Tag Archives: 2001

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.

Rhetorical Analysis of John 1

Here’s perhaps the most excessively detailed Sunday School lesson plan I’ve ever imagined—but the exegesis was absorbing, and let me work out some thoughts I was having at the time.  You’ll notice some infelicities:  I discuss Biblical, Pastoral, Systematic theology but have not, yet, in 2001, learned much at all about the fourfold sense; I am pretty fluid with my Greek-word and English-word exegetical conclusions all at once (though I can say I looked up information on the Greek for every word, here, and that at the time I was doing ancient language study, so I wasn’t completely incompetent at that).  And it’s clumsy to have regarded John’s Gospel as fundamentally written for first proclamation, rather than as a theological and liturgical filling out of the work the Synoptics had done.  In any case, the main analysis of John’s craftsmanship of the opening verses of his Gospel, especially his confounding of both Greek and Hebrew expectations, still seems to have merit, I’d say:

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Getting Warmer—on education in Comenius, Milton, and Locke, compared

Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey’s seminars Fundamentalisms in Literature and The Bible & Literary Criticism were epochal events for me.  The depth and breadth of the reading and the ambit of the discussions demanded that I deepen and adjust my thinking, if I were to be at all consistent with my own commitments to learning that was true, morally useful, and spiritually enabling.  Persuading me to research Amos Comenius for my seminar paper, among other things, pushed me out of my somewhat too facile notion of the relationship between Milton’s religious and political commitments and the medieval and “scholastic” backdrop.  The comparison to my earlier piece on Milton and Locke is pretty bracing, though I was still working the same “patch,” so to speak.

The results would be some time in arriving:  you can see that I have a drastically flat notion of “analogy” here, and that I was so preoccupied with sorting out useful education from useless verbiage that I was pretty ready to grant that Latin education fell into the “useless verbiage” category (when what I truly had in mind was the likes of psychoanalytic literary criticism).  But you can also see a huge concession already buried here—that scholasticism and what these writers disliked in the 17C “schoolmen” were not necessarily the same thing.  Ten years later, I would be reading the Summa Theologica on a train across the country, trying to re-think the anti-metaphysical stance I had so carefully espoused since my late teens—trying to find the link between the truths I understood and the Presence I knew in the Eucharist.

Here, then, a paper on “Dissenters” that does not identify orthodoxy all that well, yet—and one of the first points where I espouse my strong preference for never putting children in schools at all.

Peter G. Epps
Fundamentalisms in Literature
Dr. D. L. Jeffrey
May 7, 2001

Comenius, Milton, Locke:  Three Dissenters on Education

For conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the United States, the twentieth century saw a rapid succession of changes in educational thought.  The Puritan emphasis on education, visible in everything from the “Ye olde Deceiver Satan” act to the early colonial founding of most of the Ivy League schools, eventuated in a system of mandatory universal education and the growth of public schools.  As the Ivy League schools and their peers left behind their Christian moorings, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists began to found their own colleges and seminaries; in the same way, the failure of public education in a secular state to achieve Christian educational goals led many to form private, Christian schools.  Not content with merely adapting the methods of public education to a Christian subculture, however, many have gone the farther step of educating their children at home, either personally or with the benefit of tutors.  These three broad stages can be mapped onto three important texts on education by dissenting Christian thinkers:  John Amos Comenius, John Milton, and John Locke.  A brief examination of some critical elements of their theories reveals certain traits common to most Evangelical and Fundamentalist thought about education, and provides some fruitful insights into the tension between universal education and dissent.

