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"Cracked Across": Blake, Milton, and the noise of history.

For Joseph Wittreich

... he stood, as one who pray'd, Or some great matter in his mind revolv'd.

--Samson Agonistes, 1637-38

"But when I was on the Other Side, I received no instructions. Guide pressed me, and when I was about to enter a trance I would pray to be given an order to give [the church], so they could take action. I wanted this so much, and I prayed as I went into a trance, and it was all quite painful and trying. In the end when I returned, completely spent, the message that Guide heard from me and reworked into ordinary language told them neither to take action nor to desist."

--Patron, in Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault (1999; English trans., 2003; second emphasis mine)

GIVEN BLAKE'S ENDURING PASSION FOR MILTON, IT IS REMARKABLE THAT he never illustrated Samson Agonistes. Over many years he visualized every other major work of Milton's except "Lycidas," and some texts (such as the Nativity Ode and Paradise Lost) he illustrated multiply and variously. The dramatic poem's omission becomes even more puzzling when we consider that Blake did execute several paintings on the Samson cycle from the Book of Judges, including a Samson Pulling Down the Temple mentioned by William Rossetti, now regrettably lost. On the rare occasions when Blake does link one of his images to Samson Agonistes, he does so obliquely. Around 1804 he inscribed a caption beneath the famous "Albion rose" print, the figure of youthful exuberance he had first sketched almost twenty-five years earlier (fig. 1). Rising "from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves," Albion clearly recalls Milton's Samson, "Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves," (1) but the relationship between image and source text is by no means clear and has led Blake scholars to strikingly different conclusions. David Erdman, for instance, was convinced that this naked youth expresses the collective political spirit of the American Revolution and the Gordon Riots; properly understood as "a terrific social utterance," "Albion rose" provides Erdman's Prophet Against Empire with its first corrective lesson in how to read Blake historically. Others have suggested the picture is more personal, representing either the renewed ecstatic visions Blake experienced after returning from Felpham to London in 1803 or the artistic freedom he desired after many years of being mired in the drudgery of commercial copywork. (2) The image that lies closest to Milton's Samson at the pillars is the last of the 537 watercolors Blake prepared for an illustrated version of Edward Young's Night Thoughts (fig. 2), where his representation of an open-eyed Samson directly contradicts the biblical narrative and instead echoes Milton's description of a Samson "with inward eyes illuminated" (1689). But despite its oblique, secondary reference to Samson Agonistes, this picture primarily refers to the final, apocalyptic lines of Young's poem: "like Him of Gaza in his Wrath, / Plucking the Pillars that support the World." (3) Samson Agonistes sneaks in under cover, leaving us again to wonder why Blake never illustrated it directly.



The absence of direct visual representation by no means indicates that Milton's tragedy was unimportant to Blake. In fact, I believe it indicates the opposite. Blake was haunted by Samson Agonistes, especially by Samson at the pillars, and he returned to that moment almost obsessively. He never represents it directly because he Cannot; that is, he cannot form that moment into a unified image or series that would achieve a comprehensive interpretation of the dramatic poem, as his other illustrations of Milton's poetry brashly attempt to do. Despite Manoa's concluding promise to build his son a monument, Samson Agonistes leaves its reader with a heap of ruins, a tangled wreckage of bodies and building, and the poem likewise enters into Blake's work in collapse, as a multitude of fragments we can view only serially and collectively, in pieces, but never unified into a single whole. Blake felt this dis-integration powerfully. In a way never fully in his command, fragments of Samson Agotlistes enter into Blake's vocabulary as so many verbal bits and pieces, broken words and phrases like shards scattered from an explosive event that cannot be reconstructed and without knowable structure or meaning in the first place. What Blake returns to most obsessively in Samson Agonistes is its sound, the sound of fracture, its noise. This fracture passes through his work like an irregular sound path, an inconsistent crack in the textual grain that corresponds to the inconsistent movement of violence in history and to Blake's unresolved ambivalence toward that violence. Referring to "the noise of history" in this way, I want to acknowledge Kevis Goodman's recent discussion of the ways history comes to be felt as disturbance in eighteenth-century Georgic poetry. Adapting Raymond Williams's concept of "structures of feeling," and especially his late elaborations in his New Left Review interviews, Goodman describes how "cognitive noise" and "affective ... dissonance" enter into the period's poetry as the "records of an otherwise unknowable history," occurring whenever cognitive and discursive "categories cannot accommodate the flux or the excess of events." (4) One source for the noise of history in Blake's work is Samson Agonistes; it is a poem he continuously hears but can neither visualize nor interpret fully.

This essay is divided into three sections, each a window onto Blake's engagement with Samson Agonistes. I begin by tracking the dispersal of Milton's climactic scene at the pillars into powerful phrase-fragments that continue to sound through Blake's poetry of the 1790s. I end by returning to Blake's visualization of Samson in the Night Thoughts illustration, an image he cannot let stand alone and instead routes through a network of self-qualifying signs, as if he were perpetually testing this figure by resetting it in alternative picture spaces. My largest aim, however, is to reconsider the venerable topic of Blake's response to Milton by focusing on how these poets approach the problem of religiously motivated violence. Since September 11, 2001, and especially since the John Carey and Stanley Fish controversy that erupted soon after, it has become impossible to discuss Samson at the pillars without also debating whether his killing of three thousand Philistines resembles contemporary acts of terrorism, and, following that first question, whether Milton approves of the holy war Samson undertakes. (5) Well before recent events shaped interpretation of the play, Christopher Hill was already summoning Blake to support an argument in favor of Samson's violence, (6) a maneuver one still occasionally observes among Miltonists today. Michael Lieb, one of the rare critics who find even Fish too soft on the question of Milton's enthusiasm for violence, ends a recent essay by invoking The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, thus leaving little doubt about which side he believes Blake would take in the current debate: "The choice is ours to make, but be prepared to join the devil's party if you hook up with Lieb." (7)

The position I want to stake out in this essay is rather different. (8) Across the 1790s, when he was most fully preoccupied by Samson Agonistes, Blake was engaged in redefining what counts as an "action," complicating the relationship between strength and weakness, activity and passivity, in a way he learned from Milton and especially from Milton's Samson, whom a late semichorus in Samson Agonistes describes as "vigorous most / When most unactive deem'd" (1704-5). A few years later, when Blake transformed Milton into the hero of his own brief epic, he chose to represent Milton not as "a strong man after sleep," (9) as in the awakening Samson figure of Areopagitica, but as an epic hero simultaneously at rest and in action, a figure who from one angle appears to be "sleeping on a couch / Of gold," (10) while from another he engages in the hand-to-hand struggle with the tyrant Urizen upon which the hopes for general liberation depend. Ultimately, like Milton before him, Blake identified with Samson's strength without claiming a share of its violence, and, again like Milton, he tried to manage this delicate negotiation by transforming reading into an activity that would assimilate Samson's transformative potency while disavowing his dangerous will to act. As we will see, however, the strategy shared by Blake and Milton cannot be reduced to a simple expression of quietism, aestheticism, or even modern liberalism, for it continues to value the transformational potential of divine violence even as it puts up every possible hedge against the error of believing one might act as the historical agent of such violence. The noise first transmitted by Milton's drama and then picked up by Blake supplies no authority for violence, but it also resolutely refuses to rule against it.

