Friday, February 29, 2008

An Academic Aside: Samson Agonistes

Etching of Samson
1882 German Bible
(Image from Wikipedia)

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"

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 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?

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.

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At 7:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an observation I am no scholar, I am definitely not a Milton afficionado.

As to gouge, put out, removed, whatever the descriptive for inflicted blindness, everytime I have actually read of the process it has always been that a "heated iron rod" was the preferred method.

I just needed a break fom one of my own papers and slipped over to gypsy. Either this or a beer and since it looks like it'll be a late night, I thought I'd best "gypsy." Don't know if my thought adds, detracts, helps or hinders but...


At 8:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There is a tradition that Samson was blinded by fire, and at least one Samson movie shows the blinding being done by bringing a red-hot poker near Samson's eyes, so your suggestion, JK, is not outside the realm of possibility.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but it was a long time ago?

somethings i capitalize, somethings i don't. as to how helpful the specter of a a red hot fire, an iron spiked.

the rhyme is in the reason and reason mostly past. Pope for instance.

the one capitalized entry thus far rhymes with hope, and in that vein iambic might take a hike. poetry in moetry. time to hit the archived.


At 1:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Speaking ex cathedrally, the current holder of the apostolic seat emphasizes reason. Rhyme maybe.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh thank you so very, very much for correctfully correcting me with cathocatholosisms. I still hold to my Protestant truisms but this is one time I am so very happy that in addition to St. Valentine, St. Nick, and St. Jerome... I now have cause to celebrate (well I hope he's a Saint-if not- can a Protestant nominate)?

Thank you kind Sirs. I had a paper that was and had to be submitted the last day of this month.

Yes, you guys that proclaim Saints, with (I think) white smoke out of your ashtrays. Anyway I nominate that Gregory guy who designed the non-Mayan-non-Julian calendar that gives me this doggone extra day to buy a bigger eraser and more "White-Out" (Can I nominate the Mother of the bass player from the band called the Monkees?).

Well stick a hot poker in my eyes, the paper ain't due till tomorrow. This year ain't divisible by four hundred is it? I ain't got that many toes. Just in case it is divisible by four hundred, can anybody give me the phone number for Ben Bernanke? Maybe Alan Greenspan?


At 5:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The pope and saints, I can help you with, but Bernanke and Greenspan? For that you need better connections.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It did begin as a hmm, hmmm. Soon it became a chuckle. I'm too old to recognize the computerisian abbreviationism for the former.

I try to appropriate the


nomenclature but too often the youngsters don't recognize a balding, brooding, frowning, fat guy with a loose Windsor and a long beard as something other than Heaven.


At 7:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


forgive me, not a balding guy. hair neatly parted on the right. still brooding, frowning, loose windsor, (He would not put up with a too tight tie) but the beard must be computeriasingly billowy.


At 9:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your computer coding is beyond my ken...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:29 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Jesus, Jeff , you blog about such lofty "stuff"-Was Samson's "legend" filled out by the Greeks? Did I write to you and ask about the Hebrew language not having verbs-what would this do to the translation of the biblical stories? It's been 30 years since I read anything by Milton so I'll stay away from any real "comment"

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, I don't recall any queries from you on these subjects.

Hebrew does have verbs, by the way, but biblical Hebrew lacks a present tense and uses only past and future.

On the Greeks and the Bible, some scholars have suggested links between the Samson stories and the Hercules stories, but I don't know much about that.

Jeffery Hodges

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