Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Typology, Politics, and Theology in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Typology, Politics, and Theology in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes

Article excerpt

This article contends that John Milton's use of reverse typology to connect Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained has both theological precedent and historical implications. Reformed exegesis and Arianism provide theological contexts through which to understand Milton's placement of the New Testament Son before the Old Testament Samson. The complexity of Miltonic typology offers an implicit commentary on vapid Restoration typologies that mindlessly identify Stuart monarchs with Old Testament kings. Filially, the article shows that typology supplies a means by which Milton legitimates Samson's act of religious violence.


IN Towards "Samson Agonistes" (1978), Mary Ann Radzinowicz influentially declared the "failure of typological criticism to elucidate the relationship between Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes." (1) Some commentators of the 1980s and onward have tempered her statement by characterizing John Milton's own moves toward typology as diffident or indecisive. David Loewenstein maintains that "the argument for Christian typology in Samson Agonistes has been exaggerated since Milton makes no specific mention of Christ's persecution and crucifixion." (2) More recently Noam Reisner has seen "incomplete Christian typologies" as linked to qualities of the tragedy; and Tobias Gregory argues that, while "Milton would have known about the traditional typological association between Samson and Jesus," he "does not evoke it explicitly in either poem." (3) Another school of thought renders Samson Agonistes either as antitypological or as employing typology in what Christopher Kendrick has called a "vexed and reflexive" way. (4) In "Typological Impulses in Samson Agonistes," Kendrick describes a spectrum of such attitudes, ranging from the avowedly antitypological and/ or historicist readings of Joseph Wittreich, Jason Rosenblatt, and Stanley Fish to those emphasizing the play's negotiation between "Old and New dispensations," viewing "the relation between them," and hence the role of typology, "as a matter of ongoing struggle and readjustment." (5) Above and beyond these positionings, however, the main modern objection to bridging the two poems through typology lies in the much simpler matter of their physical arrangement. As Maggie Kilgour points out, an Old to New Testament sequence would have made critics' lives easier:

If Samson had been placed first in the volume, the two poems would have followed a neat typological sequence: we would read about the Old Testament man of action first and then move on to the new, improved New Testament story of heroic suffering.... But Paradise Regain'd precedes Samson Agonistes in the volume. The reading experience takes us backwards in time, undercutting typology and teleology in general. (6)

In Kilgour's account, the sequence of the poems actually precludes the coherence of a typological reading. (7) Indeed, among critics who forego the typological question altogether, there is some consensus that the poems' contiguity is not substantive at all but accidental, born of external pressures upon Milton and his printer in 1671. According to this argument, the joint publication constituted either a means to escape censorship (hiding the offensively revolutionary Samson behind the offensively boring Son), or an inspired piece of salesmanship on the part of John Starkey, the stationer. (8)

In contrast to antitypological, quasi-typological, and accidentalist readings alike, this article seeks to affirm the broad-scale, substantive validity--theological, poetic, and historical--of interpreting the relationship of the two poems typologically. Drawing on Reformation theology as an ongoing presence in the political and religious context of Restoration England, I offer a rationale for what I term the poems' reverse typology. I use "reverse" advisedly. While some would agree that Milton's tendency is to complicate rather than to reject typological convention, my interest lies less in his metacritical and historiographic musings than in his direct confrontation of readers with the political valences of typological practice. …

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