I. "O what noise!"

Of the various words and phrases from Samson Agonistes that move brokenly through Blake's discourse, the most commonly recognized is the one I quoted above describing Samson's initial subjection to tyranny: grinding "at the Mill with slaves" (41). Blake first quotes this line in 1793 in a crucial plate of America: A Prophecy (pl. 8:6) and he later incorporates it into the 1804 inscription of "Albion rose." The sound of Samson Agonistes, however, extends further and penetrates more deeply. Referring either to the sky or the upper limit of a solid enclosure, Blake uses a variant of the phrase "cracked across" in four of his books, with two instances appearing widely apart in The Four Zoas. By itself, the phrase is hardly surprising in an apocalyptic poet. "The crack of doom" had long since become a convention of last judgment discourse; Blake could have taken his resounding "crack" from any number of sources--Lear on the heath, for instance: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! ... And thou, all-shaking thunder, / Strike flat the thick rotundity o' th' world! / Crack nature's moulds." (11) He could have, but he didn't. This particular noise came from Milton, though the source has remained somewhat obscured by the fact that the first instance of this cracking pattern, the one that ties it most closely to Samson Agonistes, occurs in a canceled plate that Blake excluded from his final printing of America (fig. 3).


No one knows with certainty why Blake canceled what we now call "plate b" of America. The most common explanation--that with new laws against seditious publication passed in 1793, he feared to print a text openly referring to Albion's Angel as "George the third" (line 9)--does not explain why he would consider his final version so much less risky, referring openly as it does to "the King of England" (pl. 6:12,). (12) Perhaps Blake was more worried about the canceled plate's echo of Milton. If not, he should have been, for the plate's last lines imagine the collapse of Parliament in language that amounts to a free variation on Samson pulling down the Philistine theater. Blake's structure-to-be-destroyed is a "house" (12) and a "hall of counsel" (2) where "Lords & Conmlons meet" (9); Milton's a "Theatre" (1605) holding "Lords" and "Councellors" (1653) among others. Each likens the moment of wreckage to a seismic event: in Milton, "Mountains tremble" (1648); in Blake, "the valley mov'd beneath" (23). But perhaps the best way to demonstrate the tightly woven correspondence is simply to put the two core passages together, noting the images that pass from one to the other in bold:

Samson Agonistes:
 [they: "those two massie Pillars," 1648]
 He tugg'd, he shook, till down they came and drew
 The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
 Upon the heads of all who sate beneath,
 Lords, Ladies, Captains, Councellors, or Priests....


America, canceled plate b:
 So still the terrors rent ...

 ... so the dark house was rent
 The valley mov'd beneath; its shining pillars split in twain,
 And its roofs crack across down falling on th'Angelic seats.



In the printed version substituted for this text, Blake depicts the rise of revolutionary agency rather than its destructive effects: "in the red clouds rose a Wonder o'er the Atlantic sea" (pl. 6:7). A few plates later, this at first unnamed figure will be identified as Orc, the "terror" who aims to stamp "that stony law ... to dust" (pl. 8:1-5), thus assimilating the pillar-splitting terrors of the original canceled plate. At the same time, the Samson allusion suppressed in America will resurface in Europe, the book's sequel, where it now carries forward the story of Albion's oppressive plague cloud rebounding upon England in the form of revolutionary violence:
 In council gather the smitten Angels of Albion
 The cloud bears hard upon the council house; down rushing
 On the heads of Albions Angels.

 (pl. 9:12-14)

In this highly compressed rendition of the scene one begins to see how Samson Agonistes continues to reverberate in Blake's ear. For at the very moment that the source has become almost unrecognizable, including the elimination of its noisy "burst of thunder," Blake draws into his verse a new Miltonic phrase fragment absent from his first, more extensive treatment: now the council house falls "On the heads of Albions Angels," just as Milton's roof had fallen "Upon the heads of all who sate beneath."

It is the missing "burst of thunder," however, that concerns us here, the phrase Blake translates into "crack across" and then disperses across several of his texts. If Samson Agonistes first enters into Blake's work as recurring sound fragments, why would Blake, who at times echoes Milton quite closely, so substantially alter this phrase, the signifier of noise, replacing it with a word ("crack") Milton himself never used in verse? Here we need to consider Milton's own handling of sound, for in the climactic account of Samson's violence, the words "burst of thunder" are paradoxically both crucial and expendable: crucial in that they refer to the primary sound event; expendable in that they have already displaced the noise to which they refer, the noise that Blake's "cracked across" would set sharply resonating again. "Burst of thunder" is spoken by the witness-messenger in Samson Agonistes who reconstructs events for those who were not present at the scene; it compresses into a three-word phrase, a cliche really, a disruptive violence that the play's characters first experience as a prolonged, unaccountable noise. "O what noise!" (1508), Manoa exclaims, when it first breaks in upon the poem; eight lines later, he is still saying, "Oh it continues" (1516). Across these lines the speakers repeat the word "noise" five times, but we are made to understand that even this minimal signifier misrepresents the apocalyptic sound-event: "Noise call you it or universal groan / As if the whole inhabitation perish'd" (1512-13, my emphasis). (13) Milton contrasts this noise with the derisive shouts that forty lines earlier greeted Samson upon entering the Philistine theater, shouts loud enough to "[tear] the Skie" and thus anticipate the event to come, but also easily explained by anyone hearing them from a distance: "Doubtless the people shouting to behold / Thir once great dread, captive, & blind before them" (147-274). The second wave of sound is categorically different, unrecognizable, doubtful: "Horribly loud," says Manoa, "unlike the former shout" (1510). This noise has "Ruin" in it "at the utmost point" (1514), and the first thing it ruins is the structure of discourse. It tears more than sky, bursting in upon Manoa mid-sentence and exploding every formal continuity that the conversation then taking place is supposed to represent, continuities of syntax, community, and history. Manoa is affirming the good will of his fellow tribesmen, who have encouraged his expectation of ransoming his son, as if history were a medium reasonably conformable to prediction and effort: "I know your friendly minds and--O what noise!" (1508). The Philistine lords Manoa had solicited--including the few "generous ... and civil" ones "who confess'd / They had anough reveng'd" (1467-68), figures who stand for the possibility of detente--are by now also among the dead. The noise that breaks in precisely at this moment has nothing to do with ransom. Outside of communicability and therefore outside of both the promise and the compromises of civil communities, this noise retains an impenetrable moral blankness; it is an impersonal, rigorously neutral force inaccessible to a common language of law and negotiation. It would be impossible to determine whether this noise lies beneath or beyond the threshold of civil human discourse. Is it the expression of a blind, savage violence or of a sublime agency whose revolutionary work begins by exceeding the limits of representation?

"Neutral," I admit, is a provocative word to describe a noise with "Blood, death, and deathful deeds" (1513) in it, but if we are to maintain a commitment to Samson Agonistes' ambiguities, I think we must insist on it. After 9/11, when John Carey contrasted the Israelites' jubilation over Samson's "triumph" with the messenger's first, horrified response to the violence he witnessed firsthand, and when Carey suggested that by juxtaposing these responses Milton was demonstrating "the enormous gulf between theory and practice, belief and action, words and reality," and when Carey further concluded that "the lesson Milton's drama teaches is that if you suppose you have private access to God's mind, and act on the supposition, it can have hideous consequences," (14) he neglected the fact that his own moral argument, admirable and well-reasoned as it may be, is every bit as much an after-the-fact interpretive construction as the monument Manoa proposes to build in honor of his son's military prowess, or the choral sonnet that concludes Samson Agonistes with such composure and restraint. No formal construction (starting with the messenger's own ever more articulate account) answers satisfactorily to the meaning-resistant noise that cracks across Milton's text. Carey's premise suggests that the ambiguity enshrouding Samson's act is sufficient to turn a moral reader against him, but if Samson's act is truly ambiguous, then it must also allow for the possibility that the reader will identify with him, and not simply in a way we learn to discard as error. Against the possibility of an instrumental ambiguity in service of a clear didactic message, the noise of Samson Agonistes preserves an austere indeterminacy. Like all readers of Samson Agonistes, Blake also struggled with Milton's "lesson," but it is the play's noise that strikes him first and foremost, and it is this noise that he in turn conveys.

