—Sit quod vis simplex duntanat et unum. Hor. Art. Poet. 23.
Let ev’ry piece be simple and be one.
It is required by Aristotle to the perfection of a tragedy, and is equally necessary to every other species of regular composition, that it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. “The beginning,” says he, “is that which hath nothing necessarily previous, but to which that which follows is naturally consequent; the end, on the contrary, is that which by necessity, or, at least, according to the common course of things, succeeds something else, but which implies nothing consequent to itself; the middle is connected on one side to something that naturally goes before, and on the other to something that naturally follows it.”
Such is the rule laid down by this great critick, for the disposition of the different parts of a well-constituted fable. It must begin where it may be made intelligible without introduction; and end where the mind is left in repose, without expectation of any further event. The intermediate passages must join the last effect to the first cause, by a regular and unbroken concatenation; nothing must be, therefore, inserted, which does not apparently arise from something foregoing, and properly make way for something that succeeds it.
This precept is to be understood in its rigour only with respect to great and essential events, and cannot be extended in the same force to minuter circumstances and arbitrary decorations, which yet are more happy, as they contribute more to the main design; for it is always a proof of extensive thought and accurate circumspection, to promote various purposes by the same act; and the idea of an ornament admits use, though it seems to exclude necessity.
Whoever purposes, as it is expressed by Milton, to build the lofty rhyme, must acquaint himself with this law of poetical architecture, and take care that his edifice be solid as well as beautiful; that nothing stand single or independent, so as that it may be taken away without injuring the rest; but that, from the foundation to the pinnacles, one part rest firm upon another.
The regular and consequential distribution is among common authors frequently neglected; but the failures of those, whose example can have no influence, may be safely overlooked, nor is it of much use to recall obscure and unguarded names to memory for the sake of sporting with their infamy. But if there is any writer whose genius can embellish impropriety, and whose authority can make errour venerable, his works are the proper objects of critical inquisition. To expunge faults where there are no excellencies is a task equally useless with that of the chymist, who employs the arts of separation and refinement upon ore in which no precious metal is contained to reward his operations.
The tragedy of Samson Agonistes has been celebrated as the second work of the great author of Paradise Lost, and opposed, with all the confidence of triumph, to the dramatick performances of other nations. It contains, indeed, just sentiments, maxims of wisdom, and oracles of piety, and many passages written with the ancient spirit of choral poetry, in which there is a just and pleasing mixture of Seneca’s moral declamation, with the wild enthusiasm of the Greek writers. It is, therefore, worthy of examination, whether a performance thus illuminated with genius, and enriched with learning, is composed according to the indispensable laws of Aristotelian criticism: and, omitting, at present, all other considerations, whether it exhibits a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The beginning is undoubtedly beautiful and proper, opening with a graceful abruptness, and proceeding naturally to a mournful recital of facts necessary to be known:
Samson. A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on;
For yonder bank hath choice of sun and shade:
There I am wont to sit, when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil,
Daily in the common prison else enjoin’d me.—
O, wherefore was my birth from Heav’n foretold
Twice by an Angel?—
Why was my breeding order’d and prescrib’d,
As of a person separate to God,
Design’d for great exploits; if I must die
Betray’d, captiv’d, and both my eyes put out?—
Whom have I to complain of but myself?
Who this high gift of strength committed to me,
In what part lodg’d, how easily bereft me,
Under the seal of silence could not keep:
But weakly to a woman must reveal it.
His soliloquy is interrupted by a chorus or company of men of his own tribe, who condole his miseries, extenuate his fault, and conclude with a solemn vindication of divine justice. So that at the conclusion of the first act there is no design laid, no discovery made, nor any disposition formed towards the consequent event.
In the second act, Manoah, the father of Samson, comes to seek his son, and, being shewn him by the chorus, breaks out into lamentations of his misery, and comparisons of his present with his former state, representing to him the ignominy which his religion suffers, by the festival this day celebrated in honour of Dagon, to whom the idolaters ascribed his overthrow.
