May 10, 2006

John Milton on Adversity

    Adversity breeds life.
An Etching of Samson, from an 1882 German Bible  source: wikimedia
 Milton liked to write about adversity because he saw it in the paradox of Christian life. Jesus died so we might have life.  “They also serve who only stand and wait” is the last line of Milton’s sonnet on blindness.  And in the Areopagitica he writes, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”  We go searching for death, and life springs up again, as usual, to quote Virginia Woolf. Actually what she really wrote was I meant to write about death only life came breaking in as usual. It is funny how one remembers quotes incorrectly.  Adversity is something I intuit in my own life; I have an intimate impulse, like Samson, but I also scheme and think too much like Satan in Paradise Regained, storing it up for later.  Why, just yesterday somebody tried my patience and I just pretended to wait, not like Jesus, “The time prefixed I waited,” (PR 1.269) as if waiting for God’s prefixed time, but rather a time when I could get back at someone and use their words against them.
    No one likes to wait yet we sense and intuit that patience and waiting are good things.  I wish I could wait and serve like Samson and Jesus but Satan's jittery insistence to outwit God (again) seems awfully childish but worth the effort -- especially those times when you feel like Samson, blind and shorn.  In this paper I am going to talk about this adversarial jig-a-lig between waiting and serving and scheming insistence and how it plays itself out in both poems, “insistence” in Paradise Regained and “waiting” in Samson Agonistes.
    In Paradise Regained the Adversary (1.33) is determined to dupe God by insisting on sabotaging Jesus, God’s Messiah, the guy who waits and waits, calm and demur as a cat in the hot sun with his belly bare.  Jesus makes himself vulnerable by exposing himself to the desert.  Samson is vulnerable and is humbled by his weakness in the prison in Gaza, captured by the Philistines after Dalila, his wife, dupes him.  In Paradise Regained, Jesus’s mode of operation is just to sit there and take it.  The adversary, "roving still about the world" (1.34-35) finds Jesus in the desert and appears to him disguised as an old man, but Jesus is not convinced by this quick ploy to deceive him with wise words.  “Why dost thou then suggest to me distrust, knowing who I am, as I know who thou art?” (1.356). The archfiend now undisguised is first shorn of his appearance, revealed as superficial and a fake.  He is “dissembled, inly stung with anger and disdain,” not a Samson, shorn and blind, still believing in God.  Satan's insistence is "inly stung" (1.466). Satan gets so pissed off at his inability to fool Jesus with his cool words that he disappears as quickly as he had come by the end of Book one.  Satan tries to convince Jesus that truth is hard to achieve, Satan argues, and it is a bummer to have to wait for it.  Those atheistic priests who mumble prayers but do not believe are not any better, Satan contends.  Satan pulls out the lowly and woe is me card and pleads to Jesus as a supplicant, “Thou art placed above me, thou art Lord” (1.475) which gives Satan an excuse to dismiss God’s law because his not as equipped with God power, so, he reasons, he’ll fail.
    Unlike Satan, Samson, knows his mission (although he question’s God ways), so when his father Manoah insists on ransoming him from Gaza and taking him home, Samson desists, saying it is impossible; he has been such a wretch, having succumbed to Dalila’s shears and is a disgrace to his country.  Samson’s only response is to sit idle on the feast of Daigon, waiting, seemly doing nothing.  “Here rather let me drudge and earn my bread, till vermin or the draff of servile food consume me, and oft-invocated death hasten the welcome end of all my pains” (573-576).  Samson has consigned himself to waiting, like the newly baptized in Paradise Regained who cry to God for a Messiah.  Samson is plagued with the Job like questions of, ‘why is this happening to me’? Why did he lose his strength to a concubine and why is God doing this to him, the strongest and greatest warrior in the country?  Samson is similar to Satan in this grapple with truth but the difference is in how both deal with the adversity.
    Satan knows his insistence to deceive Jesus is unfortunate but he clings to the liberty "to round this globe of earth," although he curiously prefaces it with the word "prison," even though Samson is the real one in prison, "Life in captivity, among inhuman foes" (108-9).  As in Paradise Lost, Satan’s prison is psychological and tormented, “inly racked” (PR 3.203).  He is the classic psychotic.  Satan does not trust God, does not see in adversity salvation and creates castles in the sky, scheming to destroy God’s work.  Samson’s distrust is human distrust, while Satan is hardwired in distrust and anger that ends up confounding him in the end.  Both poems use this image of the prison, the desert, a place of exile, to tease out the struggle between waiting and action, freedom and bondage. 
