by John Milton
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Shipwrecks, being lost, discovering new worlds—what do all these traditionally have in common?
Storms at sea.
But none of these happen in Samson Agonistes. Or do they?For a story in which not a whole lot happens, there's a whole lot happening in terms of language and imagery. In particular, there's a whole lot of references to tempests, storms, and other general sea-faring topics. Take this exchange between Samson and the Chorus:
Chorus: But had we best retire, I see a storm?
Samson: Fair days have oft contracted wind and rain.
Chorus: But this another kind of tempest brings. (1061-1063)
Here, the Chorus is using the imagery of a tempest to metaphorically describe the approach of the giant Harapha, while Samson is confused and thinks they are literally talking about the weather.
Poor Samson. But what can we make of his confusion? Well, for Samson just sitting around prison all day, the weather is a big part of his life. That would be very different from his past days as hero, where fighting enemies, conquering nations, and being generally awesome would be more important.
In fact, storms and tempests have a traditional connection to concepts of heroism dating as far back as (you guessed it!) the Greeks. Homer's The Odyssey is all about a hero on a voyage who is constantly harassed by storms and prevented from getting home. And it's exactly this kind of adventure that's conspicuously absent from Samson's story.
Instead of telling a story that's explicitly about this kind of adventure and that kind of hero, Milton uses images associated with that kind of adventure to describe more basic, small-scale stuff: Samson's visitors are like tempests, Samson's inner struggle is like a storm, and maybe his eventual courage is like the discovery of a new land. Milton is reminding us that struggle, suffering, and self-discovery don't have to have epic proportions to be important. The quiet and the introspective are equally, and maybe even more, meaningful.