Common Ground.  One key feature shared by Comenius, Milton, and Locke is their resistance to scholasticism, to the medieval and Renaissance reliance on classical authorities.  In The Great Didactic, Comenius flatly rejects the teaching of “the names of heathen deities, the myths connected with them, and the religious observances of the ancients, as well as the productions of scurrilous and indecent poets and dramatists” (91).  While his own system significantly reflects scholastic structures, he argues that “Nothing . . . should be learned solely for its value at school, but for its use in life” and that “anything is unnecessary that is productive neither of piety nor of morality and that is not essential for the cultivation of the mind” (91).  Milton, in his turn, blames the failures of “the usuall method of teaching Arts” on “universities not yet well recover’d from the Scholastick grosness of barbarous ages” which leads students to “hatred and contempt of learning, mockt and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements” (981).  Locke likewise complains that, were Seneca were to see the universities of the day, “he would have had much more reason to say, as he does, Non Vitæ sed Scholæ discimus, we learn not to Live, but to Dispute; and our Education fits us rather for the University, than the World” (199-200).  Each reflects the same basic concern with the scholastic method as it survived, though already heavily modified, in the seventeenth century university:  it teaches pedantry, but fails to achieve the fundamental goals of education, which are practical and ethical.

The emphasis on the practical, in turn, reveals another significant area of common ground among Comenius, Milton, and Locke:  all three are fundamentally empiricists, grounding all knowledge in sense experience.  Comenius calls “a golden rule for teachers” that “everything should, as far as is possible, be placed before the senses” (95).  His defense of this rule reflects Bacon and anticipates Locke:

the commencement of knowledge must always come from the senses (for the understanding possesses nothing that it has not first derived from the senses).  Surely, then, the beginning of knowledge should consist, not in the mere learning of the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves!  It is when the thing has been grasped by the senses that language should fulfill its function of explaining it still further. (95)

Milton concurs, stating that “our understanding cannot in this body found it selfe but on sensible things, nor arrive so clearly to the knowledge of God and things invisible, as by orderly conning over the visible and inferior creature” (980).  Thus “Language is but the Instrument conveying to us things usefull to be known,” a tool which is worthless even to “a linguist . . . if he have not studied the solid things in [languages] as well as the words and lexicons” (980).  To establish Locke’s empiricism would, of course, be redundant; like Comenius and Milton, he is impatient with linguistic pedantry:

The learning of Latin, being nothing but the learning of Words, a very unpleasant Business both to young and old, join as much other real Knowledge with it as you can, beginning still with that which lies most obvious to the Senses, such as is the Knowledge of Minerals, Plants, and Animals; and particularly Timber and Fruit-Trees, their parts and ways of propagation:  Wherein a great deal may be taught a Child, which will not be useless to the Man.  (280-81)

Evangelical and Fundamentalist resistance to pure learning, to the broadly humanistic ideals of the academy, finds its grounding in the anti-scholastic, practical, empirical bias of these authors and their peers.  Annoyed with the “vain disputations” and “strifes about words” all too common in the university, Christian thinkers who can scarcely be called anti-intellectual (indeed, like Comenius, Milton, and Locke, many have been among the chief intellects of their days) have repeatedly tried to refocus education on its central task, which Milton summarizes in Baconian phrase:

to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection. (980)

Such an intensely Christian, ethical vision, played out in the realm of “sensible things,” may lapse, in the hands of enthusiasts or the indolent, into shoddy thinking and hostility toward an ill-defined band of “scholars”; but it can hardly be branded anti-intellectual except by the wholesale exclusion of God from the realm of intellect.

The Enlightened Eye.  Given their empiricism and the instrumental view of language that accompanies it, that Comenius, Milton, and Locke using seeing as a metonymy for knowing is hardly a surprise.  The image of the sun’s light reflecting off objects, which shape the light to the eye which casts its glance toward them, is pervasive in modern Western philosophy and, for that reason, throughout the culture.  While the language of familiarity has not been totally eclipsed, “to see” and “to know” have become so nearly synonymous that one’s “viewpoint” and one’s “position” are not clearly distinguished, despite the very real possibility of difference between how one perceives a situation and where one stands on an issue.  “Understanding” has thus become deeply equivocal, as an “understanding” person is reduced to being merely “thoughtful” (though quite possibly not a “thinker”), while one can “understand” cognitively without truly “understanding” in some, usually unspecified, affective sense.  “To be familiar with” a body of information is taken for a diminution of “to know” that information, while a “photographic memory” is valued for its ability to exactly recall certain data upon a single observation.

