"Rousing Motions" and the Silence of God: Scripture and Immediate Revelation in Samson Agonistes and Clarel

By Urban, David | Leviathan, March-October 2002 | Go to article overview

"Rousing Motions" and the Silence of God: Scripture and Immediate Revelation in Samson Agonistes and Clarel


Urban, David, Leviathan


An intriguing issue in John Milton's Samson Agonistes is the problem of immediate spiritual revelation from God, and whether the individual believer may discern accurately God's "promptings." Milton raises this question by portraying Samson's direct supernatural revelation as potentially delusional, but also as a legitimate means of divine communication that, when correctly understood, can lead to redemption. In this sense, Samson Agonistes depicts a Hebrew God whose will may finally be known by the genuine servant who has first demonstrated obedience to the divine commands codified in the Bible.

Given his annotations of Samson Agonistes, and his spiritual quest narrative, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville would not agree with either the potential for our accurate interpretation of authentic divine revelation or for the intelligibility of God's intentions. As Robin Grey puts it, Melville considered Milton's God in Samson Agonistes to be "so inscrutable to his followers that they cannot distinguish inspiration from delusion, paternal chastisement from abandonment and betrayal." Melville's perception of Milton's God is essentially indistinguishable from his own mature view of the Deity as "a dark, distant, mysterious God." (1) But, based upon instances in Clarel, Melville's disquieting idea of God colors more than his own view of Samson's God. It appears to elide questions about Clarel's ability to distinguish authentic direct spiritual illumination from self-delusion, and a meaningful understanding of scripture from blind allegiance to it. In Samson Agonistes Milton predicates spiritual illumination upon the recipient's obedience to a code made manifest in an essentially trustworthy biblical text. In Clarel, Melville vitiates the possibility of direct spiritual illumination by lodging it in a blindly obedient, millenarian fanatic, the doddering Nehemiah. As Grey's interpretation of Melville's annotations suggests, Melville's reading of Samson Agonistes reveals an identification with both Samson and the Miltonic presence he sees in that character (p. 218). But Melville's alignment of Milton's autobiographical hero with his own spiritual struggles reveals the extent to which the character of Clarel is increasingly unable to accept the possibility of an individual's receiving genuine guidance from the revelation of God, whether it is a revelation of the written scripture or an unmediated revelation of the Spirit.

A key difference between Milton's text and Melville's is that the characters in Samson Agonistes (with the possible exception of the Philistines) assume that God does in fact communicate, both through the written Law and, in certain circumstances, directly to his specially chosen servants. The problem is not the existence of revelation, but our ability to discern it rightly. In Clarel, Melville's protagonist has his faith shaken by exposure to the "Higher Criticism" of the Bible. Clarel assumes a cautious attitude toward revelation and, unlike Milton's Samson, he experiences nothing that would restore his previous confidence in a communicative God. In Samson Agonistes, the matter of immediate revelation is addressed in conjunction with the question of whether a specific revelation can be trusted if it goes against the explicit teachings of the written scriptures. Throughout Milton's drama, Samson considers himself the recipient of divine inspiration, for he believes that God has led him to marry his two Philistine wives, the woman of Timna and Dalila, even though marrying a Canaanite goes against Mosaic Law. Indeed, Samson's violation of a clear scriptural command accomplishes God's broader commandment in written scripture, for he obeys the larger sense of the Bible. But in his discernment of God's "leadings" in his two marriages, Samson proves himself to be both a successful and an unsuccessful interpreter of special revelation: he properly recognizes God's true will in his first marriage, but because he has been deluded by his own lusts, arrogance, and presumption, he mistakes his unlawful desire for Dalila as another manifestation of God leading him to marry a Philistine woman. …

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