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John Milton and his hand in our holdings

Among the collections in our Library sits a bound volume of tracts (Press B.4.16) by John Milton (1608-1674) with an interesting history. The title-page of the first tract in the volume, ‘Of reformation touching church-discipline in England …’ is complete with a dedication in Milton’s hand to Patrick Young (1584-1652).

Milton’s title-page dedication to Patrick Young and the inscription ‘Stamford 1693’

The inscription can be reconstructed as –

‘Ad doctissim[um] virum Patri[cium] Junium Joann[es] Miltonius hæc / sua, unum in f[asci]culum conjecta / mittit, paucis h[u]/jusmodi lectori[bus]/ contentus.’/

‘To the most learned man Patrick Young John Milton sends these his things, gathered together in one little volume, satisfying himself with but few readers of this kind.’*

The inscription references Horace’s ‘contentus paucis lectoribus’ (Satires, 1.10.74) and one Milton would later translate in Paradise Lost as ‘fit audience find, though few’ (7.31).

Scottish-born Patrick Young was Secretary to the King and Royal Librarian. His roles encompassed the cataloguing the collections of cathedral libraries throughout England as well as a complete reform of the Royal Library itself, helping to enhance the holdings in impressive fashion. Milton presented a similar volume to Bodley’s librarian at the time, John Rouse, but that seems to have been a copy for the library, albeit with a poem for Rous himself bound into it, whereas the Young volume seems to have been for him personally.

Reference note on the upper endpaper to Rev. M. Pilkington
Reference note on the upper endpaper to Rev. M. Pilkington

Further provenance on the volume’s endpaper suggests the book once belonged to TCD alumnus Rev. Matthew Pilkington (1700-1774). A correspondent (possibly John Barrett 1753-1821) to The Gentleman’s Magazine (October 1792) refers to the work and notes that Pilkington donated the copy to the College. Pilkington is perhaps best known for his work The gentleman’s and connoisseur’s dictionary of painters (1770) and his public falling out with Jonathan Swift.  The memoirs of Pilkington’s wife Letitia, published in 1748, do little to enhance his reputation.

New research in 2016 has revealed the collection had an earlier owner and was in the possession of Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford (1654-1720). Grey, who was imprisoned in 1685 for his role in the Rye House Plot, was later elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1708. The Earl’s library which included 310 other Milton tracts was auctioned in London on 16 January 1721. This volume from the sale underwent extensive conservation work in 1985, thus restoring it for consultation once again. The work is currently on display in the case beside the Donations Box in the Long Room.

*Thanks to Dr. William Poole, New College, University of Oxford, for his help in reconstructing Milton’s dedication.