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Cædmon (fl. 670)
‘Nu scylun hergan…’ [Hymn]
Northumbria, c. 737

Cædmon is the first English poet whose name is known, and the three lines at the top of this page have long been thought to be the earliest extant copy of his only surviving poem. The story of Cædmon leaving a feast in order not to have to sing, settling down to sleep in a stable, and dreaming of a figure who commanded him to sing of ‘the beginning of created things’, was told by the Venerable Bede in the ‘Ecclesiastical history of the English people’. This manuscript of Bede’s ‘History’, probably written in a Northumbrian monastery around 737, includes Cædmon’s Hymn, in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, at the end of the Latin text. Below the Hymn are memoranda on Northumbrian history and an extract from the writings of Saint Isidore.

St Bede, ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Kk.5.16, f.128v

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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
La divina commedia (Purgatorio)

Italy, fourteenth century

The Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise of Dante’s Divine Comedy comprise one of the pre-eminent achievements of Western literature. Dante wrote that his poem had multiple meanings, but he defined its literal subject as the condition of souls after death, and its allegorical subject as the manner in which human beings, through the exercise of their free will, merit the rewards and punishments of divine justice. He termed the work a ‘comedy’ because, like the comedies of classical Rome, it begins in adversity (Hell) and proceeds to a favourable conclusion (Heavenly bliss), and also because it was composed in the common language of the country, Italian. This copy was probably written in Venice or Lombardy, and is a notably accurate and reliable source of Dante’s text.

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Mm.2.3(1), ff.41v-42r

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Attributed to Matthew Paris (1200-1259)
La estoire de seint Aedward le rei

England, c. 1255

The production of this hagiographical verse life of the canonised Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor, whose succession by Harold Godwinson in 1066 led to the Norman Conquest, reflects the closely-woven relationship between religious observance and temporal power in Medieval England. The poem recounts the visions, miracles and charity of Saint Edward, whose popular cult benefited both the Norman kings of England, to whom he was related through his mother, and Westminster Abbey, where he was buried. The poem, which appears to have been composed to mark an important event in the life of the Abbey, survived only in this manuscript, written around ten or fifteen years later. The book contains sixty-four large narrative pen and wash drawings, which are justly regarded as magnificent examples of thirteenth-century English illumination. It is shown at an early point in the biography: on the left, Bishop Brithwold dreams that Edward will reign and be blessed by St Peter; on the right, Brithwold tells of his dream, and Edward is seen at prayer.

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Ee.3.59, ff.7v-8r

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Hrabanus Maurus (784-856)
‘Ast soboles domini…’

Germany, early twelfth century

‘Ast soboles domini…’ (‘But the offspring of the lord…’) is the one of the ‘figure poems’ comprising ‘De laudibus sanctae crucis’ (‘On the praise of the holy cross’), a devotional work by Hrabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mainz. The letters of each poem are written out in square or rectangular grids that give, line by line, the full text of the verse. Coloured figures and drawings superimposed on the grids define groups of letters within the basic text which form further words or phrases – in this poem, those written in red in Christ’s limbs, and those under shading in the halo and loincloth. The letters in the halo, for example, read ‘Rex regum et d[omi]n[u]s dominorum’ (‘King of kings and lord of lords’). The poems of ‘De laudibus sanctae crucis’ are joyous contemplations of Christian faith, while the inner texts amplify and reflect on the symbolism of the verse. The facing pages provide prose explanations of the poems.

Bequeathed by Samuel Sandars, 1894

MS Add. 4078, ff.4v-5r

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Unknown author
Speculum humanae salvationis

Netherlands, c. 1460

The ‘Speculum humanae salvationis’ (‘Mirror of Man’s salvation’) is a compilation of biblical and a few secular stories, written in the early fourteenth century as an aid to devotion and to help preachers devise sermons. It exemplifies the typological strand of Christian thought, in which the events of the Gospels are held to have been prefigured in the Old Testament. Each chapter in the main section of the poem presents four stories, usually a New Testament episode followed by three prefigurations of it from the Old. The illustrations formed an integral element of the Speculum’s didactic purpose, and accounted in part for its huge popular success: almost four hundred copies still exist in manuscript, and the work was among the first to be printed in moveable type. This manuscript is unusual in having grisaille (grey monochrome) miniatures. In Chapter 12, the baptism of Christ is linked with the brass ‘sea’ made by Hiram for the Temple, the healing of the leper Naaman, and the Ark of the Covenant crossing the Jordan.