In an appendix to this essay I have listed all the variants on "cracked across" that appear in Blake's poetry. As Leslie Tannenbaum was the first to recognize, the closest of these to Samson Agonistes and also the most despairing occurs in The Book of Los, where Los finds himself "Bound in ... A vast solid without fluctuation," like Samson between stone pillars (pl. 4:7-9). (15) With a burst of prophetic rage, Los shatters the structure that confines him: "the vast solid / With a crash from immense to immense / Crack'd across into numberless fragments" (pl. 4:16-18). Los's impatience (a word Blake emphasizes) neither liberates him from his fallen world nor results in him being buried in the rubble like Samson; it leads only to further, endless falling. Los falls right alongside the fragments his violence has created, bits and pieces of breakage that include bits and pieces of a language in ruins, sound-words carrying the noise of history: "crash," "Crack'd," "crumbling," "bursting." In this mythic narrative, set prior to the creation of the sun in Genesis, Blake attributes the creation of time itself to the "incessant whirls" of Los's continuously falling, continuously "revolving" body, as he tumbles head over heels into the void (pl. 4:35-37). It is as if his impatient violence marks the beginning of fallen history, of a cyclical destruction potentially without end. As Joseph Wittreich has powerfully argued, this is the blind history Milton's Samson might also be taken to embody. (16)

Other extensions of Blake's sound-cracks are more difficult to read, not least because they form no consistent pattern. As Roland Barthes would say, they are not isotropic. (17) The apocalyptic opening of Night the Ninth of The Four Zoas, in which Sun and Moon come down like Samson's pillars, explodes with the noise of Samson Agonistes:
 Los his vegetable hands
 Outstretchd his right hand branching out in fibrous Strength
 Siezd the Sun. His left hand like dark roots coverd the Moon
 And tore them down cracking the heavens across from immense to

 (117:6-9, my emphasis) (18)

Into this scene of monumental and potentially transformative violence more of Milton's language enters than ever before, though, as always, noisy, shattered, and rearranged. The instances are too numerous to catalogue fully here. Samson "tugg'd" and "shook" those "two massie Pillars / With horrible convulsion to and fro," "till down they came ... with burst of thunder." Now Blake's "heavens are shaken" with "thunderous noise & dreadful shakings rocking to & fro" (117:15-16). Like Milton's, these apocalyptic noises remain unreadable; they lie beyond the reach of easy moralizing. Although Blake provides enough ambiguity to slow even the most enthusiastic reader--starting with the "vegetable hands," "fibrous Strength," and "dark roots" that call Los's agency into question--it is also impossible to deny the energies of identification Blake directs toward the hallucinatory fantasy of apocalyptic inversion and revenge unfolding here:
 The poor smite their opressors they awake up to the harvest
 The naked warriors rush together down to the sea shore
 Trembling before the multitude of slaves now set at liberty
 They are become like wintry flocks like forests stripd of leaves
 The opressed pursue like the wind there is no room for escape


Blake inverts the Exodus narrative; it is the Egyptian oppressors who now find themselves pinned against the sea, the liberated slaves who pin them there. If Blake intends a subtle warning about the dangers of cyclical, retaliatory violence--along the lines of Beatrice's remark in The Cenci: "what a world we make, / The oppressor and the oppressed" (19)--he does so at the risk of allowing vengeful desires free play, under cover of the idea that violence can be purgative. "The blood pours down incessant," he writes, adding, "Kings in their palaces lie drownd" (119:7-8).

Amid this affective dissonance, with all its attendant moral and cognitive noise, I want to call attention to one other phrase fragment that found its way to Blake from Samson Agonistes. Blake uses it only here, and repeats it twice, each time in lines describing the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment:
 And all the while the trumpet sounds from the clotted gore &
 from the hollow den
 Start forth the trembling millions into flames of mental fire
 Bathing their limbs in the bright visions of Eternity ...

 (118:17-19) (20)

Blake specifically lifts the words "clotted gore" and much of the image generally straight from Milton, and their role in Samson Agonistes significantly complicates their presence here. Once Manoa concludes that Samson has "heroicly ... finish'd / A life Heroic" (1711-12), he next determines to recover and preserve his son's body:
 Let us go find the body where it lies
 Sok't in his enemies blood, and from the stream
 With lavers pure and cleansing herbs wash off
 The clotted gore.

 (1725-28) (21)

Much depends upon the success of separating Samson's body from the "clotted gore" in which he became entangled--"immixt, inevitably" (1657), as the messenger puts it; "tangl'd in the fold ... conjoin'd ... with [his] slaughter'd foes" (1665-67), adds the chorus. The biblical Samson, we remember, was born to be a "nazarite"; in ancient Hebrew the word means "one separated." Now at his death, however, the only way to "separate" Samson from his Philistine enemies and thus remove him from a history of reciprocal violence that blurs the moral distinction between hostile parties is to find and clean his body. Identifying it among the general wreckage, disentangling it from the other bodies, washing off the blood it has shed--all these become the first necessary steps toward honoring the dead warrior and airbrushing him into an image of unambiguous national heroism. Just before Manoa proposes his search and recovery mission, he has already be

21. Did Milton himself draw this phrase and image from The Odyssey? In the final book of Homer's epic, when the shades of the suitors slain by Odysseus arrive in Hades and are greeted there by Agamemnon, the ghost of Amphimedon explains,
 our bodies lie untended even now,
 strewn in Odysseus' palace. They know nothing yet,
 the kin in our houses who might wash our wounds
 of clotted gore and lay us out and mourn us.
 These are the solemn honors owed the dead.


(The Odyssey [New York: Penguin, 1996], 474). So Robert Fagles translates a passage with clear parallels to Samson Agonistes: in both texts, heaps of bloody corpses await a ritual washing to honor the dead. Of course it is possible that Fagles introduced this phrasing under Milton's influence. Even more likely, however, is that Fagles completed a Miltonic echo that had already entered into English translations of The Odyssey through Alexander Pope: "Our mangled bodies now deform'd with gore, / Cold and neglected, spread the marble floor. / No friend to bathe our wounds!" (Pope, The Odyssey of Homer, Books XIII-XXIV, ed. Maynard Mack, et al. [London: Methuen, 1967], XXIV:214-16). Long before he undertook his own translation of Homer, Fagles was part of the editing team that published this modern edition of Pope's Odyssey.

gun the work of "separating" Samson in discourse, distilling a message of noble triumph from any lingering suspicions or lamentations:
 Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
 Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,
 Dispraise, or blame, nothing but well and fair,
 And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

 (1721-24, my emphasis)

Shifting between visual and auditory registers, Milton invites us to consider an analogy: cleansing Samson's body of its messy violence is like quieting the noises that would disturb the moral satisfaction accompanying victory. Of course the aim of Milton's language is precisely to disquiet, by reminding us that Samson in fact lies dead, "sok't in his enemies blood," crusted in "clotted gore" like the others.

