Samson and Dido, and some reflections on the distance travelled

Well, if you ever doubt that I was very sincere about being a Protestant when I was one—which was, after all, the first 37 years of my life—there are a few short cuts to putting those doubts to rest.  One of the most straightforward is to look for anything I wrote in my middle twenties that mentions Milton (as we’ve already seen once or twice).  This paper is no exception—written in Fall 2001, as I began my doctoral coursework in my third year of graduate school (I had worked out about half of my M.A. thesis by midsummer 2001, and would finish and defend it in 2002), it has some pretty characteristic errors about English religious history and still uses the general organizing principle I had inherited from generations of Protestant and Baptist forebears:  one in which “toward Rome” is the direction of corruption, while outside truth and error are free to contend until we are enlightened. 

This dramatization of church history is an understandable polemical response to the way England’s religious history unfolded, with the erratic political and religious manipulations of Henry VIII spawning both a schismatic but traditional Anglicanism and the more radical Reformed impulse that flourished especially in the brief reign of Edward VI, before Mary Tudor’s brief (and defensive, and vindictive) restoration of the Church—impulses which last throughout Elizabeth I and the whole of the Stuart monarchy, including Interregnum and Restoration.  Viewed wholly from within the assumption that truth lay somewhere within the English tradition of Protestantism, then, the Established Church and the Dissenters seemed to be contending for the right to claim the mantle of the true Reformation (the true rescue of New Testament Christianity from “Romish” corruptions).  All the while, of course, subtle political forces, mostly foreign and always sinister, plot to take advantage of this conflict and make England Catholic again (and here insert the absurd Catholic terrorist-hero wannabe Guy Fawkes, and also the Titus Oates perjuries that make up “the Popish Plot,” and later the Know-Nothings, the Kluckers, Lorraine Boettner, Jack Chick, and other hacks).

Anyway, if the more lurid speculations at the fringes of the tradition I was reared in (and we were never intentionally “fringy” in my family or congregation) had begun to lose their grip, the basic narrative was still firmly in my head in 2001.  What was also in my head were all those Church Fathers I had read back in 1998-99, though, and conversations I had been having with Catholics and Presbyterians about the history of our understanding of various doctrines.  I was definitely in reaction, at this point, having felt that I was unable to answer clearly some persuasive arguments on the subject of Baptism (though for years to come it would be my visceral mistrust of infant baptism that kept me at arm’s length from the Presbyterian congregation I spent most of my Sundays with); I was trying to shore up what I felt were deficiencies in my arguments for what I remained convinced was the right understanding of the history of my faith, and thus of that faith itself (for “what have you that you have not received?”).

Also, this was the Fall after I had taken my Latin class and translated the portions of Aeneid here discussed for myself.  Returning to Milton while using my fresh Latin was too good an opportunity to pass up, and this seminar gave me the perfect opening.  The paper itself is only middling, but I like the basic reading:  Samson and Dalila are, in the structure of their poem, role-reversed to Aeneas and Dido; comparing the mapping of characters to situation with the mapping of traits to characters (some are transferred to the “wrong” character) helps to underscore some of Milton’s specific innovations and emphases.

Here, then, a seminar paper from Fall 2001, revisiting what I still consider to be a far undervalued poem, Samson Agonistes:

Peter G. Epps
Conference Paper
Foundations of Medieval Literature
Dr. Jill Havens

Samson and Dido

Arma virumque cano. (Aeneid 1)

A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on.  (SA 1-2)

From the very first, Virgil’s great epic speaks of “arms and the man,” or, as Fitzgerald translates it, “warfare and a man at war.”  Aeneid is, after all, public poetry–written with a civic purpose and a particular political aim which both undergird and limit its more broadly humane agenda.  In this respect, perhaps above all others, Milton’s works can well bear comparison to Virgil’s.  As an accomplished Latinist, Milton’s imagination is utterly permeated with Virgilian imagery, and his rhetorical stance both echoes the vatic stance in Virgil and foreshadows the more pronounced vatic stance of the Romantics.  The Virgilian contexts of Paradise Lost have been thoroughly, though still far from exhaustively, explored.  In Samson Agonistes, however, Milton presents another sort of man, disarmed but very much at war, and in doing so invokes once more his great poetic ancestor.

