The New Culture Wars: The Restoration

John Milton, from Samson Agonistes

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 Online Archive.

["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 along,
      Where I will see thee heartened and fresh clad,
      To appear as fits before th' illustrious lords.
SAMSON. Thou know'st I am an Hebrew; therefore tell them
      Our Law forbids at their religious rites
      My presence; for that cause I cannot come.
OFFICER. This answer, be assured, will not content them.
SAMSON. Have they not sword-players, and every sort
      Of gymnic artists, >> note 1 wrestlers, riders, runners,
      Jugglers and dancers, antics, mummers, >> note 2 mimics,
      But they must pick me out, with shackles tired,
      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 come.
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 jester,
      And in my midst of sorrow and heart-grief
      To show them feats, and play before their god,
      The worst of all indignities, yet on me
      Joined >> 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 produce.
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 bear.
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 the mind,
      This day will be remarkable in my life
      By some great act, or of my days the last.

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