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The failed jeremiad in Samson Agonistes

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2006   by Eugene Johnson

During his travels through Italy, John Milton identified himself in an autograph book with the following epithet from Horace: "Coelum non animum muto dum trans mare curro": "someone who brings a mind not to be changed by place." (1) The immediate echo of this phrase is Satan's proclamation of himself as a Cartesian being ("One who brings / A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time. / The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n"), suggesting that Satan's utterance contains a considerable degree of Miltonic self-parody. (2) This instance of self-critique is part of a larger trend in Milton's later writing. Paradise Lost Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes frequently critique, or reassess, the politics espoused in Milton's earlier pamphlet writing. This paper focuses on Samson Agonistes, which rejects the optimism that informs the relation between individual citizen and national community in Areopagitica. Specifically, Samson's interactions with the Chorus of Danites and his father, Manoa, suggest that the jeremiad, a genre that certainly influences Milton's persona in Areopagitica, is no longer a viable rhetorical means of revitalizing the community due to the principal characters' failure to embrace fully the conventions of the speaker's authority, the argumentative pattern, and the audience response that must necessarily be adopted for the jeremiad to be successful.

Though Areopagitica specifically addresses Milton's concerns about prepublication censorship, Milton's pamphlet has become a touchstone for ideals concerning relations between individual citizens and the nation state. Milton's model of citizenship fuses the concerns of the individual with that of the nation: "Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors; a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to." (3) Milton later continues:

    Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion house of    liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection. The shop of    war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the    plates and instruments of armed justice in defense of beleaguered    Truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious    lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith    to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching    reformation; as others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting    to the force of reason and convincement.      What could a man require more from a nation so pliant and so prone    to seek after knowledge?    (A, p. 743) 

A notable feature of this idealized vision of the national community is the fusion of identity between the speaking persona and the nation. For Milton the spirit of the nation arises from the spirit of its individual citizens. His New Jerusalem is based on the dialogic activity of its inhabitants, who, in their interaction with each other, are continually building "the mansion house of liberty." The nation is the sum of the collected individual citizens. Like the Puritan version of Christianity, in which each individual has an unmediated link with God, Milton's nation is formed out of the unmediated links between individuals and the collective whole. Though the nation arises out of the collective efforts of its citizens, Milton's vision of England grants primacy to the worth and action of the individual. Each person must fully realize his or her potential in dialogue with others, both in dialogue with the Holy Spirit and in dialogue with other citizens. A nation attains "the utmost bound of civil liberty" when the complaints of individual citizens "are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed" (A, p. 718). In Areopagitica, this relation between individual subject and nation is one of mutual enabling. Implicit in Areopagitica is the ideal of the modern nation, which "promises all its citizens a considerable degree of individual agency, the rationally structured and legally insured room to fashion their own lives." (4) The citizens direct their energy toward a vitalized national identity, and the nation state reciprocates by protecting and nurturing the individual. Milton's vision is one of symbiotic dialogism, where each gesture of the nation and citizen prompts the other to a higher degree of fulfillment. In this model of nationalism, the criticism made by an enlightened individual can be rationally absorbed by the collective whole and can effect productive change. In both his prose and his poetry, Milton fashions this enlightened individual after the prophet Jeremiah. In the earlier pamphlets, such as Areopagitica, this generic denunciation of the sins of the nation occurs within an optimistic framework. In Samson Agonistes, however, Milton's earlier optimism has disappeared and the jeremiad exists in the poem only as fragmented rhetoric that can no longer effect change.

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