I find, to my surprise, that few critics have examined the presence of Aeneid in the text of Samson Agonistes, particularly in Samson’s encounter with Dalila.  The meeting is immensely redolent of Dido’s encounter with Aeneas in the underworld, and Milton’s revision of this classic confrontation provides fruitful suggestions about Milton’s poetic progress beyond Paradise Lost.  I propose to examine the Samson/Dalila dialogue in light of the Aeneas/Dido meeting in Book VI of Aeneid, and in so doing to suggest that Milton’s increasing alienation from Restoration culture accelerates the growth of proto-Romantic tendencies already present in his writing.

The parallels are fairly numerous, but let me suggest a few which lend weight to the comparison.  Both Dido and Samson, having been betrayed in marriage, eventually die by their own hands.  In both cases, the marriages transgress cultural boundaries; in both cases, the marriages fail because national loyalties supersede marital fidelity.  Perhaps most significantly, Samson and Dalila provide as clear an instance of the historic enmity of Israelite and Philistine as Aeneas and Dido of the blood feud between Rome and Carthage.  The material of the Samson and Dalila story, of course, is not original to Milton; yet he alters it significantly in ways which parallel both his own biography and the Aeneid more closely than the Biblical account.

More specific parallels to Virgil’s work in the Samson/Dalila scene include Dalila’s speech about Fame:

Fame if not double-fac’t is double-mouth’d,
And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds,
On both his wings, one black, th’ other white,
Bears greatest names in his wild aerie flight.  (971-4)

Milton here puts in Dalila’s mouth a clear echo of Virgil’s Rumor, the “smut-goddess” (dea foeda), who flies over the city, listening and spreading rumors and scandals (4.173-88).  The parallel is made clearer when we recall that Milton would have read Aeneid exclusively in the Latin; thus his “Fame” is an aural, as well as a literal, translation of Virgil’s Fama.  Dalila, of course, is seeking to defend herself against Samson’s accusations; she argues that what is infamy to the Israelites will be glory to the Philistines.  Appealling, however, to the duplicitous nature of Fame, she may only reinforce our impression of her own duplicity.

Another significant element binding Samson Agonistes to Aeneid is the pervasive nautical imagery which forms the backdrop for the dialogue of Samson and Dalila.  Upon her initial approach, Dalila is figured by the Chorus as a “thing of sea or land” which

Comes this way sailing
Like a stately Ship
Of Tarsus, bound for th’ Isles
Of Javan or Gadier
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails fill’d, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play.  (710-9)

Similarly, Dalila invokes marine metaphors in her final tirade against Samson, saying,

I see thou art implacable, more deaf
To prayers, then winds and seas, yet winds to seas
Are reconcil’d at length, and Sea to Shore:
Thy anger, unappeasable, still rages,
Eternal tempest never to be calm’d.  (961-5)

Finally, Samson, in his riddling debate with the Chorus upon Dalila’s departure, asks, “What Pilot so expert but needs must wreck / Embarqu’d with such a Stears-mate at the Helm?” (1044-5)  These nautical usages resonate readily with the original meeting of Dido and Aeneas in Books III and IV of Aeneid, in which every major turn is conditioned by the sea.  Aeneas is driven by a storm to the Punic shores, and is convinced by fear of rough winter seas to stay in Carthage; he provisions his ships secretly to depart; and Dido attempts to send the Carthaginian fleet to stop Aeneas before she resolves on her own death.  The narrative of Aeneid is, as in Homer’s Odyssey, moved along primarily by the stages of a sea-journey.  Samson Agonistes, having only one major location, maintains its scene progression by the changing nature of the dialogue as each new interlocutor comes to challenge, tempt, or encourage Samson.  That Samson and Dalila are connected, first and last, by their participation in the marine imagery which frames Dido and Aeneas helps tie the two accounts together as surely as an explicit allusion.

