In 1882 the Library was being rebuilt after the almost totally destructive fire of 1879. Frank Wright (1853 - 1922), was a Liberal politician and, at the time, a member of the Free Library Building Sub-Committee. Frank Wright was the son of John Skirrow Wright (1822 - 1880) who came to Birmingham in 1838 and entered the firm of Smith and Kemp, manufacturers of buttons and tin-plate. In 1850 or 1851 he became a partner in the firm that became known as Smith & Wright. He was an ardent non-conformist and a zealous Liberal throughout his life.
His son Frank followed the paternal path and his interest in Milton almost certainly stemmed from the family Liberal and non-conformist leanings. The special status of Frank Wright gift was recognised almost immediately, for in the first published catalogue of the stock of the Reference Library covering acquisitions between 1883 and 1890 the entries under the name of the poet were superscribed by the heading The Milton collection; the name of the donor is also carefully recorded. By 1890 a mere hundred volumes had been added to the original donation and further additions were rather tardy until the Language and Literature department came into existence in 1970. At present the stock comprises some 1,500 volumes. The collection extends from collected editions and selections to editions of individual works and literary criticism. It includes some pamphlets that were issued during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods such as Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing, 1644; The doctrine and discipline of divorce, 1643 and Pro populo Anglicano defensio, 1651. First and early editions of his other prose works, including the papers written by him as Latin Secretary to the Council of State, are also well represented. It is, however, for his Paradise Lost that Milton is best remembered.
Milton did not begin his best known work until about 1654, by which time he was
in retirement from political life and completely blind. The poem was completed by 1665 and published two years later. It is estimated that the first edition of Paradise Lost consisted of only 1300 to 1500 copies. Perhaps because of Miltons republican sympathies the book did not sell very well initially and the publisher issued it with six variant title pages between 1667 and 1669. The Library has an example of the fourth issue of the first edition, 1668, and early editions of Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes and Poems.
Once the artistic merit of Paradise Lost had been recognised, second and third editions appeared in 1674 and 1678. For these and subsequent editions Milton re-divided his great epic poem into twelve books (from the original ten) in conscious imitation of Virgils Aeneid. The Library has copies of both these and of the fourth edition, adorned with sculptures by Medina and others, the first edition to be illustrated.
The publication of the fourth edition of the poem was in many ways an event of great importance, for the political tide was on the turn and the next year (1689) saw the Glorious Revolution and the displacement of the Stuart ideas of kingship. The rise of the Whig liberals in politics helped to elevate Milton to the status of a major national poet, for his republican leanings naturally appealed to some of their own political ideals. The development of the Romantic Movement in literature and art in the mid to late eighteenth century also contributed to the popularity of Milton.
The status of Milton as a poet of national importance was firmly established by the early nineteenth century as is amply confirmed by the innumerable editions of his poetical works throughout the period. These nineteenth century editions are well represented in the collection. Many were cheap and nasty, but some were sumptuously produced and lavishly illustrated. Two of the most exciting examples in the collection are the edition of Paradise Lost illustrated by John Martin with very dramatic mezzotints, of which the Library has a copy of the folio edition, 1827, and the French edition of 1868 magnificently illustrated by Johann Jacob Flatters. Of note also is the evocative Poems illustrated by Samuel Palmer, 1889.
In the twentieth century, heroic and epic poetry became unfashionable, but although Miltons popularity has fallen, his great status has not. The first two books of Paradise Lost, if not the later part, are still widely read, and his shorter poems and the verse play Comus have been popular with the printers of private press books. There are some interesting examples of these editions in the collection, particularly noteworthy are the Gregynog Press edition of Comus illustrated by Blair Hughes-Stanton, published in 1931, and the Golden Cockerel Press edition of Paradise Lost, 1937. More recent private press acquisitions have included Areopagitica printed at the Rampant Lions Press, 1973 and the Ode on the morning of Christ's Nativity, printed by the Whittington Press, with illustrations by William Blake, 1981. The collection also includes much twentieth century criticism, and the current periodicals 'Milton Quarterly' and 'Milton Studies'.
The collection is available for reference only.
An appointment is necessary to see the 17th century editions and certain private press and illustrated books.
The collection is housed in the Library of Birmingham in Archives, Heritage and Photography