Volume > Issue > John Milton, Farewell

John Milton, Farewell


By James Como | July-August 2022
James Como is Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and Public Communication and a founding member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society (1969). His latest book is Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book (Winged Lion Press, 2022).

Who still reads Milton? If there is a canon, he is barely included, and I pay attention to him only to see if I might be done with him. Of course, Paradise Lost (1667) was enthralling, notwithstanding its foul anti-Catholicism. Here was complex storytelling in a grand style with characters greater than any from the ancient Greek world — and it spoke directly to the truths I hold dear. Other of Milton’s works, too, rewarded variously, particularly his sonnet “On His Blindness” (1673) — in which he wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait” — and his poems l’Allegro (1645) and Il Penseroso (1632). I can see how Douglas Bush, the great scholar of the 17th-century, having forgotten his copy of Paradise Lost while traveling by train to lecture on Milton in some far city, simply recited it from memory. (Since the epic poem proved too short, Bush began Paradise Regained; alas, the train reached its destination before Jesus wins His debate with Satan.) I even fed on The Areopagitica (1644), a clarion call for freedom of speech — except for Catholics.

The critical debates about Milton in the 20th century (there had been none in the 19th century) were also fascinating, especially C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), a defense against T.S. Eliot’s critique. I became absorbed by the poem’s problems. For example, is God the Father merely a jealous tyrant? Is Satan the genuine hero, finally degraded by a poet who realized he had lost control of his material? What to make of the general lack of human sympathy, with Adam and Eve merely helpless victims? Is the Garden no more than a preposterous greenhouse? Is Adam’s fall not sinful but a manifestation of perfect human love? Why is Eve condemnable for wanting to be superior to Adam? What are we to make of Milton’s highly ambiguous treatment of rhetoric, he who defends its free use in Areopagitica? At last, I asked the question that matters most with any literary work: How should we read it? Which is another way of asking, What kind of thing is it? Myth? There are too many concrete anatomical questions for that option: angels eating, digesting, and evacuating. Allegory? In Book V, Raphael hints at that with his, “I shall delineate so, / By lik’ning spiritual to corporeal forms, / As may express them best.” Finally, I came to see Paradise Lost (if it had been written in prose) as an historical novel and, as such, great fun to read.

Many decades on, the verse proper often retaining its astonishments, the general macro-thrill of reading Milton (always excepting the supernatural, cinematic grandeur and horror of Books I and II of Paradise Lost) is gone. He is not what he seems. Simply put, I’ve come to realize that Lucy Beckett, author of In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition (2006), is right: Milton is no Christian. That is, he gets it wrong and, worse, seems not to know it. Much more an Old than a New Testament man, he, in his stulted Puritanism (he got that wrong too), provokes a certain diplopia, an irony, seeming to be one thing but actually being another.

And yet, in light of my preposterous claims (now stipulated: more to come), as well as my pre-enlightened allegiance, I would give this great poet a last chance, in the form of a look at his much-neglected closet drama Samson Agonistes (1671), not least because it is so neglected. First, though, I must (as Milton might say) perambulate, and that begins with Aristotle, as did Milton, whose introduction to the drama emphasized Aristotelian principles.

In his Poetics — which, in a book review, C.S. Lewis found pernicious in its influence (but Lewis’s reviewing voice was much more astringent than any of his other voices) — the Philosopher tells us that tragic poetry must possess a unity based on propriety, harmony, rhythm, and, above all, probability. It should have a definite beginning, middle, and end, with credible cause/effect relationships. Of course, it must provide a catharsis, that satisfying purgation of pity and fear. More important still is that the dramatic event somehow imitate an action of universal significance, the primary agent of which is character revealing some moral purpose. The imitation itself, in its complication and unraveling, should include reversal and surprise.

At the end of the day, the whole should be the object of enlightening contemplation, allowing us to learn about the moral order and the world, from polis to cosmos, and about ourselves, which gives us additional pleasure. (The pithiest application of the Poetics is by John Donne, in his perfectly constructed “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” a two-stanza, 26-line analogy of Euclidean perfection and velvety voice: an unfathomable marvel.)

The action of Samson Agonistes occurs as dialogue both external — as in the Book of Job and Paradise Regained (1671), the latter largely a debate between Satan and Jesus during the temptation in the wilderness — and internal, especially Samson’s emerging self-knowledge respecting temptation and guilt. The physical action — the destruction of the Philistine temple during a feast day celebrating their god Dagon — happens offstage, of course, and is described only at the end by Samson’s father, Manoa.

Blind and shackled, Samson is in a fit of self-pitying despair. The chorus tries to rouse him, but to no effect: he deserves his misery. Dalila, herself repentant, visits, offering to comfort him. Samson forgives her but, in a rant, sends her away: his suffering has apparently taught him something, especially about the root of his betrayal. Manoa then tells Samson he can ransom him, but the victim will have none of it. Finally, Harapha, a giant warrior, comes to see this former strongman but, unsettled by Samson’s offer to a personal battle, withdraws.

We are seeing changes in the hero, who sees these in himself: that his pride got him into this fix, that he is sorry for it, and that he should somehow make amends. When he is led out on display, his hair and strength restored, he feels the power of God and sees his opportunity: a self-sacrifice that will destroy the tormentors of the Israelites. As it happens, Manoa, having secured Samson’s freedom with his bribe, can now only describe the destruction. Samson (who was prophesied as a savior in the Book of Judges), his sin confessed, his guilt purged, will be redeemed by a penance dedicated to the glory of God. The drama certainly has its excitements.

