An Academic Aside: Samson Agonistes
I'm on one of my Miltonic jaunts today, this time an excursion through Samson Agonistes.
On the Milton Listserve, one of the scholars, Joe Mayer, asked why Milton describes Samson as if in prayer with "eyes fast fixt," for Samson's eyes had been physically gouged out according to the biblical text.
Carol Barton suggests that Milton was "nodding" in describing Samson as having his "eyes fast fixt" as if in prayer, for Milton knew -- but momentarily forgot -- that Samson's eyes had been physically removed.
Milton's 'fatigue' is possible, but a careful poet such as Milton must have gone over the line many times, checking and rechecking, so I wonder if "nodding" is the answer to Joe Mayer's query about Samson's "eyes fast fixt."
Just as a query of my own, mostly out of ignorance, but did Milton believe that Samson's eyes had physically been gouged out?
In Samson Agonistes, a quick scan gives these references:
line 33: "eyes put out"I may have missed some, but of these lines, only line 41 ("eyeless in gaza") and line 1741 ("loss of eyes") would most strongly suggest that Samson's eyes are physically missing, but are these to be taken literally?
line 41: "eyeless in gaza"
line 67: "O loss of sight"
line 152: "lost Sight"
lines 195-6: "that which was the worst now least afflicts me, / Blindness, for had I sight"
lines 644-5: "irreparable loss / Of sight"
line 914: "though sight be lost"
line 1103: "eyes put out"
line 1160: "put out both thine eyes"
line 1294: "sight bereav'd"
line 1489; "eye-sight lost"
line 1490: "it shall be my delight to tend his eyes"
line 1502: "his strength with eye-sight was not lost"
lines 1527-8: "What if his eye-sight (for to Israels God / Nothing is hard) by miracle restor'd"
line 1624: "without help of eye"
line 1637: "eyes fast fixt"
line 1687: "blind of sight"
line 1741: "loss of eyes"
I am merely asking, uncertain.
Expressions such as "eyes put out" seem far more ambiguous to me, for "put out" might be read as "extinguished" -- as in the light of the eyes being extinguished.
Milton would, of course, know the Hebrew of Judges 16:21, which reads (apologies for the poor transliteration): "wayenaqqru et ainaiv."
This is often translated "and they gouged out his eyes."
My lexicon (Brown-Driver-Briggs, 669a), however, defines "naqar" as "bore, pick, dig." The Arabic cognate has the meanings of "perforate, bore out, hollow out." The Hebrew term "naqar" (and its Arabic cognate) thus seems to allow for some hermeneutic room to choose between the sense of gouging out and the sense of perforating.
Incidently, the King James Bible translates Judges 16:21 as "the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes," which -- as noted in Milton's use above -- seems to allow for some ambiguity.
But why would Milton want ambiguity on this point? What would be gained? Could it possibly have something to do with concepts of purity and holiness in Milton's reading of what he considered the old covenant? Purity and holiness are related to soundness of body and mind -- for instance, a priest must be sound of body according to divine law.
Yet blindness itself, even with the eyes physically present, would perhaps not constitute soundness of body, would it?
If any biblical scholars with expertise in Hebrew would care to comment, I'd be grateful.
Other individuals -- even Milton scholars -- are also invited to offer opinions.