Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour

John Milton set out to write an epic. And, based on the unapologetic way he went about pursuing his goal, he probably suspected that he was going to write the epic to end all epics, which he did with “Paradise Lost.”

Wait!, the literarily inclined of you readers are yelling, Milton isn’t Elizabethan; he was born five years after Queen E died! True. But as far as this blog is concerned, Elizabethan refers only to me, Elizabeth Eshelman, and my opinions, not the fecund time of Shakespeare and Jonson.

So here was Milton, a young man determined to write a great epic. How should he begin? By devoting six years to intensive reading, of course. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (if you don’t own it, start your Christmas list), his reading included “ancient and modern theology, philosophy, history, science, politics, and literature.”

So, what do I—and more specifically, this blog—have to do with ambitious Milton? Well, I’m not setting out to write an epic, but I am setting out to be a novelist. My first novel manuscript is currently out with agents (cross your fingers!), and I’m ready to start in on novel #2. I have the premise; I have the characters; I have a structure in mind. But in these early stages, I found myself thinking of Milton’s reading program, and thinking, too, that I have enough faith in my intellect to assume if I put good things in, good things will come out.

To that end, I decided on five books I had to read before beginning my novel. Already the schedule has changed: I was recently seized with the need for a Hardy fix and picked up Far from the Madding Crowd (not one of the five planned); I polished off Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction and knew I had to read Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet ASAP; and to top it all off, I couldn’t keep myself from writing the first pages of novel #2.

Still, I’m off and running, and I hope you’ll join me as I post reflections on the books I have selected specifically as fuel for novel 2. At the least, you may find a title or two you want to try; better yet, you’ll get a glimpse of how to “read like a writer,” which seems to be a popular thing these days. Just ask Francine Prose.

And one last, very important note about Milton. Milton could undertake his six year reading plan because his father supported him financially. Similarly, I could not be doing this without the munificence of my husband, Nat, who buys with his 9-6 desk job my intellectual freedom.


  1. Love your blog! I'm woefully behind on reading great literature, so I hope you won't mind if I use your reflections as a way to sort through it all and pick out the ones I absolutely must read. Thanks for doing all the legwork for me!

  2. One line of 'England 1802' is not enough!

    England, 1802 (William Wordworth)

    MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
    England hath need of thee: she is a fen
    Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
    Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
    Have forfeited their ancient English dower
    Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
    O raise us up, return to us again,
    And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
    Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
    Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
    Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
    So didst thou travel on life's common way,
    In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
    The lowliest duties on herself did lay.