Autobiographical Context

Many critics have argued that Samson Agonistes has particularly strong autobiographical overtones; it is easy to interpret the poem in this way. Both Samson and Milton share blindness, imprisonment and enslavement, the sense of failure in a great enterprise (for Samson his vocation, and for Milton the English republic), of being spurned by an unworthy people still in bondage through their own doing, of having sought to carry out God's will and of still seeking for a way to do this.

In Samson, Milton speaks of the Philistines as 'lords' - this immediately invokes the idea of the lords returning to power with Charles II. We learn of Dalila's collusion with the Nazarite's enemies, and one is reminded of that moment of poignant bitterness in the Second Defence of the English People, when Milton describes himself 'at home with his children, while the wife and mother was inside the enemy lines, threatening death and destruction to her husband.' There are clearly strong comparisons between major events and difficulties in the lives of John Milton and his literary creation Samson. But what parallel there might be, between Milton's last years and Samson's 'great act' there is a resounding silence among critics.

However, Milton did not have Samson's overwhelming sense of having betrayed God and his own vocation. He did however have to come to terms with the collapse of the intertwined cause religious and political liberty into which he had invested so much faith and effort during the 1640s and 1650s. Just as Samson had to come to terms with the oppression of God's chosen people, during the 1660s Milton had to adapt to the return of the Stuart monarchy, the Anglican Church of England, and the House of Lords. The Chorus in 'Act III' after the temptation of Manoa and before the temptation of Dalila, in its advice to Samson makes subtle political allusions to the Restoration:

'Nor only dost degrade them, or remit
To life obscured, which were a fair dismission,
But throw'st them lower thou than didst exalt them high,
Unseemly falls in human eye,
Too grevious for the trespass or omission;
Oft leav'st them to the hostile sword
Of heathen and profane, their carcasses
To dogs and fowls a prey, or else captived,
Or to the unjust tribunals, under change of times,
And condemnation of the ingrateful multitude.
If these they scape, perhaps in poverty
With sickness and disease thou bow'st them down,
Painful diseases and deformed,
In crude old age;
Though not disordinate, yet causeless suff'ring
The punishment of dissolute days; in fine,
Just or unjust, alike seem miserable,
For oft alike, both come to evil end.' (ll.687-704)

Within the passage Milton alludes to the conditions republicans and Cromwellians faced during the early years of the Restoration. The lines 'their carcasses / To dogs and fowls a prey' almost certainly alludes to the exhumation of the remains of the former Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (d.1657), his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw (Lord President of the High Court that tried and sentenced Charles I) by Royalists on the anniversary of the regicide of Charles I, January 30th 1661. The bodies were dragged to Tyburn where they were decapitated, the heads then impaled outside Westminster Hall. Milton further alludes to the fate of other former Parliamentarians.

An order went out for Milton's arrest during the summer of 1660. For a time the poet was concealed by friends. Milton's friend and MP Andrew Marvell certainly, and perhaps others of influence, worked on the poet's behalf to prevent his proposed exclusion from the Act of Pardon. However, perhaps through a misunderstanding Milton was arrested and imprisoned until December 1660. In line 694 of Samson Milton writes 'or else captived' in reference to his own and fellow Parliamentarians' arrest and imprisonment under Charles II. In Book VI of Paradise Lost Milton alluded to the danger he faced under the Restoration government, lamented the failure of the republic and the godly reformation, and his own imprisonment:

'Standing on earth, not rapt above the pole,
More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude...'

With 'condemnation of the ingrateful multitude' Milton alludes to the people of England, whom he had attacked so vehemently in the last of his prose tracts, The Readie and Easy Way, for allowing the Restoration to proceed. Milton felt that the Cromwellian experiment had ultimately floundered because it lacked

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