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A VISIT TO THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF WALES

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A VISIT TO THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF WALES

The National Library of Wales sits on the crest of an escarpment overlooking the town of Aberystwyth. Surrounded by green fields, hills, and rows of scotch firs, the library commands panoramic views in sight of the great blue expanse of Cardigan Bay which can be seen sparkling in the far distance. This imposing building, constructed in the early years of the last century, stands amidst brightly coloured flower gardens. Next door the fields are grazed by herds of sheep. It is surely one of the most attractively located libraries in the world and a fitting home in Wales for the works of John Cowper Powys.

You need more than a day here to make the most of all the Powysian pleasures the library has to offer as well as enjoy the natural delights of spotting bottle nose dolphins in Cardigan Bay, walking the cliff path to Clarach Bay, visiting Aberystwyth Castle, taking the steam railway through the very impressive Rheidol valley, or travelling on the Cambrian railway along the Dovey estuary and the Cambrian coast in sight of Cader Idris. Just a little further afield lies Strata Florida Abbey, which was once a large, rich and powerful thirteenth century Cistercian edifice, and is situated in a lovely and tranquil valley. There are those who claim that an ancient vessel uncovered here in modern times is the Holy Grail!

In June I accompanied other members of the committee and came here to see this library’s renowned collection of manuscripts, letters and other documents belonging to John Cowper Powys.

We were greeted by the principal librarian in charge of the Powys collection. He has the enviable task of cataloguing and taking care of all the Powys items and gave us a preview of some of the documents newly acquired by the library and showed us others that have been in the collection for a long time. It was a privilege and an honour to be allowed access to these original papers.

Here were treasures indeed. Laid out on the table we saw the three remaining holograph pages of the manuscript of A Glastonbury Romance. Amongst the many crossings out and substitutions, tucked into a corner of one page were the words that Phyllis, at the last moment, urged JCP to write: “The great goddess Cybele, whose forehead is covered with the Towers of the Impossible, moves through the generations from one twilight to another...” Surely these are the very same pages JCP refers to in his diary for 1 November 1931: “...after breakfast instead of planting her Bulbs she read the last chapter of my book & told me I must change it & introduce Cybele to whom I have always prayed for it to be good & the Towers of all cults, coming and going – Never or Always.....Think of her having this Inspiration on the day of her going away!”

Here too was an example of JCP’s juvenilia – an incomplete prose tale, written, in 1883, when he was at Sherborne school, in an incredibly neat, small and tidy hand. In this little romance, ‘The Knight of the Festoon’, with its medieval Welsh setting, there is evidence of the influence of his father’s  fantasies about Wales on JCP’s young and fertile imagination. It is, of course, above all, a premonition of great things yet to come!

We hope to return the hospitality of our contact in the library and meet him again soon  - perhaps at one of the Society’s events where his experience, knowledge of manuscripts and enthusiasm for the Powyses may be shared with others.

In the morning we joined a public tour of the library and learnt more about its history, its role as one of the major copyright libraries in the UK, and its unrivalled collection of original medieval Welsh manuscripts making it the biggest and most important collection of Welsh manuscripts in the world. Here can be seen not only the  Black Book of Carmarthen, with its Arthurian references, written, it is thought, by a single scribe about the year 1250, but also the Book of Taliesin, the White Book of Rhydderch and Bede’s scientific treatise De natura rerum as well as more modern works by Dylan Thomas and Hedd Wyn. There are archival collections here of a wide range of photographs, maps, and pictures with Welsh connections including a valuable documentary source for genealogists and family historians.  We were shown the temperature controlled stacks, which stretch the length of the building, where documents, papers and paintings are all housed.

There was time in the afternoon for us to examine in more detail some of Powys’s manuscripts in the spacious, light and airy south reading room. The electronic catalogue needs a little getting used to and help was required to navigate the peculiarities of classification, schedules, hand lists, non OPAQ and ISYS requests. But once you’ve got the hang of it and received your orders (which are delivered quickly and efficiently) you may spend your time absorbed in the study of original Powysiana.

We looked at all of JCP’s diaries from 1929 to 1960. These simple, plainly covered little books, when opened, reveal an extraordinary world. Every page is covered in Powys’s inimitable handwriting, every available space is used. At first it is hard to work out Powys’s sense of order but soon his style and habits become apparent. Along with all the domestic and personal information there are detailed descriptions of multifarious flowers seen, birds identified, nature’s colours observed, the ever changing light and the vagaries of the weather recorded, including the ever shifting direction of the wind, reported daily. Yet the wind is never just a wind it is the wind of Hiawatha  - Keewaydin or Mudjekeewis. The pages of these little books, like an illuminated breviary, are interspersed with lively and energetic sketches. They are like works of art - a collage of thought and expression. Publication of the diaries can never do justice to the extraordinary visual impression made by the original documents.

I especially wanted to see the letters to Phyllis Playter. These frank and very personal confessions of love and desire, of loss and pain, of longing, ecstasy and sweet sentiment are remarkable documents that deserve to be consulted more often. They are, in many ways, more revealing than the diaries. Written mostly on hotel notepaper, (Powys was writing to Phyllis once and sometimes twice a day) the letters record JCP’s exhausting itinerant life style. The letters reveal the delightful shock and intense surprise of suddenly finding someone new with whom JCP could share his deepest thoughts and intimate feelings. Handling the original copies of the letters is a humbling and moving experience giving insight into JCP’s private world. Will we ever see them, edited and annotated, and published in book form?

There were other treasures to investigate – drafts of poems, including the original heavily worked over holograph of The Ridge, fragments of unfinished works, unpublished short stories and novellas as well as six large volumes containing parts of Powy’s “interminable romance” which he called Work Without A Name.

All too soon our visit came to an end but not before we had made a mental note to return to delve deeper into this astonishing archive of Powys’s work.

Travelling home along sunken green lanes and steep sided, mist filled, valleys I sensed the magnetic quality in the landscape that pulled JCP away from the inspirations of Dorset and Somerset and deeper into his Welsh mountain fastness. Even here on these sunny summer uplands, between Plynlimon and the Berwyns, the towering mountains and hills felt oppressive, hiding perhaps untold mysteries of Pwyll and Priderei  of Rhita Mawr, the Cewri, of Brythons and Pelasgians, of ancient battles long since fought and lost, or won, and of Avallach, Nineue and Myrddin Wyllt. From its protective glass case in the National Library, I fancied I could hear, over the sound of modern traffic, the Black Book of Carmarthen uttering its oracular pronouncement:

“...not wise the thought a grave for Arthur.”

For more information about the National Library of Wales, opening hours, directions and to search the catalogue of Powysiana see: www.llgc.org.uk

Chris Thomas

July 2009

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Permission must be asked before using any material from this site.

Often described as one of the great apocalyptic novels of our time, WOLF SOLENT is the story of a young man returning from London to work near to the school at which his father had been history master. Complex, romantic and humorous, it is a classicwork combining a close understanding of man's everyday experience with a delicate awareness of the spiritual.

WOLF SOLENT

John Cowper Powys

A Powys Society Meeting

Mr Weston's Good Wine is the unusual tale of the struggle between the forces of good and evil in a small Dorset village. Its action is limited to one winter's evening when Time stands still and the bitter-sweet gift of awareness falls upon a dozen memorable characters. During the book a child knocked down by his car is miraculously brought back to life; the sign 'Mr Weston's Good Wine' lights up the sky; and the villagers soon discover that the wine he sells is no ordinary wine.

MR WESTON'S GOOD WINE

T.F. Powys

SOMERSET ESSAYS

Llewelyn Powys

 
 

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