BRITAIN'S Eton College has been collecting, preserving, cherishing, and studying books for more than 5 1/2 centuries. The list of rare treasures in its library is formidable, heartening the bibliophiles who sees their passion so often denigrated in today's world. Here is an ally. A proud fountain of power and influence, learning, and accomplishment, Eton is conspicuous among institutions of its kind - not above criticism, but rich in genuine worth, fostering talents, inspiring the thirst for knowledge - with elegance, taste, and connoisseurship. Eton was founded in 1440 by Henry VI. Insanity drove Henry from the throne, but the school continued undaunted, providing through these many years a plethora of extraordinary thinkers for their country and the world - statesm en, poets, clerics, scholars, eccentrics, scientists. As Etonians, they seldom lacked that touch of privilege which ensured notice and produced appointments.
When the place was founded in 1440, it was expected to be a collegiate church, to which a grammar school would be attached where boys could learn Latin. The library, beginning with 42 volumes, is as old as the school. Most of the books were, naturally, either theological works or textbooks. Today there are great numbers of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in its keeping, a wealth of other books, and thousands of prints and drawings. One part is preeminently devoted to academic learning, another to c onnoisseurship and taste.
Last fall, a selection from the library was sent to the United States for display for the first time. Among the works shown at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York were such treasures as the first printed edition of Copernicus's treatise on the revolutions of the celestial spheres (published in Nuremburg in 1543), a 1455 Gutenburg Bible printed on vellum, and the only complete copy of Malory's ``Le Morte d'Arthur,'' executed by the famous printer William Caxton.
Also included were a handsome set of Erasmus and the renowned Eton Apocalypse, an illuminated manuscript dating from 1250. Scores of languages were represented with volumes in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; also seen were early Bibles translated into Icelandic and Irish. Among the thousands of authors whose works were exhibited was one of the famous sons of Eton, Thomas Grey: On display was a first edition of the ``Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.''
AMONG the early great Etonian bibliophiles were Sir Henry Saville and Sir Henry Wotton both of whom were provosts. Saville was appointed to this commanding post in 1596, and under him Eton's library began to grow and develop. While Saville has been called ``austere and autocratic,'' he was also practical, taking advantage of the London booksellers' offer to give the college a 20 percent discount - a bold step then. A bookbinder was engaged, and new shelves were erected when the library began storing boo ks vertically rather than horizontally. By 1622, the collection contained 1,000 volumes.
As a theologian and one of the translators of the New Testament for the King James Bible, Saville took particular interest in increasing the library's religious collection. He had been a tutor of Elizabeth Tudor, before the young girl was thought to be so nearly the heir to the throne. Apparently she did not much like Saville, for afterward, when she was queen she found his pleading to become provost of Eton wearisome and consistently refused him. However, he wore her down and achieved his end.
Saville's translation of Tacitus ran into many reprints, and he is particularly remembered for having set up a printing press at the college where his highly esteemed Greek edition of St. John Chrysostom was published. Under his tenure, chairs of astronomy and mathematics were established at the college. He was undeniably one of the great provosts. But his wife, Lady Saville, left another sort of memorial to him when she said, ``I would I were a book too, and then you would a little more respect me.''
SIR HENRY WOTTON, who became provost in 1624, was a very different sort of man, though at least as impassioned a bibliophile, probably a sine qua non for the post. He was a poet and had been a diplomat in Venice for most of his life. (From him comes the well-known quote,``An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.'')
Wotton had spent his money prodigally, largely on books, and when he came to Eton said he was penniless, ``like a sleeping seal left by the ebbing tide on a dry shore.'' Fifteen years later, the library inherited his bequest of the largest single collection of medieval manuscripts so far presented to it by a single donor.
The Golden Treasury and the Oxford Book of English Verse contain a few of his poems, but he is probably best known for those poignant lines, ``He first deceased / She for a little tried / To live without him / Liked it not and died.''
THE three horsemen from the Eton Apocalypse shown on this page date from the 13th century, when many seriously thought the end of the world was at hand. They were therefore interested in reading about this event as predicted in the book of Revelation, and in pouring over such illustrations.
The Wotton Erasmus (``Omnia Opera,'' printed in Basel by Froben in 1540) was magnificently bound in Paris in about 1548 for Thomas Wotton, the father of the future provost.
This glorious set has six different designs on the covers and is described as ``the most imposing survivals from Wotton's great library.'' Books like these, even though locked away in glass cases, where we cannot have the pleasure of handling them, inspire deep feelings of satisfaction - even joy - that, with their rich contents, they are so suitably and carefully treasured, century after century, a living legend.