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The hermeneutics of opposition in 'Paradise Regained' and 'Samson Agonistes'

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 1996   by Anne K. Krook

Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes continue to pose awkward political questions for readers of Milton's other works, both the pre-Restoration political tracts and the post-Restoration Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained seems to advocate political quietism, and it first appeared with Samson Agonistes, as though violent, pyrrhic victory were the alternative to or the consequence of quietism. The two late poems exhibit a despair at the prospects for political action not nearly so prominent in Paradise Lost, though it too was first published well after the Restoration. As disturbing as the despair is the unresolved relation between the two poems and their different responses to false authority: it remains unclear whether the relative passivity of Paradise Regained is to be preferred to the violence that closes Samson Agonistes. Annabel Patterson has remarked of Paradise Regained that "[w]e still do not know whether Milton turned to biblical reinterpretation in order to transcend his political experience, now seen as failed and useless."(1) What she notes about Paradise Regained also holds true for Samson Agonistes and, still more, for the two poems taken together.

Such issues have lately gained prominence in discussions about Milton's work. Reviewing Literature and the English Civil War, Keith W. F. Stavely, for example, notes that "the starkly contrasting perspectives on political action presented in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes" have "rapidly becom[e] the most hotly-debated crux in Milton studies."(2) There are, I think, two main reasons for this renewed debate. The first is the ongoing theoretical struggle to define literature, history, and the relation between them, a struggle whose various manifestations have helped shape many of the currently dominant lines of inquiry in seventeenth-century studies. It is aggravating that Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes should so successfully resist attempts to assess their relation to post-Restoration history, that their commentary on models for appropriate political action should remain occluded when those aspects of the poem might well be thought to be among those most open to analysis in the contemporary critical climate.(3)

The second, and related, reason concerns the differences between the largely implicit hermeneutic modeling in the two late poems and the much more explicit modeling that takes place throughout the rest of Milton's work. One of Milton's life- long projects was demonstrating, in verse and prose, a method of reading sacred and secular histories as matrices for both understanding contemporary politics and acting to change them, which was the explicit project of books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost and the implicit project of the rest of the poem. The assurance of eventually winning that struggle depends on the perceived concord between the historical matrix and contemporary politics, but in the two last poems deictic indications of that concord all but vanish. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes are complex enough in their relation to Milton's contemporary politics if their "heroes" are understood as failed and ineffectual, if Christ and Samson are respectively unattainable and negative role models for the defeated republicans. The poems are still more complex, however, if their heroes are understood to have succeeded as models for political activism. Criticism of Samson Agonistes has asked two major questions about the poem's relation to history: whether it promotes or rejects political activism, and whether it finds Samson's violent, self- destructive end in accordance or in conflict with God's will. Answers no those two questions tend to be linked, so that those who do find Samson's end according with God's will read the poem as calling for political activism, and those who do not read the poem as calling for quietism, or even as giving in to despair.(4) If, however, Paradise Regained were treated as a companion poem offering readers a model for Samson's resistance that can be judged successful only by whether it is striven for, not by whether it is fully achieved, these questions might be separated, so that the ambiguity about whether Samson acts in accordance with God's will need not define the poem's call to or rejection of political activism. In the late paired poems, Milton questions not only whether defeat means ultimate failure but also whether and how defeat changes the kinds of guidelines for reading his own time he can create. At stake is the value of what Milton calls the internal scripture as a guideline to interpreting both the written, or external, scripture and one's own time.(5) In attempting to define the hermeneutics of political opposition and its relation to both internal and external scripture that Milton sets out in his last poems, I examine how Milton moves from Paradise Regained to Samson Agonistes in offering a mode of political resistance that reads Samson as a present instance of Christ's example.(6) Studies of either poem most often treat them as wholly separate or separable entities, a disjunctive kind of reading that potentially obscures whatever implicit links Milton might construct between the example of resistance in Paradise Regained and Samson's subsequent enactment of that example in Samson Agonistes. In order to demonstrate both the interdependence of the two poems and the kind of political engagement they advocate, I address first Christ's paradigmatic nature as Milton sets it out in Paradise Regained, and then the hermeneutic consequences of adding Samson Agonistes to Paradise Regained. Read in this way, the two poems taken together represent not Milton's espousal of political quietism but his covert call to post-Restoration political activism, an activism necessarily clothed in the language and structure of a hermeneutic challenge that can be taken up or left alone. In the late poems, Milton shows the results of acting on the internal scripture at their extremes, as Christ moves to a relatively passive, hermeneutic combat and Samson to a violent, destructive end. In the end, the two poems together offer an interpretative response to the external scripture whose sometimes harsh consequences are open to emulation but not to certain judgment.

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