What is Blake doing, then, with this dissonant image? His whole apocalyptic scene is also concerned with the logic of "separation." It begins with Jesus standing beside Los and Enitharmon, "Separating / Their Spirit from their body" (117:4-5). At the moment of universal and indiscriminate ruin, the bodies of Los and Enitharmon lie "buried in the ruins of the Universe / Mingled with the confusion" (118:5-6), like Samson's "immixt" and "tangl'd in the fold." And when the dead begin to rise from this "clotted gore" into "mental fire," "Bathing their Limbs in the bright visions of Eternity," they directly invoke the wishful image of Samson's body fresh from the stream, newly washed with "layers pure and cleansing herbs." Like Manoa, then, is Blake resurrecting a purely heroic Samson from the dead, identifying him now with a longstanding tradition that sees his action at the pillars as a typological anticipation of the last judgment itself? Or is Blake correcting Manoa's bad judgment? If Manoa delights to think that a purified Samson image will "inflame [the] breasts" of future "youth" (1738-39), then perhaps Blake is redefining heroism, separating altogether the intellectual acts of "mental fire" from the grim history of physical force and "clotted gore." Perhaps he means for his internalized apocalyptic scene to stand in direct contrast to the devastation Samson brought about and Manoa intends to celebrate. Or does Blake mean for the corrosive irony surrounding Manoa's triumphal fantasies to extend even into his own apocalyptic tableau, where it becomes so difficult for a reader to separate the revenge fantasy being played out there from the purely mental fight that is supposed to transcend such violent impulses? At the very least, Night the Ninth of The Four Zoas leaves open the question of how--or even whether--mental fight could cleanly separate itself from a history of "clotted gore." How, in other words, would a post-apocalyptic world "Bathing ... in the bright visions of Eternity" emerge from a history of violence so thoroughly fallen? Each of the possibilities I have mentioned remains active in this scene, and each is set resonating by the noise Blake inherited from Samson Agonistes.

2. "He Who Stands Doubting"

In 1798, not long after he had finished illustrating Night Thoughts and while he was first working on the manuscript that would become The Four Zoas, Blake was defending Tom Paine from an attack by Bishop Richard Watson of Llandaff, writing long, furious annotations in the margins of Watson's Apology for the Bible. In a calm, friendly, and (to Blake) maddening tone, Watson tried to put Paine firmly in his place by demonstrating that The Age of Reason, despite its rationalist posture, is in fact less reasonable than the divine justice and biblical revelation Paine's deist analysis wished to discredit. Watson's critique begins by raising questions about Paine's "conscience." As evidence of the firmness of his convictions, Paine had claimed that his unorthodox principles managed to survive the trial of a nearly fatal fever, with no eleventh hour conversion needed. Conceding Paine's sincerity, Watson instead attacks his overconfidence: yes, one can be sure of one's opinions; one can even firmly believe one is obeying the dictates of conscience--and yet still be terribly wrong. "What is conscience?" Watson asks. "Is it, as has been thought, an internal monitor implanted in us by the Supreme Being, and dictating to us, on all occasions what is right, or wrong? Or is it merely our own judgment of the moral rectitude or turpitude of our own actions?" (22) At stake in this opening question is whether individual conscience is a reliable indicator of the divine will: can one be confident that one's own moral persuasion is aligned with God's? Can one act on that basis? Without the least intention of doing so, Watson raised the question of Samson at the pillars: "he stood, as one who pray'd, / Or some great matter in his mind revolv'd" (1637-38). In turn, Blake's point-by-point rebuttal of Watson becomes a remarkable, if also subtextual, commentary on Samson Agonistes.

On the central question of conscience and inner persuasion, Watson aligns himself with John Locke (whom he names) and thus with a century-old critique of enthusiasm. His position stands directly opposite the argument that would make Stanley Fish's reading of Samson Agonistes seem so inflammatory after 9/11. "In the end," Fish writes, "the only value we can put on Samson's action is the value he gives it in context. Within the situation, it is an expression, however provisional, of his reading of the divine will; and insofar as it represents his desire to conform to that will, it is a virtuous action." (23) Samson is virtuous because he acts conscientiously, in good faith, whether he gets the divine will right or wrong. When Carey responds--"why should we not expect a moral being to question and assess the instructions he thinks he is getting from a supernatural agency?" (24)--he, like Bishop Watson before him, is resuming an argument Locke first articulated in a chapter on enthusiasm added to the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1700: "The strength of our Persuasions is no Evidence at all of their own rectitude.... He ... that will not give himself up to all the Extravagancies of Delusion and Error must bring this Guide of his Light within [that is, his moral feeling] to the Tryal. God when he makes the Prophet does not unmake the Man. He leaves all his Faculties in their natural State, to enable him to judge of his Inspirations, whether they be of divine Original or no.... Reason must he our last Judge and Guide in every Thing." (25) It is exactly this Lockean call to perpetual self-examination that Watson invokes as a necessary safeguard against the violence that can result from moral overconfidence. Among the "thousand" well-meaning "perpetrators of different crimes" invoked by Watson, criminals convinced they were following "the dictates of conscience," he names only one specifically: "Robespierre, who massacre[d] innocent and harmless women." (26) A firm persuasion of the good is no proof of anyone's virtue, and it offers no acceptable justification for violence. (27)

Where Blake inserts himself into the Paine-Watson debate comes as no surprise: with immediate inspiration, against deliberation and prolonged moral calculation; with Paine, against Watson, Locke, and (by implication) Carey. (28) With a twist of delicious irony, he defends Paine as "an Inspired man" and turns the Anglican Bishop into a mere reasoner, neither hot nor cold (E 613). On the subject of conscience and virtue, Blake could not be more emphatic: "Virtue is not Opinion"; "Conscience in those that have it is unequivocal, it is the voice of God" (E 613). He insists it is impossible to follow conscience and be wrong: "Virtue & honesty or the dictates of Conscience are of no doubtful Signification to any one" (E 613). According to Blake's logic, Samson could not err if he was indeed "perswaded inwardly that [his inspiration] was from God," as Milton puts it in "The Argument" to his play (p. 800). When it strikes, divine inspiration strikes unambiguously; it is "of no doubtful Signification to any one." And yet, as they touch on Samson at the pillars, Blake's comments do allow room for the equivocation that conscience is supposed by definition to preclude. To say that "Conscience in those that have it is unequivocal, it is the voice of God," is not necessarily to affirm that Samson has it. This point comes home in an annotation so striking it cannot but call to mind the figure of Milton's Samson standing at the pillars:
 The truth & certainty of Virtue & Honesty i.e. Inspiration needs no
 one to prove it it is Evident as the Sun & Moon He who stands
 doubting of what he intends whether it is Virtuous or Vicious knows
 not what Virtue means, no man can do a Vicious action & think it to
 be Virtuous. no man can take darkness for light. (E 614)

As an entry in the long debate over whether Samson is divinely or selfishly motivated, Blake's comment leans toward the latter, but it does so for reasons exactly opposite those proposed by figures like Carey or Bishop Watson in the Lockean tradition against enthusiasm. Blake faults his Samson figure not for failing to deliberate, not for acting on an impulse he mistakenly takes to be divine in origin, but for deliberating too long, "revolving some great matter in his mind" as if it were possible to arrive at a well-reasoned decision in favor of slaughter. In a way that is more disturbing than Carey's reading, in which endless deliberation over "doubtful significations" might serve as a preventative against violence, Blake continues to allow for the possibility of a genuinely inspired, genuinely impulsive agent of divine justice, but suggests Samson is not that agent.

Blake's ambivalence toward Samson is further underscored when compared to Watson defending biblical violence and "God's moral justice." Paine had complained that the mass extermination of Canaanites by the Israelites under Joshua makes a mockery of any belief in the Bible as the word of God. Watson responds by calmly and rationally justifying holy war. "As to the Canaanites," he writes, "it is needless to enter into any proof of the depraved state of their morals." God "made the Israelites the executors of his vengeance" because these "idolaters" were "immersed in the filthiness of all manner of vice." (29) Assuming it is self-evident that the Canaanites deserved to die, Watson, again inadvertently, echoes a chorus in Samson Agonistes describing the Philistines as "Drunk with Idolatry" (1670) and responsible for their own mass destruction--foolish enough "As thir own ruin on themselves to invite" (1684). (30) These arguments produce palpable outrage in Blake's annotations. There is no defense, he states, for "murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God"; "God never makes one man murder another nor one nation" (E 614, my emphasis). In these comments and others, Blake's condemnation of Old Testament violence is so sweeping--he calls it "an Example of ... Human Beastliness in all its branches" (E 614), exactly the savagery Christ came to abolish--that Samson's massacre of three thousand Philistine men and women could hardly be exempt.

