6. 'As One Past Hope, Abandoned': The political uses of despair
The tragic story of the blind, enslaved Samson, Israel's saviour in Milton's dramtic poem Samson Agonistes (1671) resonates with the circumstances of the poet after the return of monarchy, as Milton felt himself to be "exil'd from light." Totally blind since 1652, and now suffering the vengeance of the returned monarchists, Milton was the repeated victim of satirical ridicule up until his death in 1674. Milton's searing drama, modelled on Greek tragedy, was published as a companion piece to the brief epic Paradise Regained, each work offering a different promise of a deliverance yet to come. With its disturbingly violent ending, Samson Agonistes has since been a subject of debate over the nature of its application. Samson's bloodly victory over the Philistines has been reviled as the act of a vengeful terrorist, but also hailed as a source of strength for visionary political struggle for emancipation.
Milton, Samson Agonistes (1671)
But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by thir vices brought to servitude,
Then to love Bondage more then Liberty,
Bondage with ease then strenuous liberty. (Samson Agonistes)
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John Aikin, An Address to the Dissidents of England on their Late Defeat (1790)
A defender of dissent, the physician John Aikin (1979-1822), brother of Anna Ketitia Barbauld, published this work anonymously after the bill to repeal the Corporation and Test Acts was defeated, using the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, and finding inspiration from Samson Agonistes on the title page.
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Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides (1845)
The "Chartist Rhymer" Thomas Cooper (1805-1892) wrote this from prison, its opening lines from a speech he delivered to the miners on strike in the Staffordshire potteries in 1842. Milton was a hero to Cooper, who could by the age of twenty recite the first three books of Paradise Lost by heart, and who lectured on Milton to large audiences. In his struggle for workers' rights and their dignity, Cooper's writing echoes with allusions to Milton's poetry and prose.
Samson Agonistes (1869)
This pocket-sized tract version produced by the missionary publishers, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, shows the poem to be of use in the promotion of its evangelical work.
Samson Agonistes (Raven Press, 1931)
Robert Ashwin Maynard's woodcut of the naked and vulnerable Samson shows the costs of the struggle for liberty. Abased as a blind slave, having succumbed to temptation through his own weakness, Samson stretches out his hand to his future as a saviour of Israel—foreshadowing Christ's coming. Long involved in the private press movement, first controller of the Gregynog Press, Ashwin Maynard set up the Raven Press in 1930, which produced only four books.
Illustration of Samson by Robert Maynard (1931).
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Thomas Cooper, The Plain Speaker (1849)
The penny journal for working-class readers was an education for citizenship ("To all working men who think" were its dedicatees), and it included book reviews, political history and news, reprints of important works in the tradition of liberty, with Milton quoted often as a champion of liberty.
The Minor Poems of John Milton (George Bell & Sons, 1898)
Illustrator A. Garth Jones (1872-1930) drew upon a tradition of the suffering but ecstatic martyr Christ for his portrayal of the bound Samson for this Endymion series woodcut illustration.
Illustration of Samson by A. Garth Jones in the 1898 Minor Poems of John Milton.
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