Indeed, the absence of the explicit classical allusions so common in Milton’s other writings is a major feature of interest in Samson Agonistes.  As Flanagan notes,

Milton is remarkably restrained for what he leaves out or what he rejects from previous poetic devices or banks of allusion. [. . .] Milton’s topical or timely allusions–to decadent aristocrats or priests, for instance–would have had to be kept under veil, considering that Milton in 1671 was labeled a regicide and might have been imprisoned or even executed for such “treason.”  His imagery is not Christian; his dramatic poem is parallel to a number of Greek tragedies, but not slavishly imitative of any other play; and he is too proud to imitate any contemporary tragedy, not even Hamlet or King Lear.  His “Dramatic Poem” is an affront and a rebuttal to the entire world of the Restoration stage.  (793)

This “affront,” of course, is entirely in keeping with Milton’s personal and political relationship to the Restoration.  As Cromwell’s Latin Secretary and an active anti-prelatical writer, well-known for his public defense of the execution of Charles I, Milton can hardly be expected to have welcomed the Restoration in any sphere.  The movement of the neoclassical writers, as instanced in Dryden, away from Parliamentarian leanings into ardent Royalism; the growing suppression of Puritan and Nonconformist thought under an established church heavily leaning to Roman Catholicism (witness Dryden’s own journey from Puritan roots through Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism); and the increasingly popular, secular, and even obscene entertainments of the Restoration stage could not but have enraged Milton.  In this environment, we find the ever-combative Milton quite prepared to dispense with his own densely allusive classicism in order to depart sharply from the neoclassical trend.

Milton’s rebellion against neoclassicism prefigures the Romantic rebellion of a century later.  Unlike the Romantics, however, Milton was so thoroughly steeped in the classical and Christian traditions that shaped his poetics that he effectively grafts himself onto the classical tradition despite the absence of obvious allusion.  As Flanagan says, “It is to Milton’s credit that [. . .] the audience or reader does not notice [the Greek tragic form] at all, just as one does not notice similar classical rhetorical divisions in Aeropagitica” (794).  By absorbing the Greek dramatic form (as Virgil before him) and Latin classical material, particularly Virgil, Milton writes himself into the main tradition itself, choosing to join the classical tradition directly rather than alluding to it as his Restoration contemporaries did.  Far from rejecting the classical, Milton rejects the neoclassical movement precisely by a seamless integration of classical form with Hebrew matter, subverting his political, religious, and cultural rivals by engaging them on his own highly original (though robustly traditional) terms.

As with his Romantic descendants, Milton’s choice of subject matter has deep personal resonances.  In choosing to represent the blinded Samson, of course, Milton reminds us of his own blindness; we will feel, even if we are not willing to defend it critically, that many of Samson’s lines ring a little too true, carry a little too much emotional charge, to be entirely separated from Milton’s own life.  Samson is not only blind, though; like Milton in 1671, he is politically isolated, the frustrated defender of a people who are not only conquered but content to be so.  Like Milton, whose divorce tracts indicate the vehemence of his feelings about his first wife, Mary Powell, Samson feels betrayed by the women in his life.  The woman of Timna has gone to another husband after Samson learned of her betrayal, and Dalila has betrayed him to his current captivity.  In another, more subtle way, though, Samson accuses Dalila of attempting to betray him again–to seduce him with thoughts of domestic ease and comfortable age, thoughts which to the born warrior Samson are worse than prison.  Milton, of course, was himself living the life Samson refuses–though with a third wife of his choice, and in the company of his daughters, under the protection of Andrew Marvell, whose intercession prevented his execution as a regicide.  Milton being ever the martial spirit, I find it hard to believe that he did not, in dark moments, wonder if he should be locked in a losing battle rather than taking his ease among his decadent Restoration contemporaries.  I am tempted to suggest that, in representing Samson’s father Manoa as seeking to ransom Samson, but coming too late with word of his success, Milton draws upon his own protection by Marvell; if so, then Samson Agonistes becomes a tribute to a lost chance at martyrdom.

