Rare Find: Milton’s Annotated Holinshed in Phoenix Library

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The Literary Treasure of John Milton Confirmed by Scholars

John Milton, a revered English poet of great literary acclaim, is held in high regard by esteemed figures like John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Jonson, and Voltaire, the latter declaring him as “the glory and wonder of England.” Despite the enduring prominence of Milton’s works, very few books from his personal library have survived to this day.

A new addition to this exclusive collection has recently come to light. Scholars have uncovered a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Phoenix Public Library, adorned with handwritten annotations in Milton’s distinctive penmanship. This discovery, detailed in a recent article from the Times Literary Supplement, places this volume in rare company, as it joins only two other known books that contain Milton’s own hand-written notes.

The Significance of Holinshed’s Chronicles

Holinshed’s Chronicles, first published in 1577 and further revised in 1587, offer an expansive historical account of Great Britain in three extensive volumes. Originally envisioned as a comprehensive “universal cosmography,” the project evolved under the stewardship of Reginald Wolfe, who enlisted Raphael Holinshed and William Harrison to compile a detailed history of England, Scotland, and Ireland, encompassing rich illustrations and maps.

While best known for inspiring William Shakespeare’s history plays, such as Macbeth and components of King Lear and Cymbeline, the Chronicles also served as a valued resource for other prominent writers of the time, including Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton himself. Although famed for his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton frequently alluded to Holinshed’s Chronicles in his other poems and prose works such as Of Reformation (1641) and The History of Britain (1670), underscoring the significance of this historical volume.

Unveiling of the Rare Literary Artifact

Renowned philanthropist Alfred Knight acquired the notable 1857 edition of Holinshed in 1942 from Maxwell Huntley, a well-known bookseller in Beverly Hills, California, for a modest sum of $38.60, proudly adding it to his esteemed rare book collection. This precious volume, spotlighting a chapters in Shakespeareana literature, was prominently displayed alongside Knight’s first edition of Paradise Lost and the 1697 first edition of Milton’s collected prose in his collection, later bequeathed to the Phoenix Public Library for public appreciation and scholarly scrutiny.

In a recent forum hosted at Arizona State University, the Holinshed tome was thoughtfully exhibited, allowing scholars, custodians, and enthusiasts alike to inspect the literary marvel. During this event, Aaron Pratt of the University of Texas serendipitously identified Milton’s unique script in some of the marginalia. Pratt’s keen observation marked the beginning of an intriguing exploration, corroborated by co-author Claire Bourne of Penn State, who further emphasized the distinctive handwriting previously validated by Jason Scott-Warren of the Cambridge Center for Material Texts.

Deciphering Milton’s Annotations

Upon meticulous examination, scholars uncovered compelling evidence of Milton’s inscription in Holinshed’s Chronicles, characterized by the prominent italic ‘e’ and other telltale features such as loops and flourishes unique to the poet’s handwriting. Comparisons between the marked passages and Milton’s Commonplace Book revealed strong affinities, pointing to a definitive link between the poet and this particular volume. Upwards of 90% of references to Holinshed in the Knight Collection were meticulously annotated by Milton, with several notes alluding to other works known to have been part of his personal library.

An especially notable occurrence within the annotations was Milton’s disdain for a salacious narrative involving Arlete, the mistress of Duke Robert I of Normandy. The poet recoiled at the story’s immodest depiction, scribbling a disapproving note in the margin and underscoring his preference for a more refined narrative tone over sensationalism, underscoring a facet of Milton often overlooked in the scholarly discourse.

A Rich Historical Rarity Rediscovered

Despite the sale of much of Milton’s personal book collection following his death in 1674, there remains a conspicuous gap concerning the provenance of the Holinshed volume until the early 19th century. Well-preserved for over a century, the volumes were later rebound and subsequently enjoyed by notable historian and collector William Maskell before surfacing in the renowned Beverly Hills bookstore in 1942, underscoring the enduring allure and historical significance of this literary gem within the annals of English literature.

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Chris Jones

Hey there! 👋 I'm Chris, 34 yo from Toronto (CA), I'm a journalist with a PhD in journalism and mass communication. For 5 years, I worked for some local publications as an envoy and reporter. Today, I work as 'content publisher' for InformOverload. 📰🌐 Passionate about global news, I cover a wide range of topics including technology, business, healthcare, sports, finance, and more. If you want to know more or interact with me, visit my social channels, or send me a message.
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