Despite the desperate battle modern philosophy and linguistic analysis has fought to escape the essentially metaphorical nature of language, to eliminate the poetry from rhetoric and the rhetoric from exposition, the empirical nature of knowledge (as best described by Locke, whose own stance on rhetoric contra the scholastics creates some inconsistency in his views on rhetoric and poetry) necessarily implies that descriptions of such mental processes as knowing will be constructs of ideas from sensible experience; that, in other words, all language not directly referential to concrete realities (and perhaps even that) is intrinsically metaphorical, relying on analogy and other devices to convey meaning.  The discourse of education theory in Comenius, Milton, and Locke is informed by the imagery of the student as the eye receiving the light of nature and art; and their key differences lie in the ways Milton and Locke vary from the natural models used by Comenius.

Comenius is very explicitly analogical in his approach to education theory.  He opens the exposition of his general directions for classroom management by saying,

Let us choose the sun for imitation, since it affords a striking example of the operations of nature.  Its functions are laborious and almost unlimited (namely, to send forth its rays over the whole world and to supply all the elements, minerals, plants, and animals, of which countless species exist, with light, warmth, life, and strength), but it proves equal to them all, and every year fulfills the circle of its duties in the most admirable manner. (70)

He proceeds to give an eight-point enumeration of the sun’s work, which he maps onto eight directions for the teacher.  Among the most important are “The sun does not occupy itself with any single object, animal, or tree; but lights and warms the whole earth at once,” which gives rise to “There should be only one teacher in each school, or at any rate in each class”; and “It causes spring, summer, autumn, and winter to make their appearance in all lands at the same time,” from which Comenius concludes that “The same exercise should be given to the whole class” (70-71).  The slight inaccuracy of some elements of the analogy–such as the seasons coming “in all lands” simultaneously–only illustrates some of the vulnerabilities of the metaphor.

Education is, for Comenius, a mass product.  The chief advantage he claims for his system is “that the whole circle of the sciences might be completed with an ease that surpasses our expectation, just as the sun completes its circling course through the heavens every year” (71).  His comments on method are designed to answer the objection he puts in the mouth of a hypothetical reader:  “But these projects are too wearisome and too comprehensive . . . What a number of teachers and of libraries, and how much labour will be necessary in order for such universal education to be given!” (67)  In Pampaedia, Comenius defends at length his views on universal education, “by which we seek to give man, the image of God, whatever is possible for the greatest glory he can attain beneath Heaven” (117).    The light metaphor continues to dominate his language as he continues:

I feel the necessity is laid upon me to demonstrate as clearly as the sun shines in the heavens, this triune truth.

(i)  As fervently as we love God (whose glory has the right to see His image before him as glorious as possible), and as sincerely as we cherish Christ (whose kingdom is the kingdom of light), and finally as truly as we hold dear the human race (the greater part of which is still engulfed in darkness), so truly, sincerely and deeply must we desire to drive darkness away from everywhere and that light should shine more brightly in all minds.  (121-22)

The goal, then, is that every person should be given sufficient “light” to understand the world around him and his relationship to it; the assumption, which like the light metaphor is most readily traceable to Plato by way of Plotinus, is that one invariably “sees” truth if one is given light.

This natural-process model, however, runs into difficulty the more closely the relationship of the individual student to the mass-produced education is examined.  Comenius argues in The Great Didactic that “the keener the teacher himself, the greater the enthusiasm that his pupils will display” and that

the presence of a number of companions will be productive not only of utility but of enjoyment . . . since they will mutually stimulate and assist one another.  Indeed for boys of this age emulation is by far the best stimulus. (72)

He goes so far as to suggest that larger classes are better because information not clearly gathered from the hearing of the lesson can be gained from classmates, so that each student will end up in possession of the whole lesson, “since one mind has an invigorating effect on another, and one memory on another” (72).  He illustrates this by analogy to baking and brickmaking, to the branches of a tree and the trunk, and again by the sun (72-73).

