Milton's Burden of Interpretation

By Dayton Haskin | Go to book overview

6. Keeping Secrets, Telling Secrets in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes

...full summ'd to tell of deeds
Above Heroic, though in secret done,
And unrecorded left through many an Age,
Worthy t' have not remain'd so long unsung.

-- Paradise Regained, I, 14-17

By contrast with critical work on Paradise Regained, the most telling criticism of Samson Agonistes in recent years has claimed little for the importance of biblical texts, and it has advocated strong skepticism in the face of the pretensions of interpreters. That various characters in Milton's poem, as well as readers of it, seek by questionable interpretive methods to fill in a number of gaps in the story of Samson has been demonstrated in impressive detail by Stanley Fish. Without explicitly committing himself to the hypothesis that Samson was Milton's last poem, Fish has asserted that it represents the culmination of an interpretive "progress" on which Milton had set out in 1644 when he wrote Areopagitica. The "perpetuall progress" that Milton advocated in the pamphlet came to entail for him, Fish proposes, giving up all certainty, so that Milton came finally to live with "radical incompleteness" glorying in a "strenuous" Christian liberty as "terrifying" as it is "liberating."1

One conclusion to be drawn in the course of this chapter will prove largely congruent with what Fish has demonstrated about Samson Agonistes, that it "renders us incapable of performing the task we are assigned" by it, above all "the task of interpreting" Samson's final action. In Milton's representation of the hero's last hours, he drew on the criterion for interpretation whereby readers ought not to "pry...further" than is "meant," and recapitulated many ambiguities in Scripture concerning Samson's status and mission rather than resolving them. Milton's Samson, "immixed, inevitably" in conflicting estimates of his person and conduct, lies finally "tangled in the fold, / Of dire necessity."

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