Skip to Main Content

Lady Margaret Hall Library: Literary Treasures

This is a previous exhibition, but if you are interested in viewing one of the objects you can make an appointment (email Exhibitions in the library rotate once or twice a year. Have a look at our current exhibitions to see what's on at the moment.

'Literary Treasures'

The Hilary 2017 LMH Library exhibition, by Tom Cook

The phrase ‘literary treasures’ is a bit of a cliché: it sounds more like a collection of pedantic Victorian stories for children than a dignified library exhibition; and three great writers of the 1800s – Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats – certainly play their parts in its orchestration.

This exhibition draws on a wide range of time-periods, authors and genres. The earliest books in the exhibit date from the early 1600s; the most recent are works by living alumni of LMH, which are still loaned to students today. Some of the books, such as the Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, shed light on the Britain that existed at the time of their publication, while the books inscribed by Robert Graves and Stevie Smith tell more local stories – not just about their authors, but LMH’s one-time principal, Sally Chilver, who died in 2014.

The exhibition is therefore designed to proceed more-or-less chronologically, with some early printed dictionaries, then proceeding through various poets, preachers and playwrights to the present day.

Dictionaries and Sermons

Cockeram's Dictionarie

1 of 4 | Early Dictionaries

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was not, as is often supposed, the first dictionary of the English language.  In 1604, schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey published his Table Alphabeticall, a list of around 3,000 words, drawing on earlier school texts and studies of the language. This book is a 5th edition of the first book to call itself a dictionary, Cockeram’s English Dictionarie, also known as…

An interpreter of hard English words: Enabling as well ladies and gentlewomen, young schollers, clerkes, merchants; as also strangers of any nation, to the understanding of the more difficult authors already printed in our language, and the more speedie attaining of an elegant perfection of the English tongue, both in reading, speaking, and writing.

English Dictionarie, by Henry Cockeram

Johnson's Dictionary

2 of 4 | Johnson's Dictionary

However, Johnson’s Dictionary is the most famous ever compiled, and this is a 2nd edition of the mighty work, in two volumes. The book was larger and more comprehensive than any that had gone before it, containing over 40,000 words and covering every branch of learning from agriculture to zoology. It was notable for its novel featuring of literary quotations to give context to a word’s usage:  the nearly 115,000 extracts draw especially on Johnson’s favourite authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and others – ‘the best writers’, as he calls them on the title page. Though it was a commissioned work, Johnson’s Dictionary was soon bent to its compiler’s will. In the preface, he quickly established his guiding principles:

Academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling
to measure its desires by its strength.

However much Dr. Johnson the scholar would’ve liked it, Samuel Johnson the author knew his book could only be a pin in the map of an ever-changing English language; he defined the lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.’

A Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson

The titlepage for Lancelot Andrewes' Sermons

3 of 4 | The Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes

T. S. Eliot wrote that ‘the larger public which does not read [Lancelot Andrewes] may do well to remember his greatness in history’. Born in 1555, in his lifetime Andrewes was Bishop of Ely and Dean of the Chapel Royal. He was one of the foremost religious and intellectual figures of the late-16th and early-17th centuries, and had the ear of both Elizabeth I and her successor James I. He oversaw the translation, compilation and publication of the King James Bible of 1611, and was a presiding influence on John Donne, George Herbert and the other so-called metaphysical poets of the time.

The work collected in XCVI Sermons, published in 1635, was compiled and printed in London, nine years after Andrewes’s death, to commemorate his achievements, philosophical depth and social standing. Eliot was so taken with Andrewes’s work – perhaps because of its religious density and intellectual striving – that he published a collection of essays, For Lancelot Andrewes, in 1928: just over 400 years after the priest’s death.

