Milton - Milton...

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Milton: Lecture 23 Transcript December 3, 2007 << back Professor John Rogers: We ended the last lecture, or actually I ended my last lecture -- The last lecture was Matt's [Yale graduate student] -- I ended my last lecture on Paradise Regained with the brief consideration of the riddle of the sphinx. Satan was compared to the sphinx who had thrown herself off the "Ismenian steep" when her riddle had been discovered. The Son of God, you'll remember, was implicitly compared to Oedipus, who had figured out the riddle of his own identity by means of his exchange with the sphinx. I think it can be said that Samson Agonistes is more explicitly concerned with riddles and with riddling even than Paradise Regained was. One of the key moments -- although this isn't anything that Milton does very much with -- one of the key moments of the story of Samson that we get from the Book of Judges in the Bible involves Samson's posing of this big riddle: the riddle of the honey and the lion. It's Samson, at least in the Judges version of the story, who can be seen as assuming the role of the sphinx. He poses the riddles, and it's really his duty throughout his life to know when it is you should reveal the answer to the riddle, to the secret. Samson Agonistes is, I think, profoundly interested in this problem and is continually asking the question: how do you know when it's time--how do you know when it's time to reveal your secrets? Or -- to use the language that Milton uses in the seventh sonnet, "How soon hath Time?" -- how do you know when it is that you have ripened? That's a riddle that it's the job of Samson in Samson Agonistes to figure out the answer to. Now, it's one of the ironies of literary history that this poem, which is really all about riddles and secrets, surely poses the biggest riddle for the scholarly, the academic, study of Milton. It has proven nearly impossible for scholars of Milton to determine when it was that Samson Agonistes -- to determine authoritatively or definitively when it was that this text was written. In that respect, it's utterly different from the other works of Milton's that can be dated much more authoritatively. We do know this. It first appears in 1671; it's published alongside Paradise Regained. So you have the title page of that 1671 volume, "Paradise Regained, a poem in four books," and then in a little typeface, "To which is added Samson Agonistes." Actually the Hughes edition reproduces for you just this title page -- it's on page 470. But there's no hard evidence for the date of the composition of the poem, and there are conflicting accounts, as of course you can imagine, of the date of composition. So I want to spend a little bit of time here, and I'll just do this briefly, thinking about the various scholarly accounts of when it was that Milton wrote Samson Agonistes , because all of these theories, I think, concerning the placement of Samson Agonistes in the Miltonic canon assume in one way or another that this poem is autobiographical -- that there's some kind of intimate, autobiographical component to this remarkable work. The assumption is that on some level
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Milton - Milton...

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