November 19, 2010
Delilah, PJ Harvey, and Samson Agonistes
Delilah, to be sure, has traditionally been considered a notorious woman; but as she tells us in John Milton's Samson Agonistes, “Fame if not double-faced is double-mouthed, / And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds” (971-2). Indeed, her name still appears now and again in popular music (many examples are terrible; see, most recently, "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T’s; as a music lover, it pains me to even bring this song up), where, she is associated with adultery, betrayal, and all-around immorality. She has become a loaded symbol, but she has also become a bit of a cliché.
Delilah’s currency popular culture isn't entirely disappointing. PJ Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry features a song called “Hair,” in which Harvey assumes the voice of Delilah. In "Hair," Delilah's initial fetish for Samson’s hair soon turns diabolical and domineering (at least in the eyes of the man): “Samson the strength that's in your arms / Oh to be your stunning bride / Samson your hair glistening like sun / Oh would that it were mine / Samson your hair that's in my hands / I'll keep it safe you're mine / He said, ‘Wait! Wait! Delilah my babe, / you lied in my face, / you cut off my hair, / you lied in my bed.’” Harvey’s main point of interest is in sexual politics: Delilah’s subversive cunning is the true source of power, while Samson’s divine potency is shown to be quite fragile. In the final lines, she dictates and redefines the terms of their relationship: “Samson you'll stay with your ’Lilah / I hold you in my hands your hairy strength. / My man, my man.” Delilah’s sexual satisfaction turns out to be her great weapon of domination; consequently, Samson has become her possession.
Milton’s poetic tragedy, Samson Agonistes, sets things up somewhat differently. Delilah emerges at the centre of this narrative, but we only meet her after the notorious betrayal has already taken place. Samson’s pathetic status as a blind prisoner makes her visit all the more troubling. In addition, Milton has twisted the story such that Delilah is not merely Samson’s mistress; rather she is his wife. Her actions are therefore even more dispicable. Recalling Satan’s epic movements in Paradise Lost, Delilah enters the poem described “Like a stately ship,” brave and richly “bedecked,” resembling the whore of Babylon (710-20). However, Delilah's infidelity has less to do with sex than it does with religion.
Delilah's final excuse for divulging Samson's secret rests on the contraints of her Philistine religion: she was “Adjured by all the bonds of civil duty / And of religion” (853-4). Again appeal to her own weakness, she asks, “what had I / To oppose against such powerful arguments” (861-2). This defense seems like it would have been especially relevant for readers in Milton’s time. One could easily see puritan Dissenters making the same excuse (that is, religious coercion) for their having participated in state-required Anglican worship: Delilah resigns herself to the fact that “to the public good / Private respects must yield” (867-8). Milton would, of course, reject such logic. Indeed, by his divinely inspired martyrdom, Samson eventually proves that “private respects” do not simply die away when they are outwardly repressed.
Samson is guilty of having been “uxurious”: his over-love for Delilah, his wife, has resulted in his own subjection. With the sensuous rhetoric that ensues, it is not difficult to see how Samson was swayed to give up his secret. Though it may be “feigned remorse,” Delilah’s speech encourages our sympathy and Samson appears unreasonable. That is, until Delilah misogynistically reconfigures her own weakness as “incident to all our sex” and immediately suggests that Samson’s own error “show’dst me first the way” by mistakenly entrusting his secret to “woman’s frailty” (775-83). Furthermore, Delilah explains, “I saw thee mutable / Of fancy, feared lest one day thou wouldst leave me . . . No better way [to endear thee] I saw than by importuning / To learn thy secrets, get into my power / Thy key of strength and safety” (794-99). Here, it seems, PJ Harvey’s Delilah is not too far off Milton’s mark. Her reasoning resonates with Eve’s considerations just after eating the forbidden fruit: she is tempted toward sexual mastery over her partner by withholding a powerful secret.
Indeed, Delilah’s final words bring us back, once again, to her currency within contemporary popular culture, where she has become a symbol for subversive feminity, rather than a national hero:
My name [. . .]
To all posterity may stand defamed,
With malediction mentioned, and the blot
Of falsehood most unconjugal traduced.
But in my country where I most desire,
[. . .]I shall be named among the famousest
Of women, sung at solemn festivals,
Living and dead recorded, who to save
Her country from a fierce destroyer, chose
Above the faith of wedlock-bands [. . .] (975-986)