XCVI Sermons, by Lancelot Andrewes

The titlepage for Donne's Sermons

4 of 4 | The Sermons of John Donne

As for John Donne himself, he is one of the best-known poets of the English Renaissance, famous for his witty, sensual poems (such as ‘The Flea’), his elegies, and the darker, more brooding Holy Sonnets. But the Holy Sonnets were inspired by Donne’s increasing religious devotion, a calling which eventually lead to his becoming, as LXX Sermons puts it, ‘that learned and reverend divine, Iohn Donne, Dr in Divinity, late Deane of the cathedrall church of S. Pauls London.’ It was printed in London, by Miles Flesher, in 1640, nine years after Donne’s death. It includes, as well as the 80 sermons of its title, Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne, a key source not just for literary critics but for historians, too. The LMH copy of Donne’s Sermons was donated to us in 1931 by an Edward Hugh Norris Wilde.

Donne preached more in St. Paul’s than anywhere else in his life, yet surprisingly little is known about daily life in the cathedral: the sermons’ titles – ‘Easter’ and ‘Whitsunday’, for example – tell us when Donne spoke, but many records from this time have been lost, leaving us with little idea of who Donne spoke to and why. A new 16-volume edition of the sermons is forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and the innovative historical and cultural research undertaken for it should begin to lift the veil somewhat. Regardless, the contents speak for themselves. ‘What of the angels,’ Donne asks in an Easter sermon, ‘and then, what of us, who shall be like the angels’?

LXX Sermons, by John Donne


T.S. Eliot's Wasteland

1 of 6 | T. S. Eliot

As for Eliot himself, LMH holds this 2nd edition of his Poems, published by Faber and Gwyer (as they were then) in 1926. The slender book reprints all of Eliot’s publicly available poems of the time, from his debut collection Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) to the just-published sequence The Hollow Men (1925). It also contains the entirety of The Waste Land, which had already been established as a major poem of that decade.

It’s a book which shows Eliot at the midway point of his life – an image from the opening of Dante’s Inferno that would become increasingly important to him in the coming years. Along with the work of Andrewes and historic religious and literary figures, such as Julian of Norwich, this notion of crossing from one half of a lifespan to the other would begin to shape his later masterpieces, the Four Quartets.

Poems 1909–1925, by T. S. Eliot

Yeats' Wild Swans at Coole

2 of 6 | W. B. Yeats

Unlike Tennyson (who died in 1892) and largely unlike Hardy, Yeats was a Victorian poet who became a modernist in his later years. The Wild Swans at Coole, first published in 1917, shows this transformation underway, as the romanticism of Yeats’s earlier poems gives way to more searching and brutal themes. The title poem, like Hardy’s ‘Drawing Details in an Old Church’, obsesses over mortality, wondering of the swans,

Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

The alternation of long and short lines gives the poem a forcefulness and anxiety at odds with the opening lyricism of trees ‘in their autumn beauty’ and water that ‘mirrors a still sky’.

The copy was donated to LMH in May 1919, the year of its publication by Macmillan; the original printing, now extremely rare and thus extremely valuable, was made by hand by Yeats’s sister in Dundrum, Co. Dublin. (The Macmillan book contains a number of poems that did not appear in the 1st edition.) It is particularly significant for its inclusion of poems showing Yeats’s transition not just from Victorian to modernist, but from idealistic younger man to wary elder statesman. This is particularly pronounced in poems such as ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ and the bitter, uncompromising lyric ‘The Scholars’, in which he rails against ‘Bald heads forgetful of their sins’ who ‘Edit and annotate the lines | That young men, tossing on their beds, | Rhymed out in love’s despair’. Perhaps his ghost will object to the book’s inclusion here.

The Wild Swans at Coole, by W. B. Yeats

Thomas Hardy's Drawing details in an old church

3 of 6 | Thomas Hardy

In the same year Eliot published his radical Waste Land, the elderly Thomas Hardy gathered up his latest poems along with some previously-unpublished earlier verses. The result was this relatively hefty book, Late Lyrics and Earlier, which begins not with a poem but with an ‘Apology’ essay from the author:

Readers may feel assured that a new book is submitted to them with great hesitation at so belated a date … Dozens of [the poems] have been lying about for years.

