Collecting Pandemonium: John Milton in the Alexander Turnbull Library

The 17th-century English poet and polemicist John Milton arrived in New Zealand in rather inauspicious circumstances. The Endeavour’s botanist, Joseph Banks, used pages from Paradise Lost to press plant specimens collected during Cook’s first voyage. Another edition of the epic poem came as part of Charles Darwin’s library on the Beagle in 1835.

But this activity does not account for why the Alexander Turnbull Library holds one of the world’s best collections of Milton and ‘Miltoniana’. This distinction primarily rests with Library founder Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, and his visionary commitment to establishing a Milton collection in Wellington.

Turnbull’s motives in forming a Milton collection have been fiercely scrutinised. Was this simply ‘a rich man’s indulgence’? Was Turnbull striving to connect colonial New Zealand to its European cultural heritage? Did collecting Milton offer a cheaper alternative to Shakespeare?

Whatever his motivation, in 1918 Turnbull bequeathed to the nation a collection with two cores: everything related to New Zealand, and the works of John Milton. The Library has continued to extend this rich inheritance through purchase, gift and bequest.

In 1974, Chief Librarian Jim Traue negotiated the purchase of Milton materials belonging to G William Stuart of Pasadena. This high-profile and expensive purchase transformed the Library’s already substantial Milton collection into one of world standing. The Auckland Star commented that ‘this news will not arouse the enthusiasm that an All Black win over Ireland would generate’, but acknowledged the appeal of a New Zealand library becoming a world-renowned repository of Milton materials.

Pandemonium, ‘all the demons’, was a term coined by Milton in Paradise Lost for the palace built in hell by Satan and his fallen angels. Any Milton collection by definition collects pandemonium. It’s a phrase also richly suggestive of the possibly irrational forces that drive somebody into a life of collecting. Turnbull knew these forces well, and described collecting as ‘that fascinating folly’.

Collecting Pandemonium marks the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth by providing a glimpse into the library’s holdings, and charting the formation and evolution of the Milton collection. It accompanies the symposium Miltonic Origins/Miltonic Innovations: Milton’s poetry and thought in new world societies and cultures.

National Library Gallery, Wellington, 8 November 2008–March 2009