Wendy Furman-Adams, Tablet for the God of Israel: Robert Medley's 1979 Samson Agonistes

Wendy Furman-Adams, Whittier College
Wendy Furman-Adams, Whittier College
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Milton Seminar
Saturday, November 9, 2013

Noon

Towner Fellows Lounge

Wendy Furman-Adams, Whittier College

With the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s poems are among the most frequently illustrated literary works in English. During three and a half centuries, more than 190 artists have produced illustrations of Milton’s works, using a variety of media. Joseph Wittreich’s pioneering essay in A Milton Encyclopedia (1978) remains indispensable both for its identification of about 1,400 illustrations and for his suggestion, somewhat radical at the time, that the history of Milton illustration was a history not just of decoration, but of interpretation, of “nonverbal criticism.” From the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost in 1688, artists have illuminated not only Milton’s texts, but their own personal, historically-grounded readings of those texts. Each has emphasized different aspects of Milton’s vision—different works, different scenes and thematic elements—bringing what a reviewer of Mary Groom’s work called “other eyes.” Nowhere is this more the case than in the work of artists illustrating Samson Agonistes. Any history of this work must include the genteel interiority of Louis Cheron (1720) and the gendered domestic drama of Francis Hayman (1752), as well as the Christian allegory of A. Garth Jones (1898); the ascetic spirituality of William Hyde (1904); the almost Quakerly meditations of Robert Ashwin Maynard (1931); and the strikingly sexualized modernism of Robert Gibbings (1925).

In contrast to all these precedents, however, Robert Medley’s designs for a rare 1979 edition of Samson Agonistes represent something wholly new: the first use of what the artist called “organic abstraction” to represent scenes from Milton’s drama. Around 1950, Medley had made two figurative paintings: one of Manoah comforting Samson, and one of Samson being led out of prison. The artist came to believe, however, that figurative illustrations of the entire poem would “fall short” of the “imagined splendour” of the “rather baroque visual images” it called to mind. Influenced by Matisse’s paper-cuts, Medley found “words among an enormous vocabulary” to create twenty-three full-page illustrations, many of them geometric, that he describes as “emblematic, drastically simplified images which relate directly to the text and indeed to the imagery of the poetry.” Meaning is expressed in these works not only by form, but also by color—twenty-two different hues, including off-white, gray, and black—printed on folio sheets of off-white, watermarked paper. To make sure that viewers understood the relationship of each of his colorful images to the poem, Medley distributed with the book a two-page supplement, with a thumbnail picture of each image and a quotation identifying it with particular lines.

Medley’s striking illustrations, like those that came before, are an attempt to face some of the agonizing questions raised by the Miltonic Samson’s fate, his relation to his people, to Dalila, and to his enemies. The first eleven images, representing the period before Dalila’s entrance, vividly convey the triumphs and especially the sorrows of Samson’s past and present life. Medley also devotes three images to Dalila—expressing, for the most part, the usual harsh attitude of critics before John Ulreich and others. Then, following Samson’s encounter with and victory over Harapha, Medley moves on, through three images of Samson’s seeming renovation, to the catastrophe, which he labels “The Destruction.” The last three designs in Medley’s series make up the epilogue to Samson’s story. In his twenty-first image, called “Prelude to the End,” he uses a variety of shapes and colors to build “A Monument, and plant it round with shade / Of Laurel ever green, and branching Palm, / With all his Trophies hung” (Samson Agonistes 1733-36). Soft green rectangles and tear-shaped blots of soft blue suggest the “sweet lyric Song” (1737)—the melodious tear—that seems never, in fact, to have become a part of Samson’s story. The design, moreover, serves as a monument not only for Samson but for his countless, suffering descendants—a monument that surely embraces the Holocaust as well as Samson’s calamity. That this is so is quite clearly indicated by Medley’s last design: his “Tablet for the God of Israel.” Using an unprecedented royal blue—along with the yellow, tan, and black that have appeared in previous images—the artist builds a stately monument out of rectangles, squares, and triangles. At the very center of that tablet or monument—gold ochre on a square of yellow, and pointed out from all sides by four black triangles—Medley places the most horrifying image of contemporary Jewry: a yellow six-pointed star. On the other hand, the blue of the tablet’s base calls to mind the blue of the star on Israel’s flag. Does Medley here suggest that—despite the particular disappearance of the Tribe of Dan, even despite the incomparable horror of the Holocaust—Samson has at last won (as of 1948) a tentative and fragile victory? The artist leaves this question to the reader of Milton’s text, as well as of his own visual one—in a Rorschach of history as ambiguous and tentative as a pattern written in tea leaves.

Coffee and refreshments will be served before the seminar.

Learn more about the speaker: Wendy Furman-Adams, Whittier College

Organized by Christopher Kendrick, Loyola University Chicago; David A. Loewenstein, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Paula McQuade, DePaul University; and Regina Schwartz, Northwestern University.

Faculty and graduate students of Center for Renaissance Studies consortium institutions may be eligible to apply for travel funds to attend CRS programs or to do research at the Newberry. Each member university sets its own policies and deadlines; contact your Representative Council member in advance for details.

Cost and registration information: 

This program is free and open to the public.