Presented by John Charrington, 1924

MS Add. 6447, ff.16v-17r

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Psalms 1-6

Spain, fourteenth or fifteenth century

The Hebrew word for psalms, ‘tehillim’ (‘praises’), best describes this diverse collection of songs of adoration, thanksgiving, supplication and confession. The precise age of the psalms is unknown, but their earliest elements long pre-date the sixth century BC, by which time they had been incorporated into the liturgical practices of the Second Temple. Their authorship is likewise unclear: many are attributed to King David, but superscriptions to others mention Korah, Asaph, Solomon and Moses. David is associated with singing and music elsewhere in the Bible, but there is otherwise no strong evidence to support his authorship.

Psalm 1 uses the image of a tree by water to illustrate how a relationship with God leads to spiritual nourishment; it appears to have been placed in this position to serve as an introduction to the Book of Psalms. Psalm 2 is a type of ‘Royal’ psalm that celebrates the coronation of a new king in Judah. Psalms 3 and 4, attributed to David, are songs of supplication, and Psalms 5 and 6 are prayers for deliverance. This copy of the Book of Psalms forms part of a Sephardi Hebrew Bible in which the text is accompanied by the traditional apparatus, Masorah Magna and Parva. The work is decorated throughout with ornamental devices.

Bequeathed by Professor W. R. Smith,

1894 MS Add. 3203, ff.165v-166r

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Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419)
Tsong kha pa rgyud thams cad kyi rgyal po dpal gsang ba ’dus pa’i bskyed...

Tibet, eighteenth century

Mkhas-grub-rje and Tsong-kha-pa’s text on the practice of the two stages of the Buddhist ‘Guhyasamaja’ (‘Secret assembly’), known as the ‘King of all tantras’, includes verse in the opening section. Tsong-kha-pa was the founder of the Dalai Lama’s tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the dGe lugs pa, and was renowned for his vast learning, meditational achievements, influential writings, and reform of religious practices. A deeply humble man, he expressed himself in exquisite poetry. Mkhas-grub-rje (1385-1438) was his student, and became a great scholar, painter and sculptor.

Tibetan verse is recognisable by its metre, a strict pattern of syllables, each divided from the next by a dot when written. The primary purpose of Buddhist poetry is to help the reader memorise and be able to recite the text.

The illustrations depict Mkhas-grub-rje (left) and the Indian sage Nagabodhi.

Purchased on behalf of the Library by Daniel Wright, 1876

MS Add. 1666

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Titus Lucretius Carus (first century BC)
De rerum natura

Italy, fifteenth century

‘De rerum natura’ (‘On the nature of things’) articulates an Epicurean philosophy founded on a materialistic rather than a spiritual view of the universe. Lucretius argued that a proper understanding of the physical world would liberate humanity from fears engendered by religion, and he set out a theory of matter which rejected the immortality of souls and the intervention of the gods in worldly affairs. Drawing heavily on the atomic theory of Democritus, he examined in his poem the nature of life, the senses, sex, society, the formation of the world, and questions of meteorology and geology. Neglected during the Middle Ages on account of its atheism, ‘De rerum natura’ became influential among humanist thinkers during the Renaissance following the discovery of a copy of the poem in 1417. The manuscript on display is one of more than fifty examples derived from that copy. Its scribe seems to have been unconvinced by the argument of the poem, since below the last line are appended the words from the Latin Mass, ‘Laus deo’ (‘Praise be to God’).

From the library of Anthony Askew

MS Nn.2.40, ff.16v-17r

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Ono no Komachi (834?-880?)
‘Iro miede utsuro…’
Fujiwara no Kanesuke (877-933)
‘Hito no oya no…’

Japan, eighteenth century

In the Japanese tradition of lyrical ‘waka’ poetry, dominated by the thirty-one-syllable ‘tanka’ verse form, a refined and restricted corpus of natural imagery was drawn upon to express responses to scenery and to portray states of mind. The poet on the right of this panel, Ono no Komachi, is famous in Japan for the spontaneity and intensity of her depictions of unrequited love, in poems that developed the conventional naive nature verse of the preceding century towards a more cultured melancholic style. In the poem shown here, the image of a flower gradually changing its colour is used to evoke fluctuations in the poet’s emotions. The writer on the left, Fujiwara no Kanesuke, was, like Ono no Komachi, included in the list of ‘sanjurokkasen’, or ‘thirty-six poetic geniuses’, compiled by the poet and critic Fujiwara no Kinto in the eleventh century. This scroll stands in a long artistic tradition of bringing together portraits of all thirty-six poets with representative examples of their tanka.

