Agony into Art
The biblical judge Samson, betrayed by Delilah, was blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines. John Milton, blind and briefly imprisoned for his politics, published the dramatic poem Samson Agonistes in 1671. (The Greek Agonistes means a wrestler or person engaged in a struggle.) George Frederick Handel, recently bankrupt and beginning to lose his eyesight, based his oratorio Samson on Milton’s poem. The oratorio premiered in 1743.
Milton’s and Handel’s take on the Samson story gives scope for endless debate on their views of disability, violence, and women. What struck me, hearing Samson on public radio, was how both men transmuted personal struggle into art through the words they put in Samson’s mouth. Milton: “Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct.” Handel: “Total eclipse! No sun. No moon. All dark amidst the blaze of noon.”
It doesn’t belittle suffering to appreciate whatever beauty may emerge from it. In these months that have proved so difficult for so many, we can use all the art and beauty we can get.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.