Phallic Dominance: The Aggravated Agency in Milton’s “Samson Agonistes”

Posted by on July 24, 2012 
Filed under Essays

On the surface, John Milton’s  poem “Samson Agonistes” critiques  Anglo-Christian supremacy over the more obscure religions of the world as seen through the character Samson, a “Heroic Nazarite” (Milton 318), laying waste to the “Heathen” (451) Philistine people. Samson claims that his mission to “Israel from Philistian yoke deliver” (39) is “Divine Prediction” (44), that he is “Design’d for great exploits” (32), yet he has been reduced to slave status at the onset of the poem.

It is significant that Samson’s loss of power is emphasized at the poem’s beginning in that it is his loss of power that is central to understanding “Samson Agonistes” in reference to John Guillory’s article “Dalila’s House: Samson Agonistes and the Sexual Division of Labor.” Guillory’s article frames “Samson Agonistes” is a poem which recasts 17th century notions of antiquated gender roles by subjugating males and empowering females, “Samson Agonistes is a prototype of the bourgeois career drama, which conventionally sets the vocation of the husband against the demands of the housewife” (Guillory 110). There is a duality to Guillory’s argument in that the binaries of man and woman are not only opposing genders, they are the counterpoints of husband and wife, which leads Guillory to suggest that the battle in “Samson Agonistes” is really a marital battle for public recognition over domestic recognition, or dominance over subjugation. Milton, when one examines “Samson Agonistes” through the lens of Guillory’s article, portrays Dalila as having achieved public recognition over Samson. Samson was once a public figure that has been symbolically castrated in the sense that his public dominance as a victorious warrior has been overshadowed by him being betrayed by Dalila. It is Dalila’s betrayal of Samson which allows her to become a publicly recognized figure of power because she has rescued her people from the ignominy created by Samson’s former dominance. Milton employs many techniques to portray this reversal of dominance such as the use of sexually symbolic language to invoke Samson’s castration and Dalila’s gain of the phallus. The manner in which Dalila moves from subordination to boastful pride further reflects the shift of dominance from Samson to Dalila because this shift magnifies the paradox between the legend of Samson and the reality of Samson in the poem: Samson’s glory is magnified at the poem’s outset only to be undermined through his lack of agency in reality.

In “Samson Agonistes,” Milton uses sexually suggestive language to allude to Samson’s fallen state as a castrated male. This castration is felt through language portraying him as lacking in prowess as well as to evoke the sense of Dalila possessing the equipment needed to dominate the castrated Samson. A passage strongly alluding to Samson’s castration can be found in lines 528-540 in which Samson is described as being “swoll’n with pride” (Milton 532) during his conquests in battle only to fall to “fallacious looks, venereal trains, / softn’d with pleasure and voluptuous life” (533-534) which “shore” (537) him “Like a tame Weather” (538). This passage is important in that Samson’s hubris, as symbolized through his pride being “swoll’n” (532), as if it is a phallus, is what leads him susceptible to Dalila’s “fallacious looks” (533), “venereal trains” (533), and voluptuousness. Samson falls prey to her as a “tame Weather” (538), is prey to the farmer’s shears, and is “disarm’d” (540) in the sense that his “swoll’n” (532) phallic pride has become “tame” (538), or deflated, as a result. The next significant line alluding to Dalila’s dominance over Samson occurs when Dalila suggests that she “touch” (951) Samson’s “hand” (951). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “hand” in Roman Law means “the power of the husband over his wife” (“hand” 2.b. 1875). In essence, Dalila is suggesting that she “touch” (951), or own his manly prowess because she ultimately wants Samson to return home with her, with the home symbolizing “deprivation, a certain incapacity to act” according to Guillory (109). So, Dalila’s suggestion requires Samson to be depravedly touched so that he may ultimately dwell in a structure lacking agency. The fact that Dalila suggests this so openly speaks to the confidence, and therefore agency, she has gained as a result of usurping Samson’s control over the Philistines. She has become “swoll’n” (Milton 532) with enough “pride” (532) to allow her to seamlessly suggest such ideas to Samson without any hesitation on her part being acknowledged in the text.

It is with Dalila’s dominance over Samson through making such an intrepid suggestion that leads one to see sexually allusive language used by other characters in the poem to portray her as a liberated woman. After Dalila dismisses herself from Samson’s sight Samson describes his marriage to her as having been “committed / to such a viper…sacred trust / Of secresie” (1001-1003). Samson’s statement suggests that Dalila posseses the predatory powers of a viper, which speaks to her heightened agency in that she was able to subvert Samson’s “trust / Of secresie” (1002-1003). The next character to speak is the Chorus, whose discourse with Samson furthers the notion of Dalila having gained phallic power over Samson by way of suggesting she possesses a “secret sting” (1007) powerful enough to cause “amorous remorse” (1007). This “secret sting” (1007) can be interpreted to symbolize Dalila’s ability to penetrate the male dominated system of “productive labor” (Guillory 110) with a member powerful enough to “sting” (1007) masculinity hard enough to cause it to feel remorse for ever having “been fond of the opposite sex” (“amorous” 1.a. 1673 ) when woman’s femininity has been exposed as being “only a mask” (Guillory 114).