‘Sanjurokkasen emaki’ (‘Painted scroll of the thirty-six poetic geniuses’)

Presented, 1931


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William Comber
Bob Booty’s epitaph

Taunton, Somerset, 1729
Unknown authors
On Sr Robert Walpole’s chariot being overturn’d by a bishops coach, in Palace-yard
and Poor Robin’s lamentation transvers’d & explained

England, c. 1730

These three poems were seized during a raid on the Covent Garden premises of Richard Francklin, printer of the anti-government newspaper The craftsman, in 1730. In the early eighteenth century the administration of Sir Robert Walpole used the law of libel to suppress opposition publications, and confiscation of property was a common tactic. The poems shown here were examined by the government agents John Wiggs and John Hutchins, whose dockets of ‘Scrutore’ (‘scrutinised’) may be seen on the sheets. Many contributors to The craftsman submitted their work anonymously to avoid being implicated in prosecutions, and the author of only one of these poems is known. The documents were never returned to Francklin, and remain as part of Walpole’s private papers. ‘Caleb D’Anvers’ was a pseudonym adopted by the proprietors of The craftsman; ‘Bob Booty’ and ‘Poor Robin’ were nicknames for Walpole.

From the papers of Sir Robert Walpole

MS Cholmondeley (Houghton) 74/20, 24 and 49

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Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Glory of women

Craiglockhart, Midlothian, 1917

‘Glory of women’ is a reproach by a First World War Army officer to the condescending and jingoistic attitudes of the civilian population, and was written with the apparent aim of altering public opinion. It also reflects, to the point of misogyny, the poet’s personal ambivalence towards women. The poem was composed in the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where Sassoon was convalescing, and this fair copy was sent to A. T. Bartholomew, an Under-Librarian in Cambridge University Library.

From the library of Sir Geoffrey Keynes

MS Add. 8487/4

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Guillaume de Lorris (fl. 1230), continued by Jean de Meun (d. c. 1305)
Le roman de la rose

France, 1354

‘The romance of the rose’, a thirteenth-century poem of some 22,000 lines, is one of the most significant literary works of the Middle Ages. Begun by Guillaume de Lorris as a narrative of a mysterious erotic dream, the poem was extended by Jean de Meun into a strange composite, in which sections treating themes of love, seduction, friendship, folly and fortune were juxtaposed with passages of social and political satire, philosophy and religion. The text of the poem was abridged, restructured and expanded by various authors many times in the early decades after its composition, leaving a knot of variant sources for scholars to untangle. This manuscript is a version of the Romance derived from three other varying texts of the poem, and itself contains further substantial interpolations. It is open at part of the continuation by Jean de Meun.

From the library of T. C. Archer

MS Add. 2993, ff.113v-114r

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Mir Hasan (1727 or 1728-1787)
Sihr ul-bayan

Lucknow, India, c. 1785

The ‘Sihr ul-bayan’ (‘Enchanting story’) is the most acclaimed of the eleven masnaviyat, or narrative works in rhyming couplets, written by the Urdu poet Mir Hasan. It tells of the love between Prince Benazir and Princess Badr-i Munir, and how their happiness is won against adversity through the resourcefulness of the princess’s friend Najm un-Nisa. This richly-illustrated copy was probably produced shortly after the poem was composed. The story may be followed in the illustrations: Benazir, asleep on the roof of his father’s palace, is kidnapped by the fairy Mahrukh. Permitted to roam free for three hours each evening, Benazir enters the garden of Badr-i Munir, and they fall in love. Badr-i Munir, attended by Najm un-Nisa and other female companions, pines for Benazir, who has been shut up in a well by Mahrukh as a punishment. Freed with the help of Firoz Shah, a prince of the jinns in love with Najm un-Nisa, Benazir is at length reunited with his lover; both couples are to marry, and in the last illustration Benazir and Badr-i Munir are shown on the left, Firoz Shah and Najm un-Nisa on the right.

Presented by the Friends of Cambridge University Library, 1981

MS Or. 2255, ff.23r, 34r, 50r, 77v-78r

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Robert Graves (1895-1985)
The beggar maid and King Cophetua

Mallorca, Spain, 1967

Many modern poets have re-worked old myths and legends, often giving sharp twists to the narratives. The novelist and poet Robert Graves took the folk-tale of the African King Cophetua as the source for this poem. Cophetua, having previously disdained all women, fell in love with and married the beggar Penelophon; Graves invented a conclusion in which the queen deserted Cophetua for a stable-boy. The half-remembered poem referred to in the note in the top corner of this sheet was probably Tennyson’s ‘The beggar maid’. In the twentieth century the Cophetua story was treated by poets as diverse as Hugh MacDiarmid and Don Marquis.