Whatever Hardy’s reservations, the volume contains some of his most moving works, among them ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’ (an elegy for his cat), ‘The Sun’s Last Look on the Country Girl’ and ‘Drawing Details in an Old Church’, with its eerie closing image:

            some morrow, when those knolls for
One unguessed, sound out for me,
A stranger, loitering under

            In nave or choir,
May think, too, “Whose, I wonder?”
But care not to enquire.

Late Lyrics and Earlier, by Thomas Hardy

A letter from Tennyson

4 of 6 | Alfred, Lord Tennyson

This 1865 copy of Alfred Tennyson’s Enoch Arden and Other Poems tells a story all of its own, quite separate from the narrative poem which gives the book its title. Gummed to the yellowing endpaper – which elsewhere is decorated by a tiny bookseller’s sticker for Fletcher’s of Norwich, and a newspaper cut-out of Tennyson’s poem ‘A Welcome to the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh’ – is a folded scrap of paper bearing a letter by the great poet himself, addressed to a Reverend Allen.

The ‘dear Allen’ of the letter was the grandfather of the book’s donor Lynda Grier (1880–1967), principal of LMH from 1921 to 1925: crucial years, during which LMH became a fully-fledged part of the University, women only having been given the right to full academic degrees in 1920. Before joining LMH, Grier had been a student, a lecturer and then a fellow at the women’s Newnham College, Cambridge; and her mother, who gave this book to her, was one Grace Grier (née Allen) – daughter of the Poet Laureate’s friend. Overleaf from the Tennyson letter, on the blank page opposite the title (alongside a small blue LMH Library sticker, probably from the book’s donation in 1967) is written: ‘Grace Allen | from her loving sisters | Beatrice, | Anna, | & Octavia.’

Enoch Arden and Other Poems, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Books by Robert Graves given to Sally Chilver

5 of 6 | Robert Graves and Sally Chilver

Robert Graves was best known for his prose – the author of Good-Bye to All That, his memoir of the First World War, and celebrated works drawing on classical sources (such as his novel I, Claudius and his study of mythology and poetry The White Goddess). But Graves was also a successful and highly influential poet, writing memorably about the War, antiquity and love.

After hostilities ceased in 1918, he became a student at St. John’s College. LMH holds several signed copies of Graves’s poetry collections, inscribed by him to Sally Chilver, his niece, who was the principal of the college in the later years of Graves’s life.

Where are poems? Why do I now write none?
This can mean no lack of pens, nor lack of love,
But need perhaps of an increased magic –
Where have my ancient powers suddenly gone?

At the Gate, Poems and Collected Poems, by Robert Graves

A poem by Stevie Smith

6 of 6 | Stevie Smith and Sally Chilver

Sally Chilver’s connections to great British authors were not just familial: among her many literary friends was Stevie Smith, the poet, illustrator and novelist, whose combination of nursery-rhyme effects and startling, often morbid imagery and thoughts made her a favourite of both Philip Larkin and W. H. Auden. Her reputation has experienced peaks and troughs over the decades, but in recent years – thanks in part to a new Faber edition of her Collected Poems and Drawings, and the first ever Stevie Smith Conference last year here in Oxford – she is in the ascendant once more. We own two books by her, inscribed to Sally from her friend Stevie. At one time she was mostly taken for an amusing eccentric; and yet the more time passes, the more her poems seem not just witty or odd but haunting, prescient – perfect embodiments of the confusion and sorrow of 20th-century life, contained in forceful, memorable lines:

Close upon the Turner pictures  
Closer than a thought may go  
Hangs her eye and all the colours  
Leap into a special glow
All for her, all alone
All for her, all for Joan.

Tender Only to One, by Stevie Smith

Contact the Library

LMH Special Collections are open to visitors by appointment (email during staffed hours, Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Lady Margaret Hall Library
Norham Gardens
United Kingdom


Telephone: (01865) 274361

The librarian, Jamie

Jamie Fishwick-Ford

(Librarian, they/them)

Sally Hamer

(Assistant Librarian, she/her)