With the return to the light analogy, though, Comenius begins to qualify his assertions slightly.  In defense of his idea that the large class will stimulate collaboration, he notes “that the sun’s actions may be assisted by the lie of the ground, because the rays that collect in the valleys give a higher degree of warmth to this region” (73).  He seems to argue that students who excel (mountains) will form pockets in which less innately apt students (valleys) will receive “light.”  This first concession to the differences of students, however, becomes more pronounced later.  In his discussion of classroom management, Comenius recommends that “the teacher, as chief inspector, should give his attention first to one scholar, then to another, more particularly with the view of testing the honesty of those whom he distrusts” (77).  This individual attention is to take place in a classroom where the teacher must

never give individual instruction, either privately out of school or publicly in school, but teach all the pupils at one and the same time.  He should, therefore, never step up to any one scholar or allow any one of them to come up to him separately, but should remain in his seat, where he can be seen and heard by all, just as the sun sends forth its rays over all things.  (74)

The tension between the teacher’s need to give completely uniform instruction and the need to be “testing the honesty of those whom he distrusts” is illustrative of the larger difficulty in mass-produced education:  the problem of inclination.  Despite the desire of many educators to provide the same advantages of education to all, not all students share the same level of desire or aptitude for education; nor does education have the same effects in all students.

Comenius deals with the problem of inclination by suggesting that “knowledge is unsuitable when it is uncongenial to the mind of this or that scholar” (91).  Therefore, as “the teacher is the servant and not the lord of nature . . . he should never attempt to force a scholar to study any subject if he see that it is uncongenial to his natural disposition” (92).  The teacher is thus tasked to understand the individual dispositions of his students so as to pass over requiring any student to learn “uncongenial” subjects, while finding ways to be “testing the honesty” of the student, while interacting only with the class as a whole, never with any particular student.  The result of this practice, as modified by Deweyan pragmatics, can be seen in modern public education:  lowest-common-denominator teaching which fails to challenge the gifted, fails to stimulate the underachieving, and is crippled by its inability to draw an ethical response from the student.

Milton’s model, like the Christian school movement’s response to public education, varies only slightly from the mass-produced education of Comenius.  Rather than a single teacher with as large a class as possible, Milton conceives of

an Academy [of] a hundred and fifty persons, whereof twenty or thereabouts may be attendants, all under the government of one, who shall be thought of desert sufficient, and ability either to doe all, or wisely to direct, and oversee it done. (981)

The emphasis throughout Milton’s Of Education is on learning as a product of interaction with others through language, rather than a seeing.  While this learning is informed by the “light” metaphor, Milton’s awareness of language gives much greater prominence to the individual student’s learning from the author through a text.  Thus, the grounding of “understanding . . . in sensible things” is immediately, by reason of the incapacity of every student and every culture to learn all things directly from nature, transferred to “the languages of those people who have at any time been most industrious after wisdom” (980).

An important feature of Milton’s teaching model is that his students are in school only from the ages of twelve through twenty one (981).  Rather than attempting to shape students from a very early age, Milton leaves them in the home until their admission to school, which will presumably be elective rather than universal.  By providing continuity of instruction and environment throughout the school years, and allowing the parents to be the formative influence throughout early childhood, Milton provides important palliatives to the problems of Comenius’ system.