From the papers of David Posner

MS Add. 8985/198

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Henry King (1592-1669)
An exequy: to his matchles never to bee forgotten friend

England, c. 1648

An exequy is a funeral ceremony or rite. Henry King wrote this poem after the death of his young wife Anne in 1624. Much of King’s poetry was written in the metaphysical manner characterised by the use of high-flown conceits to pursue elaborate arguments derived from scholastic philosophy. The ‘Exequy’ displays certain metaphysical traits, but the moving directness of King’s portrayal of his grief is made more powerful by the sense that ostentatious literary show has been put aside in deference to the strength of his emotion. This manuscript was produced by a copyist apparently working under King’s supervision, and was used in the twentieth century by John Sparrow and Margaret Crum in the preparation of their editions of King’s poems.

From the library of Sir Geoffrey Keynes

MS Add. 8471, pp.40-41

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The wife of Dunash ibn Labrat (tenth century)
‘Ha-yizkor ya‘alat ha-hen yedidah’
Dunash ibn Labrat (c. 920–990)
‘Ha-yom moti ’ahavtem ‘et ketavtem’

Levant, c. eleventh century

This manuscript is a copy of a moving poetic exchange between wife and husband. The first six lines (‘Will her love remember…’) are a poem by the unknown wife of the Spanish poet and grammarian, Dunash ibn Labrat, and below them is his reply (‘Is it my last breath you seek…’). Dunash lived in Islamic Spain and is credited with the introduction of Arabic poetics into Hebrew poetry. Little is known of his personal life. In their exchange, his wife pleads with him not to leave Spain. Her language is terse and poignant and shows a good command of the new Hebrew poetics as well as knowledge of biblical sources. His intimate reply is unusual for poetry of the period, describing her as a ‘bright woman’ and alluding to their friendship. It is unclear whether the poems reflect a real situation or were created for literary effect, but Arabic rubrics on the manuscript attribute the authorship of the poems to Dunash and his wife. She is the sole recorded female Jewish poet between the biblical prophetess Deborah and the late Middle Ages, and is known only through this poem. It survived to the twentieth century in two copies, both of which were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, an accumulation of some 210,000 fragments, mostly in Hebrew script, amassed in a synagogue attic over the course of a thousand years. Two-thirds of the Cairo Genizah fragments are now housed in the University Library.

From the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection

MS T-S NS 143.46

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Omar Khayyám (1048-1131)

Rushmere, Suffolk, 1856
Calcutta, India, 1857

Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ is a Victorian classic. FitzGerald translated just over a hundred of these short epigrammatic poems and strung them ‘into something of an Eclogue’ with the predominant themes of regret for the transitoriness of human life, and the need to seize worldly pleasures – especially those of wine and love – as they pass. The two manuscripts shown here are those from which FitzGerald made his translation. The smaller is a copy made in 1856 by his friend Edward Byles Cowell of a transcript of MS Ouseley 140 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The larger is a copy, sent by Cowell from India in the following year, of a manuscript at that time held in the library of the Bengal Asiatic Society in Calcutta. FitzGerald’s notes, made in the course of studying the Persian text, may be seen in both manuscripts.

Presented by the family of Professor E. B. Cowell, 1903-1907

In MS Add. 4510

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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524)
Philosophiæ consolatio

England, c. 1000

The systematic study and annotation of poetical texts predated the foundation of the first modern universities in the twelfth century. This copy of the ‘Consolation of philosophy’, a neo-platonic dialogue with alternating sections of prose and verse, composed by the Roman writer Boethius while awaiting execution, is extensively glossed. Words in the verse passage written at the centre of the left-hand page are keyed to explanatory comments in the surrounding margin; there is also an interlineal gloss. The practice of glossing developed from the compilation of word-lists in the ancient world, and by the Middle Ages certain commentaries, notably of sacred, medical and legal texts, had come to be regarded as standard components of the explicated works. These Latin glosses on Boethius are broadly patterned on those of the ninth-century Benedictine monk Remigius of Auxerre; the manuscript was probably written in, or for, Abingdon Abbey, and other pages bear traces of Anglo-Saxon glosses. The volume entered the University Library’s collections before 1558.

MS Kk.3.21, ff.84v-85r

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Brevis descriptio vite Terencii comici; et perambulus sermo scolastici cuiusdam explanantis fabulas sex comediarum eiusdem

Western Europe, fifteenth century

Poetry and poetics were studied in late-medieval Cambridge as a branch of Rhetoric, one of the three components of the undergraduate arts course known as the trivium. The comedies written in prose and verse by the Latin playwright Publius Terentius Afer held a privileged place in the curriculum, and a University statute of 1495 made the study of Terence compulsory for those reading for the B.A. degree. Suffixed to this manuscript of the works of Terence are a short outline of the author’s life and an essay by an unidentified scholar named Laurentius addressing, among other questions, the nature of poetry and the role of the poet.

