Over the past week I have been reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco. It is one of the greatest books I have ever read, but is very overwhelming. You simply cannot read it all the way through in a few days. It is a book that needs to be savored. It demands reflection and meditation. For that reason, it is still unfinished. Simply put, I needed a break. It is so evocative that it actually tires the reader. In order to give Report to Greco the close attention it deserves, I decided to take a break and read something else today. My choice was the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes by John Milton.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is (in my opinion) the greatest work of English literature ever. It is the closest thing to Homer that the English language has ever produced. His next best known work is the companion to Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained. It is also outstanding, but is less epic in scope than Paradise Lost. Beyond those two poems, few of Milton’s works are widely known. That is an absolute shame. Milton and Shakespeare are the twin pillars of English literature. Shakespeare is Aeschylus, the unmatchable playwright. Milton is Homer, the epic genius.
Samson Agonistes finds Milton straying into Shakespeare’s territory. Milton calls the work a ‘dramatic poem,’ meaning a play that is meant only to be read, rather than performed. The play tells the story of Samson after his betrayal by Delilah and capture by the Philistines. He is now a slave, blinded by his captors. His hair has grown back and his strength has returned, but is used only to work the mill in Gaza for his captors. On the day of the play, a great feast is being held in honor of the Philistine god Dagon to celebrate the triumph over Samson. As Samson bewails his fate, he is visited by a group of Hebrews who seek to comfort him. He is inconsolable. He is visited by his father, who intends to ransom the unlucky hero. Samson is unmoved. He is visited by Delilah, who seeks forgiveness. He rebuffs her advances. He is visited by a celebrated Philistine giant (the father of Goliath) who insists he would have defeated Samson on the battlefield. Samson challenges him to a fight, but the giant declines. Finally, Samson is visited by a messenger demanding he attend the feast so that the Philistines may show off their vanquished foe. He refuses at first, but eventually sees God’s hand in the invitation. He attends the banquet and performs every feat of strength demanded by his captors. Samson then proposes a greater feat of strength than any yet attempted and tears down the two pillars supporting the roof of the hall. Both Samson and the Philistine nobles are killed by the collapse of the building.
This play is an excellent example of Milton’s genius. He follows all of the rules of Classical Greek tragedy. For that reason, it is a very different play from any of Shakespeare’s. The language is beautiful and moving. The characters are absolutely believable. Milton’s psychological insight is remarkable. Samson is one of the great dramatic heroes of all time. I highly recommend this play to anyone with an interest in English literature. It is a relatively quick read (around 50 pages) and very rewarding.
The Current Count: 36 Read, 64 To Go