It is with realizing the mask of femininity in “Samson Agonistes” that reader can begin to see Dalila’s shift in posture, from subordination to domination, which reflects her shift from a private worker to a public worker, “she reinterprets her betrayal of the private marital contract as the subordination of private to public interests…Dalila’s failure as a wife…meant her public success” (Guillory 111). When Samson first comes in contact with Dalila after she has betrayed him the Chorus describes her with feminist imagery, “with head declin’d / Like a fair flower surcharg’d with dew” (Milton 727-728). She is perceived to be delicate as a flower bent under the weight of dew, and in first interaction with Samson, Dalila seems to proffer the notion of her being a delicate flower, “My penance hath not slack’n’d, though my pardon / No way assured. But conjugal affection / Prevailing over fear, and timorous doubt / Hath led me on desirous to behold / Once more thy face, and know of thy estate” (738-742). Dalila is saying she is so delicate that she has sought out Samson despite her “fear, and timorous doubt” (740) and lack of “pardon” (738) because she needs the strength created by her and Samson’s “conjugal affection” (739). However, Samson rejects Dalila’s advances, “Out, out Hyaena; these are thy wonted arts, / And arts of every woman false like thee” (748-749). Samson’s rejection prompts Dalila to change her demeanor from one of subordination to one of domination, “that to the public good / Private respects must yield; with grave authority / Took full possession of me and prevail’d; / Vertue, as I thought, truth, duty so enjoyning” (867-870). Dalila admits that her private subordinate life as a housewife was rendered insignificant when compared to the public and virtuous duty of liberating her people from Sampson’s yoke, “how just it was, / How honourable, how glorious to entrap / A common enemy… / to ensnare an irreligious / Dishonourer of Dagon” (854-861). She assumes an active and dominate role in Samson’s defeat through her choice to “ensnare” (860) him as “A common enemy” (856). She has taken a violent stance against a man she was once subordinate to. She has become the dominant dynamic of her and Samson’s relationship.

The disparate dynamic between Samson the legend and Samson in the reality of this poem is essential in understanding the shift of dominance in Samson to Dalilah’s relationship. At the outset of the poem Samson is described as having once had a supreme amount of agency and fame to his character, “That Heroic , that Renown’d, / Irresistible Samson? whom unarm’d / no strength of man, or fiercest wild beast could withstand… / Adamantean Proof / But safest he who stood aloof, / When insupportably his foot advanc’t” (126-136). Samson stands “insupportably” (136), meaning he possesses supreme dominance over all others, so much so that he is able to take on any foe without the aid of anyone/thing else. He is depicted as a giant hard phallus through Milton’s choice to relate his character to the supreme hardness of the metal Adamantean  and the power with which he has “stood aloof / …insupportably” (135-136) such as how an erect phallus might appear to an onlooker, as a singular tower on a level terrain. However, this great image of Samson the legend, the Samson that once was, is contrasted with the Samson who has been enslaved at the hands of Dalilah, “My self, my Sepulcher, a moving Grave / Buried , yet not exempt / By priviledge of death and burial /…made hereby obnoxious more / To all the miseries of life” (102-107). In this passage the reality of Samson’s situation is that of him being akin to the walking dead, “Buried, yet not exempt” (103), whose life is now lived for misery instead of glory. Samson’s current state is a stark contrast to his once glorious reputation as an undefeatable warrior.

This disparity in the characterization of Samson magnifies Delilah’s public dominance over Samson in the sense that his extreme fall from glory allows the reader to view Dalilah’s agency over him as evoking his symbolic castration with she as the inheritor of his public position perceived as phallic domination. Dalilah’s act against her husband is powerful enough to have caused an all-powerful warrior to become a subjugated slave. In essence, Samson’s legend has been symbolically raped by Delilah’s act, “Once joined, the contrary she proves, a thorn” (1036). Delilah has pricked/penetrated the very essence of Samson, causing his fall into supreme subjugation.

Works Cited

“amorous, adj. and n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 3 May 2012 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/6546?redirectedFrom=amorous.>

Guillory, John. “Dalila’s House: Samson Agonistes and the Sexual Division of Labor.” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, et al. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 106-122. Women in Cult. & Soc. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 May 2012.

“hand, n.1”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 3 May 2012 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/83801?rskey=vbDm6P&result=1&isAdvanced=false>.

Milton, John. “Samson Agonistes.” The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 799-844. Print.

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