Publius Terentius Afer, ‘Comœdiæ sex cum commentariis’

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Ff.6.4, ff.93v-94r

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John Wells (d. 1570)
In adventum serenissimæ Reginæ Elizabethæ
Francis Murden (fl. 1558-1564)
In adventum nobilissimæ Principis Elizabethæ

Cambridge, 1564

Assembled for presentation to Queen Elizabeth I during her visit to Cambridge in August 1564, this volume contains over three hundred sets of congratulatory verses composed by members of the colleges. The poems demonstrated the university’s loyalty to the Queen, and emphasised its commitment to Protestant reform of the Church; some of the fellows may also have regarded participation as an opportunity for personal advancement. Wells and Murden were fellows of Clare College; their poems are written in a very fine example of the Cambridge humanist italic hand.

‘Orationes et carmina acadamiæ Cantabr: ad Elizab: reginam 1564’

MS Add. 8915, ff.147v-148r

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William Alabaster (1567-1640)

England, seventeenth century

Several examples survive of the Latin dramas composed by members of Cambridge University in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. William Alabaster’s tragedy ‘Roxana’, based on the Italian play ‘La dalida’ by Luigi Groto, was admired for its beautiful language and elegant latinity; Samuel Johnson wrote that if the English produced any Latin verse ‘worthy of notice’ prior to the elegies of Milton, ‘it was perhaps Alabaster’s Roxana.’ In the 1590s the play was produced more than once in the hall of Trinity College, and its power in performance is attested by the author of the Anglorum speculum (1684): ‘a Gentlewoman present thereat, at the hearing of the last words thereof, Sequar, Sequar, so hideously pronounced, fell distracted, and never after recovered her Senses.’ The manuscript is exhibited at a less climactic point in the drama, the opening of Act II.

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Ff.2.9, ff.4v-5r

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Unknown author
Pontifex Romanus est ille Antichristus, quem futurum scriptura prædixit
and Non episcoporum in una sede successio, sed veritatis possessio est nota veræ ecclesiæ

Cambridge, late sixteenth century

The custom of marking public events with the composition of Latin verses developed early in the University. The poems in this volume are ‘Act-verses’, circulated in the course of the public disputations, examinations, and defences of dissertations required for admission to a degree. The poems make reference to the theses under discussion, and usually end with a couplet summarising and resolving the argument; the themes indicate the University’s function of preparing men for holy orders, and reflect the doctrinal controversies and Establishment orthodoxy of the age. The verses displayed, which have been uncertainly ascribed to John Whitgift, later Archbishop of Canterbury, testify to the staunchly Protestant character of the University at the end of the sixteenth century. The poem on the left considered the question of whether the Pope was the Antichrist, and concluded that it would be fair to say he was.

Transferred by the University Registrary, 1900

MS Add. 3873, pp.69-70

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Ted Hughes (1930-1998)
The ear-witness account of a poetry-reading in Throttle College, before the small poets grew up into infinitesimal critics

England, 1953

Candidates for the English Literature tripos in Cambridge may submit ‘original compositions’ to be taken into consideration by the examiners. For Part I of the tripos the future poet laureate Ted Hughes submitted a work of prose fiction with substantial sections of verse. Hughes found the academic study of English at Cambridge inimical to his own creativity, complaining later of its ‘pseudo-critical terminology and social rancour’, and the prose dialogues in his composition expose the cast of university characters to scathing ridicule. Elements in the verse, however, foreshadow the vision of a bleak, violent and enduring natural world familiar from Hughes’s mature work; a few lines on these pages are redolent of poems in Wodwo and Crow.

From the University Archives

CUA ENGL.1.155, ff.17-18

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Sors misera servorum in insulis Indiæ occidentalis

Cambridge, 1792

Under the terms of the will of Sir William Browne, a medal (originally gold, now bronze) has been offered to undergraduates annually from 1775 for a Greek ode in imitation of Sappho, on a theme appointed each year by the Vice-Chancellor. In 1792 the medal was won by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then a scholar at Jesus College, for an ode entitled ‘Sors misera servorum in insulis Indiæ occidentalis’ (‘The miserable destiny of slaves in the islands of the West Indies’). The theme eminently suited the radical politics of the young Coleridge, although the standard of his Greek has been debated since the early nineteenth century. This autograph copy of the ode was written in the book laid on the Registrary’s table for inspection at the Commencement.

From the University Archives

CUA Char.I.4, pp.232-233

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Charles Peter Layard (1750-1803)
Duelling: a poetical essay

England, c. 1775

The Seatonian Prize was founded under the terms of the will of the Reverend Thomas Seaton, sometime fellow of Clare College, who died in 1741. He bequeathed his estate at Kislingbury, near Northampton, to the University on condition that its rents be paid each year to whichever Master of Arts produced the best English poem ‘conducive to the honour of the Supreme Being and the recommendation of Virtue’. The prize was the first to be established at either Oxford or Cambridge for English verse. Layard, a fellow of St John’s College, won in the prize in 1773 and 1774, in the latter year for a poem on the set subject of duelling. This was one of four Seatonian poems written out by John Paddon and bound with a copy of Musæ Seatonianæ, a printed collection of the prize-winning poems from 1750 to 1770.