Most significantly, Milton modifies Comenius’ emphasis on knowledge as “light” by which minds are passively illuminated to God, emphasizing instead the role of persuasion in the formation of character.  Comenius is not, of course, unaware of the need for moral teaching; but his emphasis is on the totality of education as enlightening, as inherently making man better.  Milton, on the other hand, is more concerned for the perils of education without moral grounding:

[Universities] present their young unmatriculated novices at first comming with the most intellective abstractions of Logick & metaphysicks:  So that they . . . do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning . . . till poverty of youthfull years call them importunately their several wayes, and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary, or ignorantly zealous Divinity; . . . instilling in their barren hearts a conscientious slavery.  (981)

Therefore, he qualifies his image of the teacher with an additional consideration; the teacher must be able to “lead and draw [students] in willing obedience, enflam’d with the study of learning, and the admiration of vertue” by means of “proper eloquence to catch them with, . . . mild and effectuall perswasions, and . . . the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example” (982).  Unlike the teacher in Comenius, who is to interact as a distant sun with his class, enlightening them to know the good and expecting them to be naturally drawn to it, Milton’s teacher is a persuader, an orator to extol right living.  Most importantly, Milton’s teacher leads by example, an example formed by daily interaction with students in the academy Milton proposes.

Milton does not address the problem of inclination so directly as either Comenius or Locke does, but his understanding of the magnitude of the problem shows at the end of Of Education, when he recognizes (with perhaps a dash of Miltonic pomp) that “this is not a bow for every man to shoot in that counts himself a teacher; but will require sinews almost equal to those which Homer gave to Ulysses” (986).  Milton’s teacher is tasked to provide a moral example as well as effective moral suasion and sound instruction to over an hundred students; even with Milton’s somewhat more generous allowance of assistance than Comenius’, and even granted Milton’s assumption that the children of the nobility would come to school already inclined to learn, the task is daunting.

Locke’s educational model is, like those of Comenius and Milton, informed by the image of the eye receiving light; it must needs be, as Locke’s own Essay Concerning Human Understanding opens with the image:

The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see, and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself:  and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance, and make it its own object.  But . . . whatever it be, that keeps us so much in the dark to ourselves; sure I am, that all the light we can let in upon our own minds . . . will not only be very pleasant, but bring us great advantage. (55)

It is very difficult, however, to find instances of this image in Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  Indeed, gustatory, tactile, and aural descriptions of teaching all seem more common than visual ones.  Locke favors the idea of engraving on metal or impressing in wax over the idea of the enlightened eye, and concerns himself more with moral example than with any other object of education.  Indeed, taking up the question of tutelage versus classroom education, he says,

‘Tis Vertue then, direct Vertue, which is the hard and valuable part to be aimed at in Education . . . All other Considerations and Accomplishments should give way and be postpon’d to this.  This is the solid and substantial good, which Tutors should not only read Lectures, and talk of; but the Labour, and Art of Education should furnish the mind with, and fasten there, and never cease till the young Man had a true relish of it, and placed his Strength, his Glory, and  his Pleasure in it. (170)

This emphasis on moral formation as the primary goal of education leads Locke to emphasize the relationship between parents and children, and to prefer well-chosen tutors as the constant guardians of a child’s character.  Thus Locke strongly opposes sending children off to school.  He admits that “Being abroad . . . will make him bolder, and better able to bustle and shift amongst Boys of his own age; and the emulation of Schoolfellows, often puts Life and Industry into young Lads” (165).  Just the same, he argues that

till you can find a School, wherein it is possible for the Master to . . . shew as great Effects of his Care of forming their Minds to Virtue . . . as of forming their Tongues to the learned Languages; you must confess, that you have a strange value for words, when . . . you think it worth while to hazard your Son’s Innocence and Virtue, for a little Greek and Latin.  (166)

Tutelage, as begun under the parent and continued under the tutor hand-picked by the parent for the moral well-being including the intellectual growth of the child, provides the strongest form of the moral suasion and example Milton sought.  It solves the tension in Comenius between the need to teach the whole class and the need to check up on individual students.

