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Review: Comus, by John Kinsella, John Milton

John Milton, arguably England's greatest poet after William Shakespeare, was born at the Sign of the Spread Eagle in Bread Street, Cheapside, in December 1608. He was, as a republican regicide and rebel against the royalists, on the side of the angels. A man who devoted much of his life to writing pamphlets advocating religious and civil libert - Areopagitica was his powerful polemical tract against censorship - worked diligently for Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth and only narrowly avoided execution after the restoration of Charles 11.

Comus was first performed at Ludlow Castle on Michaelmas night 1634. Despite being described by Milton as a masque it does not depend on spectacle; it is, rather, a poetic pastoral drama, with both Christian and pagan allusions, seen through a Spenserian prism, at the heart of wich is a moral debate about chastity and temptation.

This volume contains the text of Milton's Comus together with John Kinsella's dialogic mask - his contemporary version of Comus first performed at Christ's College, Cambridge, where Milton was an Undergraduate, in June 2008.
Kinsella is the Australian poet, novelist, critic and editor of the international literary journal Salt, who cheerfully describes himself as a vegan anarchist pacifist. His best work is usually about the people and the landscape of the wheatbelt he knows so well. My Comus is an environmentalist dialogic poem in the spirit of Milton's original, says Kinsella, who uses it as a literal template, intertexting and arguing with the original.

It is, in its way, as remarkable a piece of poetry as Milton's; powerful, confident and clever. It is also, at times, amusingly colloquial, as when Comus asks:

What's irking you, Lady?
This is a happening place

and then admonishes her:

Come now, Lady, stop flirting,
I know you're gagging for it;
virginity has no place on this map.

Four hundred years after his birth, it is perhaps worth pondering [...] not only on the poetry but on the politics of Milton: his ardent republicanism, his passionate belief in freedom and his visceral loathing of landed interests. William Worsdworth got it right in one of his sonnets dedicated to Liberty: Milton! Thou should'st be living at this hour: / England hath need of thee.