Musæ Seatonianæ. A complete collection of the Cambridge prize poems, from the first institution of that premium by the Rev. Mr. Tho. Seaton… (London, 1772)

Bequeathed by Samuel Sandars, 1894

MS Add. 4154, pp.374-375

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William Chapman Kinglake (1806-1881)

England, c. 1830

The Chancellor’s Medal for an English poem, open for competition among resident undergraduates, was founded by the Duke of Gloucester in 1811, and has continued to be awarded by successive chancellors despite lacking an endowment. William Chapman Kinglake won the medal in 1830 with a poem on the set theme of ‘Byzantium’, although his entry exceeded by a sonnet-length the permitted limit of two hundred lines. He was successful again in 1832, with a poem on ‘The taking of Jerusalem in the first crusade’. At Cambridge Kinglake briefly pursued enthusiasms for wine, cigars, women and horses; after graduation he was ordained, and served for more than forty years as rector of West Monkton in Somerset.

Presented by C. K. A. Alexander, 1974

MS Add. 8812/58, pp.4-5

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William Wyon (1795-1851)
Chancellor’s Medal for an English poem

England, twentieth century

The design of the Chancellor’s Medal modelled by William Wyon in the nineteenth century is still current, although since the Second World War the medals have been struck in bronze rather than gold. This example was awarded to Clive Wilmer in 1967.

Lent by Mr Clive Wilmer

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Euripides (c. 484 BC-406 BC)
Iphigenia in Tauris

Egypt?, c. 280-240 BC

Presented by the President and Committee of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1909

MS Add. 4461

Pindar (522 or 518 BC-438 BC)
Olympian odes i, ii, vi and vii

Byzantium?, fifth or sixth century

Presented by the President and Council of the Egypt Exploration Society, 1922

MS Add. 6366

These papyri were discovered in the first decade of the twentieth century by members of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s Graeco-Roman Branch, formed to excavate and publish Greek and Latin documents from archaeological sites in Egypt. The Pindar manuscript is from Oxyrhynchus (modern Behnesa), and predates by seven centuries the earliest surviving medieval copy of the odes. The Euripides fragments were retrieved from mummy ‘cartonnage’ (strips of tightly-pressed papyrus layered around an embalmed body) excavated at a necropolis near the ruined Nile city of Hibei; it is thought that a classical library was at some point broken up to be recycled in the mummification process. In spite of its fragmentary state, the ‘Iphigenia’ papyrus allowed two editorial conjectures concerning the text of the play to be confirmed.

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Formerly attributed to Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC-19 BC)

England?, tenth century

Only a tiny proportion of the manuscripts existing in antiquity survived beyond the period of the eclipse of classical learning, the ‘Dark Ages’ of the sixth to eighth centuries. The works of many writers whose names are known were entirely lost in this period; the works of others survived fragmentarily or in only one or two copies. Not until the Carolingian Revival in the ninth century was the copying and circulation of classical texts again undertaken on any large scale.

This manuscript is an example of the renewed transmission of ancient poetry following the Dark Ages. Its verse texts, in addition to ‘Culex’ (‘The Gnat’), include another poem attributed to Virgil, ‘Aethna’ (‘Etna’), and the ‘Technopaegnion’ (verses with lines ending in monosyllables) and ‘Oratio’ (‘Prayer’) of Ausonius, a Roman writer of the fourth century. The manuscript is believed to have been housed at New Minster, Winchester, in about 1000; the Virgilian texts were probably derived from a lost manuscript listed in a library catalogue of the Benedictine abbey of St Eucharius at Trier, in Germany.

Presented by King George I, 1715

MS Kk.5.34, ff.94v-95r

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A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
Notes for a lecture on the manuscripts of Catullus

England, early twentieth century

Famous as the poet of A Shropshire lad, A. E. Housman was also among the most distinguished classicists of his day. In these lecture notes he considered the transmission of the text of the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC-54 BC) from antiquity, through ‘the silence of barbarism’ during the Dark Ages, to the late Middle Ages. All existing texts of Catullus’s poems are derived from a single manuscript known to have been at Verona in the early fourteenth century.

