Literature

Discover some of the finest poetry, prose and drama in the English language.

Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, and one of the earliest surviving literary texts from the English-speaking world. From this unique manuscript, to the precocious wit of the teenage Jane Austen and the pathos of Wilfred Owen’s Great War poetry, the Library holds works from some of the greatest writers in the English language, spanning over 1000 years of literary history.  Particularly fascinating are the drafts and re-drafts of some of our greatest literary treasures, which offer a unique insight into the processes and influences that have helped create these iconic works. 

Beowulf

Beowulf - the sole surving manuscript.

Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most well-known romances in medieval English literature and one of the famous Arthurian legends.

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Image shows The Prologue, f.76

'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1345-1400) was enormously popular in medieval England, with over 80 copies in existence from the 1500s.

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Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur

Image showing Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte D'Arthur'

This sole surviving manuscript copy (known as the Winchester manuscript) of Thomas Malory’s version of the legends of King Arthur and his knights was made within a decade of the author’s death in 1471.

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The Notebook of William Blake

The Notebook of William Blake [folio: 3v]

William Blake (1757-1827) was a Romantic poet, artist and engraver. This small notebook (159 x 197 mm; 58 leaves) contains sketches and writings by Blake who was probably writing in it from February 1787.

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Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The title page of the First Folio with Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare.

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'History of England': Austen juvenilia

History of England': Austen juvenilia [folio: ff. 77v-78r]

Jane Austen’s ‘The History of England’ is a comic account of England from Henry IV to Charles I as told by ‘a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian’.

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Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'

Manuscript of S T Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' [folio: 1r]

This manuscript is a fair copy (a neat copy) of Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'. It was written out on two sides of blue-tinted paper, in preparation for being sent to the printer. It shows evidence of numerous substantive textual changes and apparently predates the version published in 1816.

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'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [folio: 7r]

Lewis Carroll’s friendship with the children would lead him to create one of the most famous and enduring children’s stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol

In 1895, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was found guilty of 'acts of gross indecency with other male persons' and sentenced to two years' hard labour. He was sent to Reading Gaol.

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Copyright: © British Library

Poetry manuscripts of Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen’s manuscript draft of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.

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Copyright: © The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate. This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

The Left-handed Punch

Mr Punch, one of the 12 articulated puppets from The Left-handed Punch.

The Library’s collections include thousands of books made by contemporary artists.

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The Antibook - Francisca Prieto

The Antibook by Francisca Prieto, inspired by the poetry of Nicanor Parra. Photo by Xavier Young

Challenging with fun and brio the idea of what a book is, the artist Francisca Prieto offers a 3-D rendering of Nicanor Parra’s famous ‘antipoems’.

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