Tutelage also provides a solution for the problem of inclination; by constructing an entire lifestyle in which learning can be fitted to the inclinations of the student, the parent and tutor are able to carry out Locke’s instruction that “None of the Things they are to learn should ever be made a Burthen to them, or imposed on them as a Task” (172).  Instead,

Change of Temper should be carefully observed in them, and the favourable Seasons of Aptitude and Inclination be heedfully laid hold of:  And if they are not often enough forward of themselves, a good Disposition should be talked into them, before they be set upon to do any thing. (173)

No solution, of course, is entirely without the final obstacle:  human perversity.  While Locke’s model removes the obstacles present in Comenius and Milton, even he must finally admit that there is the possibility of “a manifest perverseness of the Will” (179).  In the home, however, Locke finds the remedy of corporal punishment appropriate for “obstinacy, which is an open defiance,” in a way which would be inappropriate for the schools envisioned by Comenius and Milton (179).  Even then, the goal remains to punish “till the Impressions of it on the Mind were found legible in the Face, Voice, and Submission of the Child,” and to do so very rarely.  Failing all remedies, Locke acknowledges the ultimate inadequacy of theory:  “If it be any Father’s Misfortune to have a Son thus perverse and untractable, I know not what more he can do, but pray for him” (186).

Locke’s solution has one obvious problem, of course:  it is very hard to imagine a one-to-one correspondence of adequately educated parents, or adequately concerned tutors, to potential students.  It provides, however, for those parents who are able, a model of what is most desirable in education; and, for the classroom teacher, awareness of the ideal to aim at provides a corrective to the excess optimism which Comenius and even Milton fall into.  Modernism in education, believing all too readily that students were eyes waiting to be enlightened, has failed to address the ear and the heart.  Locke’s Some Thought’s Concerning Education should call teachers and parents to an awareness of the need for education in the etymological sense, a “drawing out” of the moral response to the truth presented in speech, text, and example.

Works Cited

Comenius, John Amos.  Selections.  Classics in Education 33.  NY:  Teacher’s Col P, 1967.

Locke, John.  The Educational Writings of John Locke.  Ed. James L. Axtell.  London:  Cambridge UP, 1968.

Locke, John.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ed. Roger Woolhouse.  NY:  Penguin, 1997.

Milton, John.  The Riverside Milton.  Ed. Roy Flannagan.  NY:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

From my First Published Article

In my first year in graduate school at Baylor University, I had the pleasure of taking a seminar in Robert & Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry with Dr. Mairi Rennie, of Oxford, visiting head of the Armstrong Browning Library.  Based on her suggestions, I extended and finished my seminar paper, which was published in Studies in Browning and His Circle the following year.

I’ve selected an excerpt which I am pleased with, in its working with texts and the insight it helps to establish (one I capitalize on later in the paper), and also—quite intentionally—one that reflects my prejudice, at the time, about “Romanism.”  I will point out that what I say in this excerpt is definitely true of Robert Browning’s attitude toward the Catholic Church:  he was reputedly a vehement anti-Catholic through much of his life, and had been reared in a radical dissenting sect (developing such an infatuation with the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley in adolescence that he declared himself an atheist for a couple years).  You will not fail to notice, though, that at the time I originally wrote this I reflexively adopted the same perspective.  I am most grateful that I have been afforded the time and gracious opportunity to thoroughly reverse that attitude!

Here, then, an excerpt from “Tipping the Scales:  Contextual Clues in Bishop Blougram’s Apology”:

“Healthy vehemence.”  The first issue in unravelling Blougram is, of course, its dramatic form.  Whether Browning’s use of the dramatic form is intended to insure an ultimate relativity of perspective or to engage the reader in an active, rather than passive, process of understanding, its immediate effect is to obscure whatever “truths” the poem may convey behind the limited and possibly suspect viewpoint of an artificial character.  The speaker’s coloring of the facts of experience will, of course, depend on his reactions to that experience.  It is especially interesting, then, that the narrator of the epilogue in Blougram characterizes Gigadibs’ final reaction to his dinner with Blougram as “healthy vehemence.”  The idea of “health” becomes a key reason to believe that it is the later Gigadibs of the epilogue, not the early Gigadibs seen through Blougram’s eyes, nor Blougram himself, that is the intended protagonist of Blougram.