The diagram, or stemma, near the top of the page shows the relationship between the manuscript sources of Catullus. The establishment of hierarchies among manuscripts is an important step in assessing the relative authority of variations in the texts, while knowledge of the frequency and location of the copying of poets’ works allows judgements to be formed on their cultural significance through the centuries. The sigla in brackets represent manuscripts known to have existed in the Middle Ages but since lost, while ‘O’, ‘G’ and ‘R’ represent manuscripts dating from the late fourteenth century and now held in Oxford, Paris and the Vatican respectively.

Presented by A. S. F. Gow, 1936

MS Add. 6875, ff.2v-3r

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Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)
Chawcer up on this fyfte metur of the second book [The former age]

England, c. 1400

‘Boetius de consolatione philosophiæ’

Presented by John Croucher, in or before 1424

MS Ii.3.21, ff.52v-53r

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)
Etas prima [The former age]

England, c. 1450

Presented by King George I, 1715; formerly owned by John Peter the minstrel

MS Hh.4.12, ff.43v-44r

Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem known as ‘The former age’ was transmitted from medieval to modern times in only two copies, both of which are held by the University Library. The manuscript on the left, Ii.3.21, is a copy of the ‘De consolatione philosophiæ’ of Boethius containing the Latin text together with Chaucer’s translation into English; ‘The former age’ occurs after a verse by Boethius on which Chaucer’s poem is loosely modelled. On the right is Hh.4.12, a miscellaneous collection of middle-English poems. ‘The former age’ was not printed until 1866, when Hh.4.12 was used as the basis of the text; subsequent editors have more often taken the version in Ii.3.21 as their ‘copy text’, or principal source. Were it not for the manuscripts displayed here, we would have no knowledge of this poem.

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Anne Stevenson (b. 1933)
Willow song

England, 1983

When a striking line or phrase comes to a poet, the closest paper to hand may be put to use. In an article published in 1996, Anne Stevenson wrote that a poet ‘has to rely upon instinct to break through logic, and instinct appears to be a mixture of acute awareness (particularly of speech-sounds) and sheer luck. Spontaneously a line will occur as if overheard. I write it down, on a notepad, usually, or on a scrap of paper. If the line or idea suggests a rhythm I try to fashion it into a sound-shape or stanza.’ This draft of the opening stanza of ‘Willow song’, an elegy for the poet Frances Horovitz, was written on the reverse of a shopping list, and may be the earliest physical trace of the poem.

Presented by Anne Stevenson, 1997

In MS Add. 9451

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George Crabbe (1754-1832)
The amours of G

England, c. 1815

The reputation of the Suffolk-born poet George Crabbe rests on the series of narrative and descriptive poems of moderate length which he termed ‘letters’ or ‘tales’, of which the most famous is ‘Peter Grimes’. This notebook contains a draft of ‘The elder brother’, published as one of the Tales of the hall in 1819. In this early version the poem was titled ‘The amours of G’, and had lines of eight syllables rather than the iambic pentameters of the finished tale. Poems from this notebook were first published by Adolphus William Ward in his three-volume edition of Crabbe’s verse printed by Cambridge University Press in 1905-1907.

Transferred by the Syndics of Cambridge University Press, 1907

MS Add. 4422, ff.61v-62r

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Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892)
The princess; a medley

England, 1840s

‘The princess’ is one of several long poems from the early Victorian period addressing the question of the status of women in society. Tennyson created an elaborate fictive structure to tell the story of Princess Ida and her university for women, from which men were excluded on pain of death. In this section, the prince to whom Ida was betrothed as a child argues with his father about the best way to woo her. Several of Tennyson’s cancellations and interpolations are visible, and the passage underwent further revision before its first publication in 1847. In the 1920s the poet’s son gave a group of manuscript sheets of ‘The princess’ to the Library, with the expressed wish that they should be publicly displayed.

Presented by Hallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson, 1923

MS Add. 2588/585, ff.66v-67r

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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
To Jane. The invitation

Italy, 1822

This poem arose from a walk taken through a pine forest near Pisa in February 1822 by Shelley, his wife Mary, and Jane Williams. The manuscript may have been intended as a fair copy, but towards the end an improvement occurred to Shelley: he cancelled two and a half lines describing the noon as being ‘like Heaven’s love… built around and roofed above’, and replaced them with the simpler but more effective phrase ‘And the blue noon is over us’. A few months after Shelley presented this manuscript to Jane Williams he was drowned, together with Jane’s partner Edward Williams, on a boating trip in the Gulf of Spezia.

