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In John Milton’s play Samson Agonistes, eyesight is a recurring motif and blindness used frequently as a metaphor to define the status of a character’s journey. Milton uses the presence or lack of clarity in vision, both physically and spiritually, to indicate characters’ direction. Although several characters experience blindness to differing degrees, Samson epitomizes the dynamic states and stages of blindness. All of these are necessary components of his pilgrimage of personal redemption, where his loss of physical eyesight becomes essential to mitigate the more serious condition of internal, spiritual blindness.
Manoah’s paternal connection to his son hinders his ability to see that the blindness Samson must endure as a result of his failures is actually necessary to restore Samson’s inner eyes. Manoah attempts to convince Samson that his predicament can be reversed and that there is a way out:
“But God who caus’d a fountain at thy prayer
From the dry ground to spring, thy thirst to allay
After the brunt of battel, can as easie
Cause light again within thy eies to spring.” (581-84)
Manoah’s eyes are indeed veiled from reality, for he is unable to analyze the situation apart from his disposition and concepts which persuade him to believe that Samson is, in fact, ascetical. Manoah has the full assurance that the retrieval and homeward return of his son would cause the present problems to dissipate. However, Samson realizes that his escaping will not assist him along his destined path and will not accomplish the purpose of his existence.
Surely God did not intend for Samson to single-handedly liberate Israel, but as the tribe’s sole recipient of the divine instruction, Samson is regarded as the man who will free Israel and her people from captivity. The awe and wonder that his strength elicits became an obstruction in the eyes of the Hebrews and of their faith. It does not occur to them that perhaps they too, as a people, have a role in fulfilling God’s plan. Their eyes are so fixed on the idea that Samson will be their savior that in a sense their faith in God is lessened. Samson’s strength is a mere manifestation of God’s strengthening him from within; the Israelites, however, regard his gift of strength as his sole qualification for the mission’s assignment. By so doing, they deny any accountability themselves.
The Israelites should have learned from Solomon’s mistakes after his fall and taken the initiative to fulfill the promise. Instead, like Samson, his people lose sight of their faith and its source. It becomes apparent that Samson has become an idol to his people, and they have lost God as their focus by fixing their collective sight upon Samson’s God-like figure, which his strength and pride afford. Therefore, Samson is not the only one who has lost sight of his calling, but the Hebrews have fallen to the point where they “love bondage more than liberty, / Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty” (270-1).
Samson, as well as his people, initially fail to see that his strength lies not within the seven locks of unshaven hair, but that his hair is a mere symbol of his heritage and of his vow to God. A footnote in Numbers, explaining the significance of the Nazarite vow, says, “Not shaving the head signifies not rejecting but being absolutely subject to the headship of the Lord as well as to all deputy authorities appointed by God.” The Nazarite vow was not developed solely for Samson, but it was a voluntary time of consecration where the Israelites declared their separation unto God: “All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself from Jehovah; he shall let the locks on his head grow long.” (Numbers 6:5) This general custom proves that, contrary to the belief of Samson and Dalila, that his hair is not the source of his super natural strength.
Samson’s “heav’n- gifted strength” (36) is accompanied by a mission whose accomplishment relies entirely on his faithfulness to the vow. Gradually Samson becomes distracted by the fame and admiration that his strength elicits. A purpose that initially originated from a divinely assigned mission slowly digresses into a self-glorifying talent which makes Samson “fearless of danger, like made a petty God, walk’d about admir’d of all” (529-30). Samson himself admits that he had reached a point where he was “swollen with pride” and fell “into the snare” (532). As this egotistical outlook begins to take precedence in Samson’s life, he simultaneously begins to lose sight of the goals in and purpose of his life, leaving him inwardly blind, prior to the dramatic gouging out of his eyes.
During the first three temptations of Dalila, Samson’s faith still remains true as he maintains his loyalty and covenant with God, just as he sustains the portion of his vow which requires him to abstain from “all delicious drinks… [to] repress” (541-43). However, upon Dalila’s fourth attempt to trick her husband, “this high gift of strength…how easily [bereaves] [him], / Under the seal of Silence could not keep, / But weakly to a woman [does] reveal it” (47-50). Once Samson recognizes his weakness, despite his outward strength, he begins the journey of ascent towards self- reconstruction, where Samson comes to realize how he came to be in such a predicament:
“God sent her to debase me,
And aggravate my folly who committed
To such a viper his most sacred trust
Of secresie, my safety, and my life” (999-1002)
Samson realizes too late that he was “impoten[t] of mind, in body strong!” (52). Before his upward journey, Samson is required to be completely broken, blinded and chained, “inferior to… worm” (73-74). The man that was once admired and worshipped is now “dark in light expos’d / to daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong” (75-76), made powerless, in order for him to begin the long, dark journey into his self and back to his calling.
Milton repeatedly utilizes the metaphor of blindness to take his characters on a progression from a point of darkness into light, to illustrate the growth and dynamic development of each character on their own, specific path to destiny. Milton’s entire tragedy depicts the treacherous journey of the hero whose “breeding [is] ordered and prescrib’d / As of a person separated to God” (30-31). In order for Samson’s purpose to be fulfilled and for God’s plan to be carried out, Samson’s physical strength has to be reduced to nothing. It is only possible in this moment of desperation following complete failure that the hero is able to prove his true strength, as he re-climbs from the heap of collapse. Not only does this journey entail the reconstruction of his strength, but Samson is forced to endure this journey in complete darkness in order to redefine his view of the world and to relinquish his confidence in his own ability, and to ultimately refine and strengthen his faith in God. The Hebrews, like Samson, are also in need of restoration of sight to see again who their God is. Their faith falters simultaneously with the breaking of Samson’s vow; not one of them takes any form of action in attempt to accomplish God’s plan. Their sole concern is the preservation of Samson’s sight and strength, for this is where their faith resides. Manoah also fails to see that the restoration of Samson’s sight is not of utmost importance, but that much more, his inward eyes would be reopened to realize his purpose, to see why God twice appeared to his parents to announce the importance of his birth. Samson is both weakened and inwardly blinded by his wife’s beauty and temptations, but it is not until his eyes are gouged out that he acknowledges that he has been “entangled with a poysnous bosom snake.” When Samson’s faith is lost, he is in “double darkness”, both outwardly and inwardly blind. It is not until his final moments that his inward eyes are opened; he regains his lost faith, and truly realizes and accomplishes his purpose in his very last breath.
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