The New Culture Wars: The Restoration
John Milton, from Samson
This exchange (lines 1310–89)
between the blinded Samson and the Philistine
officer sent to bring him to perform feats
of strength at a festival celebrating the
idol Dagon underscores religious issues after
the Restoration of Charles II, when Puritan
religious practice was suppressed and dissenters
were required, under severe penalties, to
worship in their parish (Anglican) churches
according to a liturgy many thought idolatrous.
The various arguments set forth here — for
outward conformity, for submission to absolute
power or force, for obedience to God's
law rather than man's, for following
the inspiration of God's Spirit as superior
to all law, human or divine — were
all positions developed in response to the
dissenters' plight in the Restoration.
Milton's closet drama, published in 1671,
is not political allegory, but at times it
resonates with the situation of contemporary
Puritans, including Milton himself.
The story of Samson is told
in Judges 13–16. For the complete text
of Samson Agonistes, go to the Norton
["I will not come"]
|OFFICER. Samson, to thee our lords thus
bid me say:
This day to Dagon is a solemn feast,
With sacrifices, triumph, pomp, and games;
Thy strength they know surpassing human rate,
And now some public proof thereof require
To honour this great feast, and great assembly.
Rise, therefore, with all speed and come
Where I will see thee heartened and fresh
To appear as fits before th' illustrious
SAMSON. Thou know'st I am an Hebrew; therefore tell them
Our Law forbids at their religious rites
My presence; for that cause I cannot come.
OFFICER. This answer, be assured, will not content them.
SAMSON. Have they not sword-players, and every sort
Of gymnic artists,
>> note 1 wrestlers,
Jugglers and dancers, antics, mummers,
>> note 2 mimics,
But they must pick me out, with shackles
And over-labored at their public mill,
To make them sport with blind activity?
Do they not seek occasion of new quarrels,
On my refusal, to distress me more,
Or make a game of my calamities?
Return the way thou cam'st; I will not
OFFICER. Regard thy self, this will offend them highly.
SAMSON. Myself? my conscience, and internal peace.
Can they think me so broken, so debased
With corporal servitude, that my mind ever
Will condescend to such absurd commands?
Although their drudge, to be their fool or
And in my midst of sorrow and heart-grief
To show them feats, and play before their
The worst of all indignities, yet on me
>> note 3 with
extreme contempt! I will not come.
OFFICER. My message was imposed on me with speed,
Brooks no delay: is this thy resolution?
SAMSON. So take it with what speed thy message needs.
OFFICER. I am sorry what this stoutness
>> note 4 will
SAMSON. Perhaps thou shalt have cause to sorrow indeed.
CHORUS. Consider, Samson; matters now are strained
Up to the height, whether to hold or break.
He's gone, and who knows how he may report
Thy words by adding fuel to the flame?
Expect another message, more imperious,
More lordly thundering than thou well wilt
SAMSON. Shall I abuse this consecrated gift
Of strength, again returning with my hair
After my great transgression, so requite
Favor renewed, and add a greater sin
By prostituting holy things to idols,
A Nazarite in place abominable
Vaunting my strength in honor to their Dagon?
Besides how vile, contemptible, ridiculous,
What act more execrably unclean,
>> note 5 profane?
CHORUS. Yet with this strength thou serv'st the Philistines,
Idolatrous, uncircumcised, unclean.
SAMSON. Not in their idol-worship, but by labor
Honest and lawful to deserve my food
Of those who have me in their civil power.
CHORUS. Where the heart joins not, outward acts defile not.
SAMSON. Where outward force constrains, the sentence holds;
>> note 6
But who constrains me to the temple of Dagon,
Not dragging? The Philistian lords command:
Commands are no constraints. If I obey them,
I do it freely, venturing to displease
God for the fear of man, and man prefer,
Set God behind; which in his jealousy
Shall never, unrepented, find forgiveness.
Yet that he may dispense with me, or thee
Present in temples at idolatrous rites
For some important cause,
>> note 7 thou
need'st not doubt.
CHORUS. How thou wilt here come off surmounts my reach.
SAMSON. Be of good courage; I begin to feel
Some rousing motions in me which dispose
To something extraordinary my thoughts.
I with this messenger will go along —
Nothing to do, be sure, that may dishonor
Our Law or stain my vow of Nazarite.
If there be aught of presage
>> note 8 in
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.