At the same time, nothing in Blake's arguments, or in the subtextual reservations about Samson they express, would declare him a simple pacifist. That God does not condone genocide and that he never commands murder provide little guidance with more difficult cases, such as the one Walter Benjamin discusses under the category of "the revolutionary killing of the oppressor" in his "Critique of Violence." Benjamin dismisses outright the first premise of the pacifists, that the "sanctity of life" by itself turns the commandment against murder into a universal commandment against killing. He insists that one must defend a just life, not mere life. (31) Like Blake, and perhaps even like Milton, Benjamin insists on retaining the theoretical possibility of what he calls "divine violence," a "pure immediate violence" (32) genuinely free of self-interest and error, even as he remains skeptical about every actual case and makes it nearly impossible to imagine the circumstances in which one might conclude such violence is justifiable in human hands. In principle at least, another Samson at other pillars could hear "the voice of God" and get it right, whether Milton's Samson did or not.

3. "His Fierie Vertue Rouz'd"

Perhaps that other, genuinely virtuous Samson is the figure Blake meant to illustrate on the last page of Edward Young's Night Thoughts (see fig. 2). Because Samson is in fact "eyeless," the open eye Blake features so prominently recalls a semichorus in Samson Agonistes: "With inward eyes illuminated / His fierie vertue rouz'd / From under ashes into sudden flame" (1690-92). Most commentators on this image--Wittreich is an exception here--have emphasized Blake's identification with Samson's visionary energy. (33) And why not? If "He who stands doubting of what he intends ... knows not what Virtue means," then this Samson, past any doubt and fully in action, has earned his claim to "fierie vertue." Like Jesus, as an antinomian devil praises him in The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, he is "all virtue," having acted "from impulse: not from rules" (pls. 23-24, E 43). Concentrating on the isolated heroic figure in his moment of decisive action, Blake risks the kind of direct visual identification with violence that Milton himself avoided, first by following the protocols of Greek tragedy and setting the main action offstage and then by indicating his drama was never meant to be staged at all. And yet, Blake's image of irreversible action still gives us reason to pause over Samson's "virtue," once again opening a space of "doubtful signification." Directly across from Samson's illuminated eye, in the second line of Young's text and italicized in a way that redirects the reader's eye, the word "Virtue" appears, and this time in negative terms directly opposite the "fierie" and heroic associations of Milton's semichorus: "Virtue abounds in Flatterers, and Foes; / 'Tis Pride, to praise her; Penance to perform" (Night IX, 119). Without entering into even a minimal interpretation of Young's moralizing lines or trying to determine how Blake structures the relationship between Young's virtue and Milton's, we can see that, at the very moment Samson has pulled down his pillars, Blake has placed us between two more. While Samson is beyond the point of hesitation, we are still pausing to read. Blake's Night Thoughts page is not about the immediacy of enthusiasm--either Samson's for divinely motivated violence or ours for Samson--but about delay; rather than dangerously "hurrying the Will in Pursuit of an Object," as one 18th-century author defines enthusiasm, (34) Blake redirects his object (Samson at the pillars) into a network of words and images that require closer and further reading. In this last section, I want to consider a few of the visual images that redirect the concentrated urgency of Samson's action into the lateral, slower motion of reading.

To conclude in this way inevitably risks reopening an old quarrel between politics and close reading; that is, it invites the charge that we are rerouting an urgent political message, indeed a call to action, into an insular aesthetic activity. (35) Derrida addressed this charge on numerous occasions, but nowhere better than in his Politics of Friendship. Careful, attentive reading, he explains there, will always risk appearing
 too philological, micrological, readerly--complacent, too, with the
 time it allows itself when matters are urgent, at just the moment
 when one should no longer wait. At a moment when our world is
 delivered over to new forms of violence ... the political and
 historical urgency of what is befalling us should, one will say,
 tolerate less patience, fewer detours and less bibliographic
 discretion. Less esoteric rarity.

The slogan of Samson at the pillars might well be the words Derrida expected from those impatient with criticism: "This is no longer the time to take one's time." (36) Having prayed or revolved the matter in his mind, Samson "At last"--how long we are not told--"cryed aloud" (1639), made his final speech, and pulled the pillars down. Yet even though a similar sense of "political and historical urgency" would continually lead Blake back to this scene, whenever he represents Samson, his subject is also the detour and delay of reading, and this practice of taking time he need only to have learned from Milton.

Regardless of whether we consider Samson a figure for the ruined world to be left behind (as Young describes him) or for revolutionary transformation (as various Blake and Milton critics suggest), the Night Thoughts Samson is clearly a figure of last judgment, the last thing encountered on a long poem's final page. Appearing in the final lines of Night IX as a figure for the end time, Young's Samson ("Him of Gaza in his wrath") gathers up and draws to a close the book's persistent apocalyptic imagery. Alert to this tendency, Blake anticipated the climactic Samson image more than a hundred pages earlier, choosing to illustrate lines describing the "final Fate," with "All Nature, like an Earthquake, trembling round" (Night IX, 14). The scene he depicted there (fig. 4)--a crowd buried beneath the fragments of a collapsed building--significantly complicates our understanding of Samson tugging and shaking the pillars, for even though it precedes Samson's act in page sequence, it presents an image that could follow it in narrative sequence. Blake, in other words, scrambles time and invites us to read backwards, to run the hallucinatory film of his illustrations in reverse, and so return to an earlier moment that gathers new interpretive potential only after we have passed beyond the book's last page. The time of reading thus extends beyond the stand-alone Samson image, the very image that associates apocalyptic finality with decisive action and is supposed to bring both time and reading to a close. Restoring these images to narrative sequence, moreover, involves the reader in a dizzying exchange of perspectives-from Samson's act to its consequences, from the agent of divine violence to his victims. At the bottom center of the earlier page Blake dangles a disjointed body, broken by a world turned upside down. By emptying this figure's eyes and diverting attention to the wide, expressive void of her mouth--a feature echoed in the less detailed figure to the left--he also introduces an auditory resonance into his design, an effect reinforced by the ionic column tumbling at the upper right whose spiral capital invokes Blake's persistent emblem of the ear. (37) Within the constraints of visual representation, this picture draws attention to the event's blind, piercing sound, once again setting the "noise" of history in stark, unresolved tension with the single-minded determination that emboldens Samson and inwardly illuminates his vision. Faced with this after-effect, the reader cannot unambivalently identify with Samson's open eye.


Even to the extent that Blake does attach this visionary Samson to Milton's, he also subtly departs from his predecessor and in a way that opens onto other complicating images. Milton's semichorus exults in the illumination of Samson's "inward eyes," but by presenting Samson almost completely in profile, Blake makes only one eye visible (see fig. 2). This detail would seem too trivial to notice did it not lead us to ask whether Samson is a figure for the narrowness of perception Blake called "Single vision," perhaps even for "Newtons sleep" (E 722). In Martin Butlin's view, Blake "exaggerates [Samson's] open eye to suggest the moral victory of energy destroying materialism," (38) but even setting aside the problem that the matter destroyed here includes other people, we can see how difficult it is to distinguish Samson's visionary "energy" from the "materialism" it would destroy. With a hyperbolic strength almost too heavy to bear, Samson's muscular limbs are as massive and rounded as the pillars he brings down; Blake emphasizes the continuity between them by repeating the deepening shadows of the falling columns in the shading of Samson's braced and bending legs. Blake's whole design is organized by a syntax of descending triangles, first in the inverted V of the columns above Samson's head, then in the upward gaze of his one-eyed profile, and finally in the thick legs .joined at the apex of his phallus. Structuring both the hero's body and the architecture collapsing upon it, these triangles recall the geometry of Newton's compass in one of Blake's most famous recurring designs (fig. 5). Blake had this very image in mind while executing Night Thoughts, for he included a version of it on an earlier page of Night IX (91) to illustrate Young's reference to "Newtonian ... Angels" (fig. 6).

