Rediscovering the Milton Collection at the Library of Birmingham

With the expert help of Corinna Rayner and the Archives & Collections team, and my research assistant Ellie Rowe, I have recently begun a project to reassess the contents and significance of the Library of Birmingham’s Milton Collection, an extensive but little-known collection of books relating to the English poet and polemicist, John Milton (1608-1672).

The Library’s Stock Book shows that the Milton Collection began in 1882 in the Gladstone era, when the Library was being rebuilt after the catastrophic fire of 1879. The core of the collection was a gift of about 160 volumes of editions of Milton’s works and Miltonian commentary and criticism. The books were given by Frank Wright (1853-1922), a Liberal politician and member of the Free Library Building Sub-Committee, son of the well-known nonconformist John Skirrow Wright (1822-1880), and partner in the firm of Smith & Wright, makers of buttons and tin-plate.

Free Library Committee Minutes 1882
[BCC/1/AT/1/1/5]

Wright donated the books in the hope that they might be made ‘the nucleus of a Milton Collection worthy of his name and that of our town’. Wright’s interest in Milton almost certainly stemmed from the family’s Liberal and nonconformist leanings. Over the century following Wright’s initial donation, the Milton Collection swelled to over eight times its initial size.

Today, the Milton Collection includes approximately eighty 17th century editions of Milton’s work, and more than 1,200 volumes of later editions and works of criticism. The oldest works in the collection are pamphlets written by Milton in the Civil War and Commonwealth periods, such as The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicenced printing (1644), and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (Defence of the English People) (1651).

The earliest editions of Milton’s poetical works in the collection include a second issue of the first edition of Paradise Lost (1668), and early editions of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes (1680) and Poems (1673). The fourth edition of Paradise Lost, published by Jacob Tonson in 1688, set a precedent for the finely illustrated editions of Milton’s works that followed over the next three centuries, including those by John Westall, John Martin, William Blake and Gustave Doré, many of which are held in the Milton Collection. We have discovered too that the collection is particularly strong in editions of Milton’s works in translation – in French, German, Italian, Dutch and Portuguese, to name but a few. Of particular local interest is the collection’s holdings of editions of Milton’s works published by Birmingham printer John Baskerville in the 1750s.

12th edition of Paradise Lost (1725)

In its scale, richness of holdings, and compelling connection to Birmingham’s civic history, the Library’s Milton Collection is a hidden treasure – the largest dedicated Milton Collection outside of the United States by some margin. The absence of a public-facing digital catalogue, or even online access to a description of the collection, means that it remains unknown and largely invisible to modern scholars and students of literature. The fascinating origins of the collection in 19th century Liberal politics and nonconformity have similarly been forgotten.

Yet the educational, philosophical and political ideals that motivated Frank Wright to found the Milton Collection over a century ago are just as urgently relevant to a host of social, cultural and political issues today – from challenging questions around freedom of speech and religious worship, through widening participation in education and culture by the nation’s increasingly ethnically and culturally diverse population, to Britain’s perennially complex relationship with Europe and the wider world.

Milton himself had strong ideas about the place of a ‘Public library’ (Bibliotheca Publica) in the cultivation of virtue, with the librarian as a ‘faithful guardian of works eternal’. Above all, Milton emphasised that a collection in itself means nothing unless it is properly used. In a letter to his former pupil who had come to Oxford to study, Milton wrote, ‘The library there is rich in books, but unless the minds of the students be improved by a more rational mode of education, it may better deserve the name of a book-repository than of a library.’

The challenge, then, for this project and others like it, is to find ways to transform historic library holdings such as the Library of Birmingham’s Milton Collection from ‘book-repositories’ to ‘libraries’ – in all of the ways that Milton and the 19th century Liberal, nonconformist founders of the collection would have understood the word.

***

To celebrate the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), the British Milton Seminar is pleased to announce a free public lecture, sponsored by the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester, to be held at the Library of Birmingham at 6 pm on Friday 20th October 2017.

The lecture, prefaced by a brief talk about the Library’s Milton Collection, will be delivered by Professor Karen Edwards (University of Exeter), on ‘Slow Love in Paradise Lost’. The lecture will address the relationship between loving and attaining wisdom in Paradise Lost, between long-suffering love and ‘suffering for truth’s sake’. In his portrait of Adam and Eve’s relationship and of Satan’s degeneration, Milton shows readers how, precisely, love furthers and hatred frustrates the ability to know and to understand.

Attendance at the lecture is free but spaces are limited and booking is essential: http://shop.bham.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/college-of-arts-law/school-of-english-drama-american-canadian-studies

Dr Hugh Adlington, Senior Lecturer in English Literature
School of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham

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2 responses to “Rediscovering the Milton Collection at the Library of Birmingham

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    The Collection of John Milton works at The Library of Birmingham

  2. An excellent blog on the Milton collection at LOB. The illustrated editions of Milton’s Paradise Lost in the collection are also worth a look, the collection is very good with almost all the most important editions included. Of course all the books in the collection are included in the LOB digital catalogue, online.

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