Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The sumptuous Dalila floating this way

About time this blog had a musical interlude, and heavens knows I need one. So, if you click this link, you get, off a very old recording of I own, an unknown mezzo giving it some large in Delila’s aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delila. ‘My heart opens to your vows…’ Superlative stuff: I love the way pious old Camille has got his anti-heroine expressing such convincing desire, such an outpouring of love, for the man she intends to betray.


One of my favourite passages from
Milton is the dialogue between Samson and Dalila in Samson Agonistes. I tend to think of it as Milton-as-Noel-Coward, writing a bitter comedy of divorce: his antagonists know one another all too well, their mutual rancour is both perfected (this is what they have both been saving up to say should they ever see him/her again) and ineffectual, because each withering accusation sees its receiver so comically unwithered.

It’s right that there’s an echo of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, for Samson has to live with that unbearable sense of having been turned into a cliché, something shared with the deuteragonists of Shakespeare’s play (“to ages an example”). The Chorus is there hearing the precarious excess of loathing even before Dalila arrives: “a deceitful concubine who shore me / Like a tame wether, all my precious fleece, / Then turned me out ridiculous, despoiled, / Shaven, and disarmed among my enemies.” Shaven and shorn, there’s something bathetic about the way Samson fell, and he knows it. Dalila makes her spectacular entry at lines 710ff, her train of damsels balancing Samson’s tattling Chorus, which faithfully narrates her operatic gestures. Her perfume creeps across to her blinded ex-husband.

Associated as she is, straight away, with ambiguity (‘hyena’), Dalila’s motive remains ambiguous (“conjugal affection … Hath led me on desirous to behold / Once more thy face”). Samson simply applies to her an anti-feminist generalisation (“these are thy wonted arts, / And arts of every woman false like thee”). The satiric accuracy of what follows makes it dryly funny (“not truly penitent, but chief to try / Her husband…”). Samson is so wised-up, that he can for a while keep his personal feelings behind a barrage of anti-feminist aphorisms. But Dalila subverts it all expertly (‘If these are the weaknesses of women, why did you give your secret to a woman, then?’). ‘Weakness’ is going to be the central word in this particular argument, and they will volley it backwards and forwards mightily. Soon Dalila is playing for victory: ‘what if love … caused what I did?’ Samson can’t quite reply to this direct, he has to show his strength to his supporters first (“How cunningly the sorceress displays / Her own transgressions, to upbraid me mine!”), before he blasts back at her. Dalila, dropping love as though it had never been mentioned, turns to her religious motive, sounding for a moment like the Catholic wife who has betrayed her good Protestant husband (“and the priest / Was not behind, but ever at my ear…”).

It is in Samson’s sneering reply to this that he unknowingly undermines the larger argument which he is in: he speaks in emphatic contempt of the Philistines and their god: “gods unable / To acquit themselves and prosecute their foes / But by ungodly deeds, the contradiction of their own deity / Gods cannot be”. So speaks the terrorist who kills three thousand by destroying the building at the end. Dalila, self-preoccupied and not realising that she has devastatingly won the real argument, in eliciting this, pretends that she has lost her personal cause:
In argument with men a woman ever
Goes by the worse, whatever be her cause.
To which Samson jovially replies: ‘For want of words no doubt, or lack of breath’.

She goes for the trump card she knows she holds, with supreme effrontery and nerve: ‘though sight be lost … other sense want not their delights’. Milton gives Samson a superb poetry of divorce: “thou and I long since are twain”. As he rejects, he recalls (“Thy fair enchanting cup…”). The crisis follows: “Let me approach at least, and touch thy hand, and Samson’s response is full of genuine terror – is there nothing the woman won’t risk? – “Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake…”

Fearing this ‘fierce remembrance’, he bids for her departure “At distance I forgive thee, go with that”, and finds his equilibrium with some devastating sarcasm, to which Dalila, at last confident that she did the right thing, responds with the last word, on his “unappeasable” anger and her assured fame.

The Chorus then entertains Samson’s mood with some of Milton’s scratchiest poetry, in a misogynistic choral ode, which concludes with the screechy sentiments that:
God’s universal law
Gave to the man despotic power
Over his female in due awe,
Nor from that right to part an hour,
Smile she or lour:
So shall he least confusion draw
On his whole life…
What does
Milton mean by this acoustic harshness? It is at this moment that Harapha the Philistian strong man unluckily appears: Dalila has got Samson up to full charge, and all that energy will flash out on Harapha, on whom Samson is instantly ready to carry out one of the two options he’s recently entertained for the intrepid Dalila.

Has anyone written a sketch with Samson and Delila exploring reconciliation with the counselling services?

1 comment:

Decidedly Bookish said...

Haha, no, but I did write a poem about them.