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Literary Criticism Ancient & Classical

That Invincible Samson

The Theme of Samson Agonistes in World Literature

by (author) Watson Kirkconnell

University of Toronto Press
Initial publish date
Dec 2018
Ancient & Classical, Poetry, General
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    Publish Date
    Dec 2018
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This work examines the more than one hundred analogues of Samson Agonistes, about half of them written earlier than Milton's drama. The author has gone back in every instance to primary sources, and examined all treatments of Milton's theme, in all languages, for their intrinsic interest and merit. While he has not entirely omitted a discussion of source relationships, his concern here has been chiefly with analogues.


In Part I of the book the author compares five pre-Miltonic works, which he has translated, in whole or in part, from the original Latin, Dutch, and Italian. In Part II, a descriptive catalogue, he comments on the significance, to Miltonists and to the general reader, of the analogues. He traces the purposes beyond mere theatre in the different versions of the play: versions prior to 1670 contain many overtones of personal, national, or theological significance, while, after 1671, there is a rapid shift away from religious or moral presentation to a more strictly theatrical entertainment. Dr. Kirkconnell believes that this shift in interest has obscured from most of the critics of later centuries the tone and tradition of this great drama. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen dozens of versions of the old play theme, nearly all of them wholly disregarding any inner drama of the spirit, and stressing extrovert aspects of Strength, Beauty, and Sex. As a whole, the analogues will reveal the variety that playwrights have found possible in the ancient theme. The author concludes that Milton's treatment is the noblest ever written, surpassing all others in literary quality and in the nature of the dramatic conflict it describes.

About the author

Watson Kirkconnell (1895-1977) was an army officer, a professor emeritus of Latin and English, ninth president of Acadia University (1948-1964), a Milton scholar, author of many volumes of prose and poetry, historian, and genealogist. He was also the joint founder of the Federal Citizenship Branch (1940), the Humanities Research Council of Canada (1943) and the Baptist Federation of Canada (1944). In 1936 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Watson Kirkconnell's profile page

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