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Review: Comus, by John Kinsella, John Milton

Kinsella is such a versatile poet, so comfortable mixing registers and frames of reference, that it is difficult to imagine a subject which wouldn't pique his ranging intelligence. It is not surprising, then, that Cambridge University commissioned him with a response to Milton's court masque, Comus, for performance at the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth. Kinsella's version has now been published side-by-side with the 1645 original, flanked with commentaries which illuminate both texts and facilitate an enjoyable cross-reading. The burden of Comus is, of course, female chastity or intactness, a trope which interests Kinsella less with regard to sexual politics per se than as a metaphor for the abuse and exploitation of the land. His Comus is a genetic scientist who name-checks nearby Huntingdon Life Sciences in his opening speech, and who presides over pharmaceutical orgies; his Spirit is a philosophical stoner, his Lady a nascent ecologist (not all things need to be torn apart she remarks), and the heroic Sabrina a fully-fledged eco-warrior, radicalised by the local coven into the clear and present danger / MI5 say she is today. And indeed, Milton and Kinsella share an unswerving radicalism and playfulness with generic expectations which make both masques more troubling than the simple moralistic form might suggest. Of course there is something inherently funny, especially in performance, about the clash of Miltonic cadence against contemporary idiom:

Remember Diana, Queen of Hearts,
chaste as conspiracy, where she tamed
the coiffured lioness and spotted pard
her husband....

but Kinsella's irony is larger than this. Just as Milton's masque subverted expectations by revealing Comus's well-lit, cultured palace to be a trap - confusing the conventions whereby a movement into light and decorum implies moral triumph - so Kinsella's three youngsters are restored, in the end, to the hypocritical safety of their parents' party, the kind of self-congratulatory affair we are all bound to recognise by its tastefully culturally valid dancers and rich do-gooders who gestate / officially sanctioned schemes / to profit the kingdom: no drugs just alcohol. In Kinsella's hands, even the ritualistic and conservative form of the masque provokes an uneasy ethical ambiguity, and it is one in which we are all - absolutely all - implicated.