At any rate, Milton’s changes to his Biblical source material do tend to make it resonate more clearly with Aeneid and his own experience.  The key change in the Samson and Dalila encounter is that Dalila is portrayed as Samson’s wife.  While the original story does not preclude a marriage, the account in Judges 16 and 17 seems to set up a dramatic progression from the woman of Timna, who Samson marries, to the harlot in Gaza, and from the harlot to Dalila.  By marrying Samson to Dalila, Milton underscores the betrayal and alludes to his own writings on divorce; the allusion becomes starkly visible when Samson tells Dalila, “Thou and I are long since twain” (929).  Having already been separated from another wife, Samson announces that, to his thinking at least, his marriage to Dalila is also ended.

In addition to the parallels in Milton’s own writing, though, the Dido and Aeneas conversation in Aeneid strikingly parallel Samson’s marriage to Dalila.  Virgil’s narrator clearly establishes the ambiguity of the solemnized but never publicized marriage of Dido and Aeneas.  As Fitzgerald translates it,

Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno
Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top.
That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow.  Dido had no further qualms
As to impressions given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage.  Thus, under that name,
She hid her fault. (4.229-238)

The presence of the gods appears to give warrant to the marriage, but Dido herself is portrayed as self-deluded, believing that a secret marriage could truly cover the fault of a secret love.  The narrator clearly regards the situation as ambiguous–the gods are “witness to the marriage,” but no one else is; and Dido, who has engaged in a secret love, “called it marriage” to conceal “her fault.”  We are left to wonder what Aeneas thought until his argument with Dido upon his departure, when he says, “I never held the torches of a bridegroom, / Never entered upon the pact of marriage” (467-8).  For Aeneas, a secret marriage is no marriage at all.  In much the same way, for Samson a marriage betrayed is no marriage at all; as he says to the Chorus, “Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end, / Not wedlock-trechery endangering life” (1008-9).

This equivocal understanding of marriage is reflected in Milton’s problematization of the roles of Dido and Aeneas as recast in Samson and Dalila.  The main pattern clearly identifies Samson, the self-slaying betrayed spouse, with Dido; this leaves Dalila in the role of Aeneas, the visitor to the underworld who vainly begs forgiveness.  At the same time, Milton cannot allow himself to cast Dalila as heroic; she receives the weaknesses of Aeneas, while Samson is allowed to gain a number of his strengths, including the fortitude to take his enemies with him in his suicide.  Dalila, in turn, receives some of Dido’s strengths, particularly her vehemence and bitter reflection upon the warrior’s preference for combat and public duty over private security and harmony.  By rearranging the traditional roles in this way, Milton carves out a space for his own particular version of the hero, combining a proto-Romantic sense of conflicted, solitary introspection with the civic motivations of the Virgilian hero.

The account of Dido’s meeting with Aeneas in the underworld and Samson’s meeting with Dalila in prison follow roughly the same pattern.  In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas approaches Dido and addresses him.  He weeps, expresses his regret at her suicide, claims the harm was greater than he expected, and attempts to justify himself by an appeal to religion.  His appeal to religion, of course, also invokes the arguments from civic duty which he had previously made in Book IV; the will of the gods, for Aeneas, was the founding of a city.  Dido, however, is implacable:

Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate
The burning soul, savagely glaring back,
And tears came to his eyes.  But she had turned
With gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke on,
Her face no more affected than if she were
Immobile granite or Marpesian stone.
At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove. (628-635)

Interestingly, Dido returns in the underworld to Sychaeus; like Samson, she has been married before.  In returning to her dead husband, Dido emphatically announces the breach of the marriage.  She seems, like Samson, to find that “wedlock-trechery endangering life” ends the relationship; like Samson, she only resolves the equivocal nature of her marriage with her own death.

Samson’s encounter with Dalila is much longer than Dido’s with Aeneas, but this difference can largely be accounted for by the greater scope of Virgil’s work.  If the material from Book IV which the meeting in Book VI draws upon is included, the two have roughly similar bulk and complexity.  The pattern of the two meetings, however, is much the same:  Dalila approaches Samson, weeps, expresses her regret for the outcome of her actions, claims the harm was greater than she expected, and attempts to justify her actions based on civic and religious duties.  Samson, like Dido, is implacable:

No, no, of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I are long since twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accurst
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught; [. . .]
If in the flower of youth and strength, when all men
Lov’d, honour’d, fear’d me, thou alone could hate me
Thy Husband, slight me, sell me, and forgo me;
How wouldst thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceiveable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemn’d, and scorn’d,
And last neglected?  (928-44)

More aggressive than Virgil’s Dido in the underworld, but reminiscent of her rage in Book IV, to which her “savagely glaring” countenance bears witness, Samson harshly excoriates Dalila for her unfaithfulness, refusing all her offers of comfort as more maneuvers to use him as a tool for her own lusts, be they physical, political, or financial (and they are, by turns, all of these).

