Spiritual Regeneration

Perhaps the central aspect of Samson Agonistes is that Milton has internalised the action; until the reported catastrophe at the temple of Dagon the action takes place within the mind of Samson. Milton records Samson's recovery of his vocation and return to divine favour not in terms of the hero's actions, but choosing to focus on the development of his spiritual awareness and education. The Aristotelian 'middle' of the tragedy (which Dr. Johnson found to be so wanting) is found here, in the spiritual dynamics of the play. Many modern critics would agree with A. Barker that 'Samson's experience is so far from having no middle that it is in effect all middle.'

For the most part, modern critics have read Samson Agonistes as Milton's study in spiritual regeneration. It has often been asserted that the ideas advocated in De Doctrina Christiana provided the backbone for Milton's poetic handling of Samson's spiritual development. Indeed, the 'process' of Samson's spiritual rebirth or 'regeneration' is taken from the Miltonic doctrines of renovation and regeneration outlined in De Doctrina.

Theological interpretations of the tragedy are useful in deciphering Samson's recovery from sin and death to divine grace - a spiritual journey from temporal darkness to inner light and from loss to restoration. This spiritual regeneration is paralleled in the time scheme of the play; according to the classical precepts of tragedy, Milton takes his reader from the first encounter with Samson at the prison in Gaza in early morning to the climax in the temple of Dagon at high noon. Indeed, Samson's recovery of divine grace is located at the centre of the plot.

Samson's renovation has already begun when we are first introduced at the prison in Gaza. The germ of the hero's regeneration emerges in the middle of his opening soliloquy (l.46).

'A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on;
For yonder bank hath choice of sun or shade,
There I am wont to sit, when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil,
Daily in the common prison else enjoined me,
Where I a prisoner chained, scarce freely draw
The air imprisoned also, close and damp,
Unwholesome draught: but here I feel amends,
The breath of heaven fresh blowing, pure and sweet,
With day-spring born; here leave me to respire.' (1-11)

The ambiguous imagery of the 'guiding hand' by which the blind Samson is helped up the dark steps of the prison serves as both the hand of the unnamed figure, and more subtly, the hand of God. This allusion is emblematic of the mysterious workings of divine grace and the possibility for rebirth. Through subtle literary allusion, Milton indicates that for Samson, even though fallen from God's favour, free will is operative from the outset. The dark steps prefigure the latent stages of his enlightenment and regeneration. The embankment offers Samson 'choice of sun or shade', light or dark. The gentle leading of the unseen hand is as much spiritual as it is physical.

Samson's initial response to renovating grace issues lies in self-pity and vocational murmurings against the ways of Providence. However, like Adam, recognition of his own sin allows Samson to begin the journey towards reconciliation with God. Right reason is restored in Samson, and he takes his first step towards regeneration almost simultaneously by conceding responsibility for his present condition:

'Yet stay, let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine prediction; what if all foretold
Had been fulfilled but through mine own default,
Whom have I to complain of but myself?' (ll.43-6)

Samson's sense of guilt and recognition of his sin provides the germination of his gradual return to God. Conviction of sin is the first of the 'progressive steps' of repentance Milton outlined in De Doctrina Christiana. Nevertheless, in redemptive theology Samson's position at this point of the tragedy is still precarious. The hero still laments his vocation, and by implication questions God's ways,

'O impotence of mind, in body strong!
But what is strength without a double share
Of wisdom, vast, unwieldy, burdensome,
Proudly secure, yet liable to fall
By weakest subtleties, not made to rule,
But to subserve where wisdom bears command.' (ll.52-7)

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