The Preface and Act I


Milton opens the tragedy with a translation in Latin of a sentence from Aristotle's Poetics. In opening with a reference to Aristotle, Milton immediately asserts the seriousness of his literary endeavour.

The Preface: 'Of that sort of dramatic poetry which is called tragedy'

Milton upholds the value of tragedy, claiming 'as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems'. The poet evokes Aristotle's idea of the power of poetry on the human mind, the 'power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and suchlike passions, that is to temper and reduce them to just measure'. The poet believes in the cathartic power of poetry over the reader. Milton goes on to call upon Natural law to validate this point, and recalls that 'philosophers and other gravest writers' used the tragic poets to uphold their discussion. This belief in the power of literature to invoke change in the reader was by no means new in either Milton´s time or Renaissance England. For example the prefaces to a number of plays by Ben Jonson and references in Andrew Marvell´s poetry reveal the very same concern with the ´duty´ or ´moment´ of the poet. Milton proceeds to justify his use of tragedy by giving eminent examples of its use in the past by 'men of highest dignity'.

Act I

We are first introduced to Samson who laments his position in the prison at Gaza. Samson, betrayed by his wife Dalila, with his fellow Danites is held captive and enslaved by the Philistines. As Samson is led up the 'dark steps' of the prison-house, Milton alludes to the openness of God's grace to the fallen hero. The 'guiding hand' serves as both the anonymous figure who helps Samson, and more importantly as a symbol of God. Outside again Milton provides an allusion to Samson's free will to chose to repent his sins or not with the imagery of the 'yonder bank' that has 'choice of sun or shade' - the light of God, or darkness of his fallen state. Samson has some awareness of this:

'But here I feel amends,
The breath of heav'n fresh-blowing, pure and sweet,
With day-spring born; here leave me to respire.'

Nevertheless, Samson is drowned in self-pity. He laments his fall from grace, the failure to fulfil his vocation, and his enslavement and captivity under the Philistines:

'when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil,
Daily in the common prison else enjoined me,
Where I, a prisoner chained, scarcely freely draw
The air imprisoned also, close and damp.'

We are told of the 'restless thoughts' that plague Samson, which he likens to a 'deadly swarm / Of hornets armed'; Samson recounts the prophecy of his birth and vocation. His doubt is apparent when he considers his vocation:

'Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke' (ll.40-3)

The germ of Samson's spiritual regeneration lies in his ability to acknowledge his own infallibility and that he has sinned against God - 'Whom have I to complain of but myself?' (ll.46) But Samson questions God's ways, that by divine 'dispensation' he has been given such great strength but without the necessary 'double share' of wisdom - 'God, when he gave me strength, to show withal / How slight the gift was, hung it in my hair.' (ll.59-60) Samson is here complains that while God has invested him with great strength to fulfil his vocation, he lacks the complementary wisdom to protect him from such trickery as that of his wife Dalila. Nevertheless, Samson is aware that he must not question God's ways, which humankind can never understand (he concedes this is 'above my reach to know'):

'... let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine prediction
I must not quarrel with the will
Of highest dispensation, which herein
Haply had ends above my reach to know:
Suffices that to me strength is my bane,
And proves the source of all my miseries,
So many and so huge, that each apart
Would ask a life to wail'

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