The image of “health” recurs in a later poem of Browning’s, “Confessions.”  In this brief poem, a dying man recounts the view of life he derives from the memory of a secret love affair carried on in his youth.  The ending, “How sad and bad and mad it was– / But then, how it was sweet!” is a typical Browning affirmation of the beauties of love when acted on courageously.  The most intriguing image in the poem, however, comes in a passing phrase uttered by the speaker:  “is the curtain blue / Or green to a healthy eye?”  The speaker then gives his own perspective:  “To mine . . . Blue.”  The question and answer provide a key example of Browning’s use of literary and Biblical contexts.

The question concerning “blue or green” is a reference to the literal coloring of perception caused by jaundice.  More specifically, it echoes the line “all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye” from Pope’s Essay on Criticism.  A glance at the passage in which this line appears reveals the exquisite craftsmanship of the allusion:  Pope is defending the truly original poet against overzealous critics, and says,

Yet shun their fault, who, scandalously nice,
Will needs mistake an author into vice;
All seems infected that the infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.

The plea, of course, applies equally well to the words of the dying man, whose description of the forbidden love affair gives the reader no real reason to believe it was an immoral encounter, and to Browning himself, whose critics persistently misread him.  The important statement, however, for both the dying man and (by implication from Pope’s context) the poet, is “To mine, it serves for the old June weather / Blue above lane and wall.”  The yellow cast of jaundiced perception would make the curtain appear green, but the speaker’s vision is healthy:  he sees blue.  It is those who censure him that are “infected” and “jaundiced.”

The charge of infected perception invokes a familiar Biblical context as well.  Paul, defending the believer’s liberty against external laws, says, “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure.”  As is the case with Pope’s attack on “scandalously nice” critics, so Paul’s warning about fastidious religionists reverts the charge of immorality on those who do not have a fundamentally healthy perspective.  In this context, the dying man speaking to his minister (“reverend sir”) is able to level a substantial critique against superficial moralisms; not only are they the product of a “jaundiced eye,” but they reflect a heart that is “defiled and unbelieving.”

The identification of “healthy vehemence” with spiritual and mental clarity also occurs in Browning’s paradigmatic religious poem, Christmas Eve.  In the poem, the speaker moves through four major viewpoints:  the Zionist chapel, his own initial position, Roman Catholicism, and higher criticism.  In the end, the speaker rejects the mere dogma of Romanism and the mere data of criticism in favor of the most vehement expression of love for God, that of the Zionist chapel.  The transformation of the speaker’s perspective, though, is not a mere intellectual assent or mystical abnegation of self:  it is a healing.  While the speaker “cannot bid / the world admit [God] stooped to heal / My soul,” he is certain that (like Paul and Mary Magdalene) “he named my name”; like the woman in Matthew 9:20-22, he leaps out to seize “the hem of the vesture” for healing and springs “at a passionate bound” back into the chapel.  Having been healed, he is now able to make the affirmation “I choose here!”

The image of health in Blougram, then, should be taken as a serious indication of perspective.  Indeed, Blougram himself argues from the premise that health equates with affirmation when he asserts that the early Gigadibs’ skepticism must force him to “keep [his] bed, / Abstain from healthy acts that prove [him] a man” in order to avoid making any assumptions.  The argument is sound as far as it goes; Gigadibs’ apparent refusal to have any faith if he can’t have all faith is inconsistent with his own actions.  Blougram is more consistent:  he avoids such “healthy acts” as those represented by Napoleon and Shakespeare because he prefers to dine, / Sleep, read and chat in quiet.”  However, as the later Gigadibs’ reaction of “sudden healthy vehemence” illustrates, Blougram’s self-justification undermines itself by demonstrating that he suffers from a “jaundiced eye” because he is “defiled and unbelieving.”