In one sense, Samson reverses Newton's narrow earthbound preoccupation by staring upward, and yet all the motor force he exerts pulls downward and inward nonetheless. He can do nothing but contribute his own muscle to the work of gravity that defines his action, for whatever rebellious energy he releases contributes only to further falling. And if the massive, angled pillars above Samson's head rhyme visually with Newton's modest compass, we may further identify those pillars with the enormous, world-forming instrument in "The Ancient of Days" (fig. 7), an association assisted by Milton. In Samson Agonistes, Milton erects the Philistine theater on "two massie pillars," a phrase he repeats twice. In turn Blake enlists the word "massy" for The Book of Urizen's catalogue of measuring devices formed by Urizen to create the Newtonian universe, compass included:
 7. He form'd a line & a plummet
 To divide the Abyss beneath.
 He form'd a dividing rule:
 8. He formed scales to weigh;
 He formed massy weights;
 He formed a brazen quadrant;
 He formed golden compasses ...

 (pl. 20:33-39, E 80-81, my emphasis)


Gazing upward, Samson stares straight into the world formed by the Urizenic God himself, and whatever mass and force he directs toward undoing that world ironically ends up repeating it, instantiating its fallen laws and materials. Samson at the pillars does not command force at will but submits to it. Tugging and pulling, he is like the misguided warriors in Simone Weil's sobering reading of the Iliad, not as much an agent of violence as its instrument: "The true hero," writes Weil, "the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force. The force that men wield, the force that subdues men, in the face of which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul seems ever conditioned by its ties with force, swept away, blinded by the force it believes it can control, bowed under the constraint of the force it submits to." (39)


In strictly visual terms, Blake's Samson also bears a striking resemblance to plate 21 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy D (fig. 8), where another naked figure with a one-eyed upward gaze finds his body encompassed by a massive descending angle. Even before Blake introduced the background pyramids that would align this composition with the Samson design of Night Thoughts (circa 1795, and only in copy D), this naked youth already bore a strong general association with revolution and a specific one with Samson. Rising literally from the grave and figuratively from subjection, the same figure also appears atop the boldly apocalyptic text of America, plate 8 (fig. 9), a text that likens revolution to resurrection ("The grave is burst" [line 2]) and--with direct reference to Milton's Samson--to a final exodus from slavery ("Let the slave grinding at the mill, run into the field: / Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air" [6-7]). To complete the transition from slavery to freedom for which he stands, to be a strong man rising after sleep, all this man need do is stand, and in every other version of this oft-repeated design, nothing impedes him. Either he looks up into the heavens, ready to laugh in bright air (Marriage, copy I) or he finds himself released altogether from surrounding constraints into the uninscribed space of an open textual margin (Marriage, copy K). Only in copy D of Marriage does the foregone conclusion of his capacity to rise become a problem for interpretation (see fig. 8).


In a design newly dominated by pyramids, this problem is appropriately one of angles: a tension between points of view. From the figure's own perspective within the picture space, the pyramids to his back could be emblematic of past constraints left behind (death or slavery). Because he is outside them as he is above the grave, they do not interfere with his now unmediated gaze "into the heavens." From our frontal perspective, however, as readers of the plate, the figure appears painfully constricted by the composition's geometric design; he remains entombed within the pyramid's rigid outline. One would no more expect him to rise within this cramped, Newtonian space than one would expect Urizen to stand within the circle of his own making in "The Ancient of Days." The questions that surround this figure, then, are the same questions surrounding Samson's rouzing virtue. Is he about to rise, phoenix-like, having broken from the hold of the past? Or is he someone whose would-be apocalyptic agency conforms to a structural paradigm of which he may not even be aware? Perhaps he thinks he sees without boundaries into heaven, with all the force of an unmediated revelation, but we see the confining framework that indicates otherwise.

Ambiguity is further irritated by the prose text of plate 21. Here the topic is overconfidence, the same charge Watson would level against Paine and that Blake now levels against the "vanity" of Angels who fail to recognize that their authority, "sprouting from systematic reasoning," corresponds to their narrow angle of vision. Blake underscores the association between arrogant angels and narrow angles with a playful visual-verbal pun: the large capital A of "Angels" in the first line of text mirrors the large closed "angle" of the pyramid almost directly above it in the image (see fig. 8). The text specifically targets one such self-deceived angel, the false prophet Swedenborg, whose promise of apocalyptic innovation amounts to nothing more than plagiarism and repetition: "Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new: tho' it is only the Contents or Index of already published books." Contents or Index: Swedenborg is the alpha and omega of the already known. In earlier and later versions of this plate, the design's apocalyptic and Samson-related youth would seem to be an authentic counterpoint to the deadening repetition of Swedenborg's writings, which he would leave behind in his naked ascent like so much linen at an empty tomb. But here, the naked figure might himself be another Swedenborg, another angel convinced he sees an unrefracted truth and is ready to stand upon his vision with authority, but in fact is unable to rise above the limits that precondition his knowledge and agency unawares. The skepticism Blake directs so effectively toward Swedenborg is devastating and general: if any act with pretence to apocalyptic inspiration ("inward illumination") may in fact be programmed in advance by subtle, unrecognized constraints, then how would an agent ever know whether he is transforming his world or reproducing its fallen conditions? That again is the problem rendered in shorthand by Samson at the pillars (see fig. 2).



There is probably no end to the texts and images we might bring to bear on the Night Thoughts Samson, for Blake has routed this figure of "fiery vertue" into a diffuse network of self-qualifying signs. In Samson Agonistes, the "rouzing motions" (1382) that lead Samson to the pillars initiate an irreversible sequence that can only end one way: with pillars falling. Across Blake's open-ended network of signs, however, the reader's centrifugal, incomplete, and even retrograde motions leave those pillars still in air, perhaps never to fall. That Blake learned this slow readerly motion from Milton might best be conveyed by invoking Joanna Picciotto's recent account of Milton's difficult syntax, for her rendering of the reading experience Milton provokes could pass almost verbatim as a description of effects similarly produced by Blake:
 [A]mbiguities proliferate through double syntax ... while delayed
 exposure to crucial information creates the conditions for surprise
 "discoveries" that demand repeated acts of re-reading and
 re-seeing, literally retarding our movement down the page....
 [L]ong blocks of steeply enjambed lines provide a sense of headlong
 forward momentum while staving off a complete representation of
 what is happening. This paradoxical progress ... combin[es] the
 copious accumulation of experimental results with a modest deferral
 of certainty about their meaning. The autoinquisition forced by
 Milton's repeated invitations to perceptual self-consciousness
 intensifies the sense of retarded movement, prompting us to
 hesitate, to reexamine, like victims of a checking compulsion. (40)

