.
Thither shall all the valiant youth resort,
And from his memory inflame their breasts
To matchless valour and adventures high.

 "Samson Agonistes" (that is, "Samson the Athlete, or Wrestler"), Milton's tragedy, cast in a classical mould, was composed after "Paradise Regained" was written, and after "Paradise Lost" was published. It was issued in 1671. No reader with knowledge can avoid associating the poem in a personal way with Milton, who, like Samson, was blind, living in the midst of enemies, and to some extent deserted; and, like him too, did not lose heart on behalf of the life's cause which, unlike Samson, he had never betrayed. As becomes a drama, it has more vigorously sustained movement than any of Milton's works. The familiar story is skilfully developed and relieved, and the formality of the style does not detract from the pity and beauty, while it adds to the dignity of the work.

Arthur Mee J. A. Hammerton