'Doubtful Feet' and 'Healing Words': Greek Tragic Prosody in Samson Agonistes


  • Hannah Jane Crawforth King's College, London




This article addresses the vexed issue of Milton’s increasingly free verse forms, with particular emphasis on his late closet drama, Samson Agonistes (1671). The metre of this work has long since baffled critics, who have been especially troubled by the prosodic experimentation evident in Milton’s use of the Chorus, a verse form he borrows from Greek tragic drama, which he takes as the model for this work. In the note he prefaces to Samson Milton explicitly describes his prosody in the terms of Greek tragedy: ‘The measure of verse used in the chorus is of all sorts, called by the Greeks monostrophic, or rather apolelymenon,’ he writes, quickly qualifying this assertion by offering an alternative terminology, ‘or being divided into stanzas of pauses, they may be called alleostropha.’ Yet efforts by critics from Benjamin Stillingfleet (in the eighteenth-century) to Robert Bridges (in the nineteenth) and John Shawcross (in the twentieth) have thus far failed to document a genuine Greek metrical inheritance behind Milton’s poem, and Samson Agonistes continues to resist efforts to fix its prosody within classical metrical terminology. Taking this difficulty as its point of departure, I reconsider the question of how Milton conceived of his metrical innovations in relation to the prosodic systems he inherited from Greek tragedy. I reconsider the political implications of Greek metrics in Milton’s understanding, suggesting that his engagement with the verse forms of classical tragedy provide him with a means of critical engagement with the democratic systems of Ancient Athens.

Keywords: Greek tragedy; John Milton; prosody; poetic form; metre; political theory; democracy; critical reception