Still, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that either Milton or Blake was willing to relinquish the impulsive Samson altogether. Even as they hedge him round with every possible caution that an incremental, self-correcting interpretive process might provide, the reading activity they initiate through Samson never fully displaces the enthusiasm he represents, even at the risk of sustaining its potential for violence. If Blake or Milton meant for their "doubting significations" to disable any identification with Samson, they surely adopted a dangerous strategy, for even as the reader's negotiation of ambiguities slows and perhaps even supplants any tendency toward revolutionary haste, it never fully eliminates the possibility of revolutionary justice that Samson might represent, keeping that possibility alive not only conceptually but affectively, as an object still working on the reader's desire. Rather than raising and purging enthusiasm in a zero-sum game of catharsis, resulting in "calm of mind all passion spent" (1758), these Samson figures generate a response more closely akin to what Foucault calls "a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty." (41) That is, they never cancel impatience entirely. At a moment in Samson Agonistes when events are still in doubt, the chorus tells Samson that two outcomes remain open to him: restored strength or saintly patience--"Either of these is in thy lot" (1292). If Samson must alternate between force and patience, or play them out in sequence, it becomes the reader's lot to hold them together simultaneously, to experience reading as the activity that carries a passion for revolutionary justice into the future--still warm, like "fierie vertue ... under ashes"--even while exercising the patience necessary to resist imitating those who violently act on their enthusiasm as if it were divinely authorized. Reading Samson performs this dual function by transferring the hero's sublime strength to the critical act of assessing the hero's validity. By making Samson's virtue undecidable, Blake and Milton would make a virtue of criticism: "vigorous most / When most unactive deem'd." Or to revert to nay epigraph from Kenzaburo Oe's novel Somersault, reading is the space where it becomes possible "neither to take action nor to desist." (42)

University of California, Berkeley

APPENDIX: Blake's variations on "cracked across" (from Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake)

America: A Prophecy (1793), canceled plate b:
 So still the terrors rent ...
 ... so the dark house was rent,
 The valley mov'd beneath; its shining pillars split in twain,
 And its roofs crack across down falling on th'Angelic seats.

 (20-24, E 58)

The Book of Urizen (1794), plate 23:
 Grodna rent the deep earth howling
 Amaz'd! his heavens immense cracks
 Like the ground parch'd with heat ...

 (15-17, E 81)

The Book of Los (1795), plate 4:
 1: The Immortal stood frozen amidst
 The vast rock of eternity; times
 And times; a night of vast durance:
 Impatient, stifled, stiffend, hardned.

 2: Till impatience no longer could bear
 The hard bondage, rent: rent, the vast solid
 With a crash from immense to immense

 3: Crack'd across into numberless fragments
 The Prophetic wrath, strug'ling for vent
 Hurls apart, stamping furious to dust
 And crumbling with bursting sobs; heaves
 The black marble on high into fragments

 4: Hurl'd apart on all sides, as a falling
 Rock: the innumerable fragments away
 Fell asunder; and horrible vacuum
 Beneath him & on all sides round.

 5: Falling, falling! Los fell & fell
 Sunk precipitant heavy down down
 Times on times, night on night, day on day ...

 (11-29, E 92)

The Four Zoas (c. 1797-1805), Night The Third:
 [Ahania] Continued falling. Loud the Crash continud loud
 & Hoarse
 From the Crash roared a flame of blue sulphureous fire
 from the flame
 A dolorous groan that struck with dumbness all confusion
 Swallowing up the horrible din in agony on agony
 Thro the Confusion like a crack across from immense
 to immense
 Loud strong a universal groan * of death louder
 Than all the wracking elements

 (page 44; lines 6-11, E 329)

* ["Noise call you it or universal groan" (Samson Agonistes, 1511)]

Night The Ninth:
 Los his vegetable hands
 Outstretchd his right hand branching out in fibrous Strength
 Siezd the Sun. His left hand like dark roots coverd the Moon
 And tore them down cracking the heavens across from
 immense to immense
 Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrill
 Sound of Loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven
 to heaven
 A mighty sound articulate Awake ye dead & come
 To judgment from the four winds Awake & Come away
 Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth
 With thunderous noise & dreadful shakings rocking to and fro
 The heavens are shaken & the Earth removed from its place ...

 (page 117; lines 6-16, E 386-87)


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--. Interpreting Samson Agonistes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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(1.) John Milton, Samson Agonistes, The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 1:41. Further citations, by lines, are to this text.

(2.) David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of the History of His Own Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 6 ff. Departing from Erdman, Peter Ackroyd suggests that in 1804 we can best gloss "Albion rose" not by remembering the Gordon Riots but by turning to Blake's painting of The Resurrection and other images of religious transcendence from that year (Blake: A Biography [New York: Ballantine, 1995], 260), while Robert Essick associates the inscription of "Albion rose" with a letter, also from 1804, in which Blake complained of his professional constraints by likening himself to the imprisoned Samson: "I was a slave in a mill among beasts and devils." See William Blake Printmaker (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 162.

(3.) See William Blake's Designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts, ed. David Erdman, John E. Grant, Edward J. Rose, and Michael J. Tolley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), Night IX, 119. Further citations, by night and page number, are to this text.

(4.) Kevis Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 6-10.

(5.) The key texts in the debate on Samson and terrorism are Stanley Fish's "The Temptation of Understanding," in How Milton Works (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 391-473, and John Carey's response to that essay, published just before the first anniversary of the 9/11 bombings: "A Work in Praise of Terrorism?" TLS (September 6, 2002): 15-16. The New York Times covered the controversy in an article called "Is Reading Milton Unsafe at Any Speed?" (December 28, 2002). Among many entries on the topic, see three essays (including Fish's last response to Carey) in Milton in the Age of Fish: Essays on Authorship, Text, and Terrorism, ed. Michael Lieb and Albert Labriola (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006): David Lowenstein, "Samson Agonistes and the Culture of Religious Terror," 203-28; Michael Lieb, "Returning the Gorgon Medusa's Gaze: Terror and Annihilation in Milton," 229-42; and Stanley Fish, "'There Is Nothing He Cannot Ask': Milton, Liberalism, and Terrorism," 243-64.

(6.) Hill's chapter on Samson Agonistes in Milton and the English Revolution (New York: Viking, 1977) begins with an epigraph from Milton justifying revolutionary violence: "The heroic Samson ... thought it not impious but pious to kill those masters who were tyrants over his country" (428). It ends with the following words: "Blake picked up the image of Samson as a 'gigantic national hero, who fights tyrants' [quoting Frye]. He saw him as a sun-figure, and--picking up Areopagitica's image--as 'Albion rising from where he laboured at the mill with slaves,' like a strong man after sleep shaking his locks" (448).

(7.) Lieb, "Returning the Gorgon Medusa's Gaze," 242. A few sentences earlier, Lieb summarizes his view of Milton's Samson, who "becomes the means by which the reclaimed strong man can triumphantly carry on the work of a God whose very name is 'Dread'" (242). Feisal G. Mohamed has also argued against the predominant tendency of Milton scholars to downplay the poet's attraction to violence. Thus he suggests that by overemphasizing the role of ambiguity in the text Fish underplays Milton's commitment to Samson's militant heroism: "If Fish is to be faulted, it is not for being too strenuous in asserting that Samson Agonistes is a work that looks favorably on Samson's final action but rather for not being strenuous enough in doing so" ("Confronting Religious Violence: Milton's Samson Agonistes," PMLA 120 [March 2005]: 329).

(8.) My own understanding of Blake's relation to Milton would hardly be possible without the example of Joseph Wittreich, to whom this essay is dedicated. As early as Angel of Apocalypse: Blake's Idea of Mihon (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), where he paid special attention to "Albion rose," Wittreich was already contending that Samson Agonistes provided Blake with a cautionary lesson about the temptations of "false apocalypse" (57). The possibility that Milton's drama is "less a celebration of revolution than a critique of it" (57) became the basis for a series of extended explorations, first in Interpreting Samson Agonistes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), then in Shifting Contexts: Reinterpreting Samson Agonistes (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2003), and most recently in Why Milton Matters: A New Preface to His Writings (New York: Palgrave, 2006). In Interpreting Samson Agonistes, Wittreich explains his resistance to the tendency among readers to identify Milton with his dramatic hero: "It is conceivable that Milton wrote his poem simply accepting that identity with Samson and, through him, urging another, this time successful, revolution; it is equally conceivable that, divorcing himself from Samson, Milton composed this poem as a retrospective repudiation of the cause he once championed" (xxi). Wittreich's object is to defend the plausibility of the latter position while explaining why the former has garnered considerable support. Most importantly, he demonstrates that in Samson Agonistes Milton never passively reflects his culture's understanding of the Samson legend, but reflects upon it comprehensively and critically.