Enough, and more, the burthen of that fault;
Bitterly hast thou paid, and still art paying
That rigid score. A worse thing yet remains,
This day the Philistines a popular feast
Here celebrate in Gaza; and proclaim
Great pomp, and sacrifice, and praises loud
To Dagon, as their God who hath deliver’d
Thee, Samson, bound and blind, into their hands,
Them out of thine, who slew’st them many a slain.
Samson, touched with this reproach, makes a reply equally penitential and pious, which his father considers as the effusion of prophetick confidence:
Samson.—He, be sure,
Will not connive, or linger, thus provok’d,
But will arise and his great name assert:
Dagon must stoop, and shall ere long receive
Such a discomfit, as shall quite despoil him
Of all these boasted trophies won on me.
Manoah. With cause this hope relieves thee, and these words
I as a prophecy receive; for God,
Nothing more certain, will not long defer
To vindicate the glory of his name.
This part of the dialogue, as it might tend to animate or exasperate Samson, cannot, I think, be censured as wholly superfluous; but the succeeding dispute, in which Samson contends to die, and which his father breaks off, that he may go to solicit his release, is only valuable for its own beauties, and has no tendency to introduce any thing that follows it.
The next event of the drama is the arrival of Dalila, with all her graces, artifices, and allurements. This produces a dialogue, in a very high degree elegant and instructive, from which she retires, after she has exhausted her persuasions, and is no more seen nor heard of; nor has her visit any effect but that of raising the character of Samson.
In the fourth act enters Harapha, the giant of Gath, whose name had never been mentioned before, and who has now no other motive of coming, than to see the man whose strength and actions are so loudly celebrated:
Haraph.—Much I have heard
Of thy prodigious might and feats perform’d,
Incredible to me, in this displeas’d,
That I was never present in the place
Of those encounters, where we might have tried
Each other’s force in camp or listed fields;
And now am come to see of whom such noise
Hath walk’d about, and each limb to survey,
If thy appearance answer loud report.
Samson challenges him to the combat; and, after an interchange of reproaches, elevated by repeated defiance on one side, and imbittered by contemptuous insults on the other, Harapha retires; we then hear it determined by Samson, and the chorus, that no consequence good or bad will proceed from their interview:
Chorus. He will directly to the lords, I fear,
And with malicious counsel stir them up
Some way or other yet farther to afflict thee.
Sams. He must allege some cause, and offer’d fight
Will not dare mention, lest a question rise
Whether he durst accept the offer or not;
And, that he durst not, plain enough appear’d.
At last, in the fifth act, appears a messenger from the lords assembled at the festival of Dagon, with a summons by which Samson is required to come and entertain them with some proof of his strength. Samson, after a short expostulation, dismisses him with a firm and resolute refusal; but, during the absence of the messenger, having a while defended the propriety of his conduct, he at last declares himself moved by a secret impulse to comply, and utters some dark presages of a great event to be brought to pass by his agency, under the direction of Providence:
Sams. Be of good courage, I begin to feel
Some rousing motions in me, which dispose
To something extraordinary my thoughts.
I with this messenger will go along,
Nothing to do, be sure, that may dishonour
Our Law, or stain my vow of Nazarite.
If there be aught of presage in the mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.
While Samson is conducted off by the messenger, his father returns with hopes of success in his solicitation, upon which he confers with the chorus till their dialogue is interrupted, first by a shout of triumph, and afterwards by screams of horrour and agony. As they stand deliberating where they shall be secure, a man who had been present at the show enters, and relates how Samson, having prevailed on his guide to suffer him to lean against the main pillars of the theatrical edifice, tore down the roof upon the spectators and himself:
—Those two massy pillars,
With horrible convulsion, to and fro
He tugg’d, he shook, till down they came, and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sat beneath—
Samson, with these immixt, inevitably
Pull’d down the same destruction on himself.
This is undoubtedly a just and regular catastrophe, and the poem, therefore, has a beginning and an end which Aristotle himself could not have disapproved; but it must be allowed to want a middle, since nothing passes between the first act and the last, that either hastens or delays the death of Samson. The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely fill a single act; yet this is the tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded.