The Sense of Crisis
MILTON DWELLS, most of all, on the crisis situation in human life. It is the moment of big decision that engages his interest. His concern is for those times when the individual is confronted by the gravest difficulties, the hardest tasks, the greatest risks, the largest opportunities for failure, the biggest chance to make the wrong decision, the threat of despair, and the easeful solution of giving up. His emphasis is less on striving for the glory of success than it is on gaining a triumph out of failure or coping successfully with a failure that is almost thrust upon the individual.
This description may sound like the tactics of a dramatist, especially the writer of tragedy. But Milton was not a dramatist in any regular sense of that term, and Samson Agonistes alone can be thought of (and thought of inadequately) as a tragedy.
What is at issue is, in fact, the reflection of Milton's deep view of the way the talented individual is obliged to make his way through life. Life is not quite a natural setting for tragedy, as Scaliger described the situation of tragedy in his Poetics: "All things wear a troubled look; there is a pervading sense of doom, there are exiles and deaths" ( 1561, Book I, chapter VI); but a little of that flavor is present in Milton.
The characteristic situation in Milton's writings is alienation. Villainy of one sort or another permeates all of the dramatic poems. All of the characters whose task is villainy are outsiders, unattached, unconnected, unrelated, without friends or family, at odds with the world. Sometimes other characters as well seem