(9.) Milton, Areopagitica, in The Riverside Milton, page 1020.

(10.) William Blake, Milton, pl. 15, lines 12-13, in The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 109. Further citations of Blake's work are to this edition (E), unless otherwise noted.

(11.) King Lear, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), In.ii. 1-8.

(12.) D. W. Dorrbecker makes this point in his edition of America: A Prophecy, in William Blake, The Continental Prophecies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 137. Like Dorrbecker, I am using copy H of America as my reference text throughout this essay.

(13.) In Roberto Bolano's novel 2666 a character attempting to describe the deafening violence of World War Two carpet bombing settles on the word "noise" despite its obvious arbitrariness: "Impossible as it seems, the noise grows louder. Call it noise, why not. One might call it a din, a roar, a clamor, a hammering, a great shriek, a bellow of the gods, but noise is a simple word that serves just as well to describe what has no name" (trans. Natasha Wimmer [New York: Picador, 2009], 794-95).

(14.) Carey, "A Work in Praise of Terrorism?" 16.

(15.) Leslie Tannenbaum, Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 263-64.

(16.) See footnote 8 above.

(17.) Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1973), 36.

(18.) Page and line numbers of Blake's Four Zoas manuscript, as reproduced in Erdman, Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake.

(19.) Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cenci, v.iii.74-75, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), 197.

(20.) Repeated with slight variation on 119:21-23.

(22.) Richard Watson, Lord Bishop of Llandaff, An Apology for the Bible, in a Series of Letters, Addressed to Thomas Paine, Author of a Book Entitled "The Age of Reason" (Reprinted at Lichfield: T. Collier, 1797), 5.

(23.) Stanley Fish, How Milton Works, 426. In "'There Is Nothing He Cannot Ask': Milton, Liberalism, and Terrorism," Fish continues to defend this position by insisting that, for Milton, only inward persuasion matters: "Milton would have us proceed by looking to the spirit within which an act is performed--to its intentional structure--rather than to what may or may not occur in its wake" (250).

(24.) Carey, "A Work in Praise of Terrorism?" 16.

(25.) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 703-4.

(26.) Watson, An Apology for the Bible, 6-7.

(27.) In On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1965), Hannah Arendt takes Watson's argument a step further, while also using the French Revolution as her exemplary case. From the brutal aggression of Jacobin virtue we learn "that absolute goodness is hardly any less dangerous than absolute evil" (77). As Arendt further suggests in a remarkable reading of "Billy Budd," this collapse of moral distinction in the exercise of violence is also the lesson taught by Melville's story of a malignant agitator killed by an innocent young sailor: "It is as though [Melville] said: Let us suppose that from now on the foundation stone of our political life will be that Abel slew Cain. Don't you see that from this deed of violence the same chain of wrongdoing will follow, only that now mankind will not even have the consolation that the violence it must call crime is indeed characteristic of evil men only?" (83).

(28.) Saree Makdisi finds in these annotations a central expression of Blake's far-reaching antinomianism. The "great significance" of "these woefully underread annotations," he writes, is "the sheer scale of Blake's critique of authority, governmentality, and the moral virtues," which taken in total and directed against the authority of Watson amount to "a denunciation of authoritarian discipline and behavioral codes in any form" (William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003], 67-68). Also see Hazard Adams's chapter on the Watson annotations in Blake's Margins: An Interpretive Study of the Annotations (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 61-80.

(29.) Watson, An Apology for the Bible, 13.

(30.) In his recent discussion of these lines, Fish suggests that Milton lies closer to Watson's reasoning than to Blake's on the question of whether idolaters are themselves responsible for the violence against them. "The key phrase is 'drunk with idolatry'.... Hence, [the Philistines] deserve what they get and have, in the strongest sense, brought it on themselves. Indeed, because they are spiritually dead to the living God, they are in effect already dead; they are barely human beings, for the spirit of God does not live within them" ("'There Is Nothing He Cannot Ask,'" 246).

(31.) Walter Benjamin, "Critique of Violence" (1920, in Reflections, trans. Edmond Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978), 298-99. Benjamin writes: "Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing ... on the commandment [Thou shalt not kill] are therefore mistaken. It exists not as a criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of those persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it. Thus it was understood by Judaism, which expressly rejected the condemnation of killing in self-defense" (298).

(32.) Benjamin, "Critique of Violence," 300.

(33.) Drawing on the association between Samson's name (Shemshon) and the ancient Hebrew for sun (shemesh), Tannenbaum argues that "Samson, with open eyes, represents the apocalyptic new sun of inner vision that causes all previous suns to expire. Here Blake interprets Samson's death as symbolizing the role of the true deliverer ..." (Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies, 268). Wittreich takes the opposite view: "Samson the liberator, instead of releasing mankind from bondage, unleashes destruction; instead of being an awakener and a redeemer, he is a destroyer and a perverter" (Angel of Apocalypse, 52).

(34.) Anonymous, Grubb Street Journal (1735), cited in Susie I. Tucker, Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 18.

(35.) Consider, for instance, Christopher Hill's characterization of Samson Agonistes as Milton's "call of hope to the [politically] defeated," urging "'potential Samsons ... enslaved at the mill" to "be ready to act when the time comes.... Milton believed that the war against Antichrist continued, and that it was the duty of God's people to hit back when they could" (Milton and the English Revolution, 441-42).

(36.) Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997), 78-79. In a small, recent book on Violence, Slavoj Zizek has defended the slower motions of criticism against the urgency of political demands in terms nearly identical to Derrida's. Beset by a "fake sense of urgency," with its one recurring message ("There is no time to reflect: we have to act now") and its accompanying reproach ("Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?"), Zizek emphatically retorts: "One should gather the courage to answer: 'YES, precisely that!' There are situations when the only truly 'practical' thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to 'wait and see' by means of a patient, critical analysis" (Violence [New York: Picador, 2008], 6-7).

(37.) See W. J. T. Mitchell's still definitive account of Blake's iconography of the senses in "Blake's Pictorial Style," chapter two of Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 58-69.

(38.) Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 1:252.

(39.) Simone Weil's The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition, trans, and ed. James Holoka (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 45.

(40.) Joanna Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 439. In Picciotto's reading, "[Paradise Lost] everywhere calls attention to the constructed nature of the perceptual experiences it records. Rather than representing completed images or perceptions, the poem recreates the conditions of viewing, engaging the reader's conscious effort to complete the task of perception" (438). In this way the poem becomes "a literary counterpart to experimentalist observation" (439).

(41.) These are the final words of Michel Foucault's "What Is Enlightenment?" in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 50.

(42.) Oe, Somersault, trans. Philip Gabriel (New York: Grove, 2003), 307. Somersault is not as unlikely a reference point as it at first might seem. Oe has been an avid reader of Blake throughout his career, and (through Blake) Somersault can be considered a distant variation on Samson Agonistes. The novel recounts the history of a Japanese church loosely modeled on Aura Shinrikyo, the cult responsible for the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Poised between apocalyptic inspiration and terrorist violence, Oe's fictional church finds itself heir to the same problems regarding action and inaction that Blake himself inherited from Milton. Thus when Oe's would-be prophet, Patron, prays for a divine command "from the other side" that would authorize an act of sacred violence, he replays the predicament of Samson at the pillars, who "stood, as one who pray'd, / Or some great matter in his mind revolv'd." And when his interpreter, Guide, reworks the content of his vision "into ordinary language," telling their followers "neither to take action nor to desist," he translates the noise of history into paradoxical terms that both Milton and Blake would have understood.
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Author:Goldsmith, Steven
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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