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August 12, 2009

Recommended Reading for MPs 1: Paradise Lost

Posted by David Womersley

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - explains why M.Ps might find Milton's Paradise Lost speaking directly to their condition.

Many current members of the House of Commons are going to have a lot of time for reading. It's not just the summer recess. There are all those MPs who have resigned from ministerial offices, all those who will not have to think about the laborious process of being re-elected at the next General Election because they are "standing down" (i.e. would be unceremoniously and contemptuously de-selected by their local parties if they had the temerity to put themselves forward for election again), and finally all those - please let it happen - who may eventually find themselves in the slammer as a result of their over-ingenuity in interpreting the "rules" for second-home expenses. What books might they find it interesting to leaf through, as they attempt to fill the suddenly vacant hours stretching almost endlessly before them?

The titles of many nineteenth-century novels leap forward at once. Crime and Punishment, The Idiot (special delivery to No. 10), Bleak House, or The Turn of the Screw are surely all on the short-list. But one poem stands out as addressing itself superbly to the current predicament of Honourable and Right Honourable Members: Paradise Lost. As the current expenses "rťgime" (i.e. an unprincipled free-for-all smash and grab) is reformed, the very title of the poem will pluck at the heart-strings of all those MPs who find themselves at a stroke cast out from their own Garden of Eden, when all they had to do was cook up some laughable application to the Fees Office to receive by return a substantial chunk of taxpayers' money.

Our Honourable Members behaved like Mammon (I.679-88):

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav'n, for ev'n in heav'n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heavíns pavement, trod'n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy'd
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack'd the Center, and with impious hands
Riflíd the bowels of their mother Earth
For Treasures better hid.
In contrast with what our MPs had to do to lay their hands on "Treasures better hid", - in the words of Margaret Beckett, just stuff some receipts in an envelope and then "let the Fees Office sort it out" - the light gardening required of Adam and Eve before the Fall seems positively arduous (V.211-19):
On to thir mornings rural work they haste
Among sweet dewes and flours; where any row
Of Fruit-trees overwoodie reachd too farr
Thir pamperd boughs, and needed hands to check
Fruitless imbraces: or they led the Vine
To wed her Elm; she spousíd about him twines
Her mariageable arms, and with her brings
Her dowr th'adopted Clusters, to adorn
His barren leaves.
Paradise Lost also contains passages which will appeal to particular groups of MPs. All those who have engaged in "flipping" will envy the ease with which the fallen angels are able to create a new palace for themselves in Hel (I.710-17)l:
Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge
Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a Temple, where Pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With Golden Architrave; nor did there want
Cornice or Freeze, with bossy Sculptures grav'n,
The Roof was fretted Gold.
Unaccountably, Milton makes no mention here of moats, tennis-courts, or plasma-screen televisions, but nevertheless there are some good hints in this passage for home improvements to try on the Fees Office. Later in the poem, Satan's tormented soliloquy as he alights in Paradise will resonate with all those MPs who spent sleepless nights wondering when it was going to be their turn to be flayed by the Daily Telegraph, but who were unwilling to take the obvious and straightforward measures to put matters right - that is to say, apologise to the electorate and repay the money (IV.73-83):
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heavín.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame
Among the spirits beneath, . . .
While the campaign was at its height, the House of Commons must indeed have resembled Milton's Hell, those "Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace | And rest can never dwell, hope never comes | That comes to all; but torture without end | Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed | With ever-burning Sulphur unconsumídí"(I.65-69).

Even the few saintly MPs who seem not to have abused the expenses regime will find a passage in Paradise Lost which particularly speaks to them. At the end of Book V Milton describes how Abdiel, the one member of Satanís forces who refuses to fight against God, leaves the rebel host (V.893-900):

So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single.
The "innumerable false" will find these lines rather bitter to digest, of course.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Interesting, isn't it, how the wrath of God is always on them, not on us ?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 15, 2009 09:12 AM
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