Red Booth Notes: What’s in a Title Page?
On a time, title pages were a place where epigraphs set the theme and tone of a book. Over the years, I’ve learned much I would not otherwise have known from taking time to read and reflect on title page epigraphs from an earlier age.
Take, for instance, the British reformer William Wilberforce’s apologia for the faith, A Practical View of Christianity. First published in 1797, it has never been out of print—to this day commending a vision of the good society that says much as well about orthodoxy and the reasons for hope. It was in many ways the “Mere Christianity” of its time, and has much to tell us still.
The title page epigraph Wilberforce selected for his book is a world in itself. It’s comprised of five lines taken from John Milton’s masque (or dramatic poem), Comus. Starting at line 476, we read:
How charming is Divine Philosophy!
Not harsh, and crabbed, as dull Fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo’s lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectar’d sweets
Where no crude surfeit reigns.
Seldom has an epigraph been better chosen. To those wary of books and writers that set forth arid, lifeless explorations of theology—or the knowledge of God—Wilberforce was telling his readers, in Milton’s voice, that he wished to set before them something of that “perpetual feast” to be found at Christianity’s table.
One passage, in particular, showed how truly Wilberforce’s understanding of faith ran in the same channel as that captured in Milton’s verse. “But let us now turn our eyes,” Wilberforce wrote, to those “who have possessed the substance, and felt the power of Christianity.” Such folk, he said, “have known what it was to experience its firm hope, its dignified joy, its unshaken trust, its more than human consolations.”
It was Wilberforce’s privilege to commend a faith that had been embraced “not blindly and implicitly, but upon full inquiry and deep consideration,” by great writers and thinkers like Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. There were others too—“much the greater part of those, who, by the reach of their understandings, or the extent of their knowledge, and by the freedom of their minds…have called forth the respect and admiration of mankind.”
Wilberforce understood, profoundly, how assent to the tenets of Christianity led to the place of imperishable hope. He was not a hymn writer, but he did pen lines that run very close to a doxology. In them, he spoke of what it meant
to be adopted into the family of God;
to become an heir of God and a joint heir with Christ—
entitled to all the privileges which belong to this high relation.
Here, to the Spirit of Grace—a partial renewal after the image of our Creator;
hereafter, to the more perfect possession of the Divine likeness,
and an inheritance of eternal glory.
A perpetual feast. Wilberforce knew that it beckons to all who will come, and he knew of no better epigraph for his book than those favorite lines from Milton’s verse.
So what’s in a title page? Sometimes, the things of eternity.
 To be precise, a masque is formally defined as “a form of aristocratic entertainment common in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, originally consisting of pantomime and dancing, but later including dialogue and song, presented in elaborate productions given by amateur and professional actors.” See http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/masque
 See pages 117-118 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).
 See pages 478-479 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).
 See page 339 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).