The key distinction, of course, between Samson Agonistes and Aeneid is that Samson is in the “underworld” of prison; unlike Dido in Book VI, his suicide is still future.  Unlike Dido, Samson’s suicide will partake of the heroic ethos, using his death (which he counts inevitable) to further the defense of his people against their oppressors.  Unlike Aeneas, Dalila’s great act of civic duty is already in the past, and in the poem’s religious context is a false duty.  Still, Milton gives considerable play to Dalila’s perspective, allowing her to argue at length that her betrayal of Samson will give her glory among her people as surely as Samson’s feats give him glory among his.  Only the Chorus, and the decisive results of Samson’s final act, reveal clearly that Dalila is “a manifest Serpent by her sting / Discover’d in the end, till now conceal’d” (1098-9).  With one cleverly punning line (not only is her sting found out at last, but it resides in her “end” in a sexual sense, and also in her “end” in the sense of intention), the Chorus sums up the character of Dalila.  Acting the role of an Aeneas, a betrayer of hearth in favor of civic duty, she may call into question the legitimacy of his great betrayal; but she certainly reveals herself to be less than heroic.

In the end, the Miltonic hero is revealed to be a problematic one; as Flanagan asks, “Could Milton have been celebrating the glory of an isolated terrorist?” (795)  In one sense, I would answer, “Yes.”  Certainly, Milton does view Samson’s repudiation of Dalila, his rejection of a life of dotage with an unfaithful woman in favor of his public duty as defender of an ungrateful people, as heroic.  In so doing, he actually casts Samson back in the role of Aeneas, the warrior who must reject domestic happiness in favor of civic achievement.

By reversing the heroic roles in the encounter with Dalila, however, Milton brings this simple equation into question.  If Samson is Dido, betrayed to death by an enemy motivated by civic duty, then he is also–on his own account, and with reference to Dido’s–betrayed by his own weakness.  Samson crosses the boundaries of his civic duty, as does Dido, by a “secret love” which has dire consequences for his role as protector.  If Dalila, like Aeneas, betrays her spouse in answer to the call of the gods and lust for glory, then surely Samson’s own resemblance to the heroic Aeneas raises questions about both characters.

Milton’s hero, like the much-celebrated “Byronic hero” of the nineteenth century which he strongly anticipates, is not a hero because of intrinsic strength.  Inwardly, he is weak and conflicted, drawn by contradictory impulses toward voluptuousness and self-destruction.  Unlike the Byronic hero, however, Milton’s Samson does not die vainly; and he is not converted to a life of peaceful dotage.  That his death, like Dido’s, is the tragic consequence of weakness exploited by betrayal is certain; that his death fulfills, in the only way left to him, the calling for which his strength was given, indicates the possibility of hope even in tragedy.  Here Milton’s Christian vision fulfills the promise of the Hebrew original, while superseding both its classical antecedents and Romantic successors:  the power that matters to Milton is extrinsic, divinely granted, and while its abuse has dire consequences, it remains always ready to transform life and culture.  Milton’s solitary hero may be, by his own weakness and lack of vision–figuratively and literally–a tragic waste of a much greater potential; but he is made adequate to the task at hand, and in his death accomplishes what Milton in 1671 could only dream of–and write about.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans.  The Aeneid.  Virgil.  New York:  Random House, 1990.

Flanagan, Roy.  Introduction.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.  784-798.

Milton, John.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  799-844.

Virgil.  The Aeneid bks 4, 6.  Latin Poetry.  Wilber Lester Carr and Harry E. Wedeck, eds.  Boston:  D. C. Heath and Company, 1940.