John Milton (1608-1674), author of the epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), is the most important English-language poet of the seventeenth century. He was active in politics, as author of the first major text on the freedom of the press, Areopagitica (1644) and as Latin secretary to Britain's revolutionary government in the late 1640's and 1650's. He was also deeply involved in the same religious debates as the Pilgrim Fathers, and a pioneer in his writings on education and on marriage law. For centuries after it was written, his poetry drew responses from poets, learned scholars, ordinary readers, musicians, artists and illustrators. Milton was as influential in America as in Europe, and the Wickenheiser Collection includes not only the first American editions of Milton’s poetry, but also rare printings of political pamphlets influential in debates on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Irvin Department of Rare Books' collection of John Milton materials is among the most significant in the world. While the Rare Books Collection had a respectable teaching collection of works by and about Milton prior to the acquisition of the Robert J. Wickenheiser Collection of John Milton, the acquisition of the Wickenheiser Collection of over 6,000 books, including over sixty first and other seventeenth-century editions of Milton’s own writings, and significant holdings also of 17th century Miltoniana, transformed the Department's holdings. The Department continues to add to the Collection, as has Dr. Wickenheiser. In 2009, Dr. Peter H. Koblenzer and Dr. Caroline S. Koblenzer donated an important 18th century copy of a portrait of young Milton and the only known surviving portraist of Milton's mother, Sara.