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This review is taken from PN Review 187, Volume 35 Number 5, May - June 2009.

AN EPIC TRAVESTY The Great Poets: John Milton, read by Samantha Bond & Derek Jacobi (Naxos AudioBooks) £8.99
The American critic Yvor Winters wrote about actors as readers of poetry along the following lines (I quote from memory): ‘I think the world could do very well without actors. They make bad poetry sound mediocre, they make mediocre poetry sound mediocre, and they make good and great poetry sound mediocre.’

This is grossly unfair and reflects the easy prejudice of a merely literary man: there are a number of excellent readings of poetry by actors, the greatest I know being Micheal MacLiammoir’s recitation of Spenser’s Epithalamion. (Incidentally, it is not necessarily true that poets themselves are the best readers of their own poems, as many literary people believe - some poets read very badly, though of course others are wonderful readers: of the good readers, I think in particular of Ted Hughes reading his translations from Ovid and Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf.) But had Winters heard the travesty that is Samantha Bond’s and Derek Jacobi’s contribution to the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, he would certainly have felt more than justified in saying what he said. Certain actors have the ability - I almost want to say ‘gift’ because it is so astonishing - to make good and great poetry sound not merely mediocre but pitifully bad.

Milton is not easy to read aloud, in large part because he is so musical - not in the debased sense of valuing sound too highly above meaning, which is what he was wrongly accused of ...

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