Critics early and late are all over the place. Hilaire Belloc called it, simply, “bad,” whereas David Hopkins thought its language and meter an advance over Paradise Lost. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it the most perfect of its kind, but the kind itself (didactic) inferior. Samuel Johnson called it more debate than poem, and Mark Pattison (who lived most of the 19th century) called it frigid, tired, old, and senile. Contemporary critics have complained at its immorality: all those innocents in the temple killed by the pique — in fact, the guilty conscience — of the re-muscled hero.

On the other hand, I think Milton may have had the Poetics open at his elbow as he composed Samson Agonistes, thereby constructing a near-perfect, pre-Christian (perhaps proto-Christian) work. Samson’s change comes incrementally, by way of reflection prompted by the negative stimuli that remind him of his forsaken identity. Internal causes bring about a monumental physical act, and we, the readers, who behold the spiritual struggle, are relieved: No matter its difficulty, a reversal from moral depths to spiritual heights is possible, in this case, an Act following a renewed Faith in the form of a renewed Identity. (I wonder if the Puritan Milton knew just how much he sounds like St. James defending the need for acts.)

Irony both conscious and dramatic, an apparent lack of probability, and the accretion of subtle signs populate the arc of the action. The major vehicle of dramatic irony is Samson himself, but the messenger, the chorus, and even Manoa support the big man’s role: the work is irony-saturated. After all, who outside the drama does not know the ending? As for improbability, we have Samson’s own words. “Then knowest I am an Ebrew,” he says, “therefore tell them, / Our law forbids at their religious rites / My presence; for that cause I cannot come.” Soon thereafter, he insists, “I will not come.” But 40 lines later, his mind is turning: “Yet that he may dispense with me or thee / Present in Temples at Idolatrous Rites / For some important cause, then needest no doubt.” Finally, he proclaims, “I with this messenger will go alone.” So, in the space of 200 lines, Samson conceives, confirms, and executes his plan, one that we, the audience, saw coming all along. The improbability seems blatant.

Ah, but then there are those signs. “Whom am I to complain of but myself?” Samson asks early on. And a bit later, “But peace, I must not quarrel with the will / Of highest dispensation…above my reach to know.” He is drawn to his mission and yet pulled toward a despair that will prevent him being the savior of his people, “The dungeon of thyself; thy Soul,” the chorus tells him. Nearly 800 lines later, he insists, again, that “all these indignities…I deserve and more…God inflicted on me justly.” Even before the first proclamation, very early on, he seeks purpose, calling himself a fool and demonstrating an awareness of his plight. Of Dalila he says, “She was not the prime cause, but I myself.” Sure, at one point he denies blame, but the chorus, as is the wont of choruses, rebukes him, causing him to acknowledge his guilt without reservation. An awareness of some transcendent purpose finally dawns on him — but that is interrupted by a wave of self-pity.

When he inquires about his own usefulness, Samson’s mind becomes active, not least with memories of pain: his guilt is the foundation of his resolve to avoid past errors. He explicitly, and finally, places his trust in God, and he is ready for action. He is unsure of which action to take but knows he must not “only stand and wait.” The destruction of the temple is the sign of Samson’s regeneration. Here, then, is an interior examination of the “ways of God to Man.”

The action is subtle but firm, as we hear from the chorus: “All is best, though we oft doubt.” In Milton’s Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes (1937), William Riley Parker concludes, “The tragedy has exercised human doubt fully and deeply, in order to serve the moral and intellectual purpose of spreading doubt thin.” Perhaps, and perhaps we must fall back on John Henry Newman’s “illative sense,” a sort of commonsense convergence of probabilities, rather than on dramatic causality.

Where, though, is the Christ, which Jesus is never called in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, or Samson Agonistes? In 1825 an English translation of Milton’s own De doctrina Christiana, written at more or less the same time as Paradise Lost but unpublished in his lifetime, was discovered. Therein he rejects the Trinity, the salvific power of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and the survival of the soul after death. He believed thoroughly in the power of God, demonstrated by the reduction of Satan to a serpent, but that has nothing to do with Christ’s death on the Cross or His descent into Hell. Rather, things are simple for Milton, as he writes in De doctrina: “If there were no God, there would be no dividing line between right and wrong.” Here is Lucy Beckett’s argument in a nutshell:

In both poems Christ [her word, not Milton’s] is presented, not as the second Person of the Trinity, bound in everlasting love to the Father and the holy spirit, but as someone — in Paradise Lost a kind of angelic deputy, in Paradise Regained a perfect man — who has earned [my emphasis] his distinction from all other beings, “found by merit more than birthright the Son of God. Found worthiest to be so by being good, far more than great or high.”

When Samson challenges Harapha, it is to see “whose God is stronger, thine or mine”; that is, neither goodness nor love will matter.

Being “done” with Milton is no small matter. But knowing which Milton one is done with, and why, does matter. He was a great poet whose poetry devolves into statement. One might say he was a proto-Jehovah’s Witness who insists on being called Christian even though the Witness’s Jesus is a created being, just like any angel. The final Miltonic irony: For all the background noise and bluff, this Old Testament Aristotelian never fully made it into the Church founded by the Messiah.

So, yes, notwithstanding the interior depths of Samson Agonistes — its acute examination of a mind in torment, its dynamic display of final, catastrophic decision-making, all superbly rendered by a great dramatic artist (though too autobiographical for my taste) — I am done with Milton.


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