Presented by Lt-Col. and Mrs C. F. Call, 1907

MS Add. 4444

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Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

England, c. 1910

‘If—’ appears in Rewards and fairies, a work published in 1910 which tells, in a mixture of prose and poetry, the story of the children Dan and Una and their meetings, under the magical influence of the fairy Puck, with ‘people of the old days’. ‘If—’, as written here by Kipling in a copy prepared for the printer but bearing the poet’s late corrections, differs in several respects from the published version; note especially lines 5 to 8 of the first stanza, which read in their final form:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…

Rudyard Kipling, ‘Rewards and fairies’

Presented by Rudyard Kipling, 1926

MS Add. 6850, ff.67v-68r

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Seamus Heaney (b. 1939)
The figures at Kilpeck

Ireland, 1981

‘The figures at Kilpeck’ was written after a visit to the church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, a village south-west of Hereford. In the outer sections of the poem Heaney contemplates a carved stone figure in the church, and in the central section draws on more personal associations. The hand-written alterations to the third section deepen the poet’s imaginative response to the figure by suggesting direct speech in its voice, thereby complementing the closely-observed external description with an element of characterisation. The poem was published, with further small amendments and with the title ‘Sheelagh na Gig’, in Heaney’s book Station Island (1984).

Presented by Anne Stevenson, 1997

In MS Add. 9451

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John Milton (1608-1674)

Cambridge, c. 1638

Revision need not be halted by the printer. The corrections to this copy of ‘Lycidas’, Milton’s elegy for his friend Edward King, are in the poet’s own hand. The interpolated line ‘In the blest kingdoms meeke of Joy and Love’ is a rectification of a printer’s error, but the change from ‘humming’ to ‘whelming’ represents a late authorial amendment which was retained in subsequent editions. For much of the nineteenth century this volume stood on the open shelves of the University Library, until the annotations were noticed in the mid-1860s during a search for duplicate copies for disposal.

Justa Edovardo King naufrago... (Cambridge, 1638)

Presented by King George I, 1715

Adv.d.38.5, pp.24-25

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John Donne (1572-1631)
The extasie

England, c. 1620-1632

The Leconfield manuscript of poems by John Donne is a fine example of an English Italianate book hand of the early seventeenth century. The manuscript probably belonged to Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), and could well have been produced on his orders, since the Earl’s letter-books show his amenuensis to have had an almost exactly similar hand. An unusually large number of manuscript collections of Donne’s poems were made prior to the posthumous edition of his Poems in 1633, reflecting both the popularity of his work and the preferred method of circulating verse in court and gentry circles, where publication in print was tainted by associations with commerce. This is the finest of these manuscript collections in terms of calligraphy, and it is further valuable as being one of a small subset deemed to possess particular authority for the text and canon of Donne’s poetry.

From the library of Sir Geoffrey Keynes

MS Add. 8467, ff.95v-96r

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William Morris (1834-1896)
The lovers of Gudrun

England, 1908-9

‘The lovers of Gudrun’ is one of the ‘medieval’ tales in William Morris’s The earthly paradise, published in 1868-70. This copy was written in gold on vellum by William Graily Hewitt (1864-1952), who read Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, before abandoning a legal career to devote himself to the practice and teaching of calligraphy. The manuscript was commissioned by Charles Fairfax Murray, for whom Hewitt had earlier completed the writing of an illuminated manuscript of the ‘Aeneid’ of Virgil begun by Morris himself; Hewitt’s choice of lettering in the ‘Gudrun’ manuscript may have been influenced by Morris’s experiments in calligraphy. The manuscript has no independent textual authority: it exists rather as a craft object, brought into being and valued for the sake of its physical beauty.

Presented by Charles Fairfax Murray, 1918

MS Add. 6162, ff.70v-71r

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Ma Zhen’gang (b. 1940)
‘Xue hai hao han…’

Cambridge, 1999

This couplet was written by the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the Court of St. James on the occasion of his first visit to Cambridge University Library on 10 February 1999. It reads (from top to bottom, right to left): ‘Xue hai hao han, fan juan you yi’ (‘How profitable to be tossed and turned in this vast sea of learning’), followed by the writer’s signature and the date. There is a play on words in the phrase ‘fan juan’, which means both to ‘toss and turn’ (in the ocean of learning) and to ‘turn over volumes’. Antithesis, an essential feature of Chinese versification, is seen here in the parallelism between verbs (‘xue’, ‘learning’, and ‘fan’, ‘turn over’) and nouns (‘hai’, ‘sea’, and ‘juan’,‘volumes’).

Extempore composition of verses combined with elegant calligraphy has long been a prerequisite of any Chinese man of culture, especially one in a position of power and influence. Ambassador Ma is a living embodiment of this tradition, since his ancestor Ma Yu (1395-1447) was ‘zhuangyuan’ (the highest graduate of all China) in 1427.

Also shown are the essential accoutrements of the scholar: writing brush, inkstone and ink stick, which together with paper comprise the ‘wen fang si bao’ (‘four treasures of the literary studio’).

Presented by Ma Zhen’gang, 1999

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