    In book three, Satan directly challenges waiting, when he ask Jesus, “Why move thy feet so slow to what is best? …. Perhaps thou linger’st in deep thoughts detained” (3.224; 227).  In other words, Satan is telling Jesus, that compared to him, who is already damned to hell – I have nothing to lose – but you, who are the son of God, why don’t you just do something?  Satan mentions that Jesus’s entire life has been private, unlived, “What of perfection can in man be found?” (3.230) as he tries to convince the son of God to put away his meek life and conquer the world and all it holds.  Jesus merely replies that God has his due time and we must trust his providence.  This really gets Satan rolling with anger and the rest of the poem is a crescendo to the denouement of the fall where the title, “O patient son of God” is a curse and Satan disturbs Jesus’s with thunder bolts and rain.  Satan is the inverse of patience: a troubling wandering and stewing that mocks patience in its waiting but serves only to erupt at any moment.  Satan has watched Jesus from a far ever since he heard that this might be the Messiah, but it is not the same moral waiting imbued to Mary and John the Baptist.
    In Samson Agonistes, after Samson and his father speak, Dalila enters, the second person to tempt Samson to depart Gaza and give up on the prophecy that Samson will be great.  Dalila and Satan are structured with this same deceptive insistence to get what they want at any cost and in any rhetorical guise.  Samson yells, albeit oxymoronically, “My wife, My traitress!  Let her not come to me,” (725) she comes anyway, disrespecting boundaries.  For Dalila, her insistence to see Samson is fueled by conjugal desire which “prevailing over fear and timorous doubt, hath led me on, desirous to behold once more thy face …” (739-40).  Dalila wants to see Samson because of sexual desire but it is not because she really is afraid of rejection or anything; she is not as meek as that.  She wants fame is jealous of Samson’s fame – she is timorous of the prophecy and fears she will end up an unknown Philistine.  Like Satan, Dalila speaks in half-truths and justifies her insistence with false alloy.  She seems to seek forgiveness from Samson but Samson is loath to grant her such pleasure.  Dalila comes professing love and justification for her actions, and like Manoah, tells him, “… I may fetch thee from forth this loathsome prison-house, to abide with me …” (921-22).  Like Satan, Dalila is tempting Samson out of the desert of Gaza.  But also like Satan, Dalila will not win.  Samson dismisses her insistent flattery and says, “This jail I count the house of liberty to thine, whose doors my feet shall never enter.” (949-50).  When she approaches him to touch his hand Samson tells her to go away and find fame in her “hastened widowhood.”
    It is also interesting how other perceive Samson and Christ.  They do not respect their insistence to wait and serve God.  People wonder where Jesus has gone to for such a long time; why is he not here?  They think Jesus has deserted him, like the way Mary, his mother and Joseph felt when he was lost in the Temple, waiting on the sacred teachers in the Temple.  The crowd in Samson Agonistes is adverse to Samson too, stupid in their perception of why Samson will not act.  So it is not only an inner struggle of adversity of waiting pinned against acting, but also the social awareness and perception of the people around both Jesus and Samson and how they are complicit in the temptation to give up on God’s mandate.  Mary says of her son, “Private, unactive, calm, contemplative, little suspicious to any king.”  In other words, it seems like she is saying, how can this guy be a king – he does not have the public attitude, the active and moving force of a king.  It is like the crowds in Samson Agonistes when they say, “Can this be he, that heroic, that renowned, irresistible Samson” (124-26) who killed thousands of Philistines with the jaw of an ass?  Can this be he, who is now “in slavish habit, ill fitted weeds o’er worn and spoiled” (122-23)?  But Mary does wait for her son, “But I to wait with patience am inured” (PR 1.102) like Samson in that she does not understand God’s law, yet still she waits in patience.
    Bu what is the end result in the adversarial conflict in both poems?  How does waiting and action resolve itself?  Waiting and serving turn out well for Jesus.  He confounds Satan with his virtuous patience and steadfastness.  Satan is confounded.  Milton uses a long epic simile to describe Satan’s fall that is really cool.  We hear of Samson’s triumph from a messenger who tells us that Samson implodes the temple walls in on himself and is crushed to death by the pillars.  In a weird way he becomes a hero.  But it is still sad.  Samson’s waiting is tinged with self-doubt and shame; he more than anyone in either of the poem comes closest to the struggle with good and evil, patience and waiting that Milton sought in his interpretation of Christian paradox.  In this way Samson Agonistes is a very difficult poem but the most Miltonic of the two.  Paradise Regained tidies up the problem quite nicely with Satan on his knees and Jesus triumph.  My head hurts from all this thinking.  I think I am going to post now.


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