Aber is home to the National Library of Wales, a super, super, super cool library. I know from the photo that it looks like a prison, but in person it is profoundly beautiful. In addition, finally reaching it after climbing a really, really big hill with 40 pounds of research materials on your back three days in a row is profoundly beautiful, too.
Due to the climb, I usually ate lunch on the front steps rather then go back to town. This was my view:
At the National Library of Wales a simple photo ID was all it took to use the materials – And wasn’t it nice that I’d come all the way from the United States to research Katherine Philips? Interest in her sure had picked up. What part of the States was I from? Ah, yes, the Great Lakes region. Lovely, lovely. We’re so happy that interest in our national poets is picking up.
It was here that I found the goldmine.
One day, needing a break from my hours in the rare book room, I decided to peruse the museum part of the library on the upper floors. I wound through rooms, gazed at maps, looked in display cases. Looked in display cases. Looked into a display case and found myself reading one of Katherine Philips’s poems:
Friendship’s Mystery, To my dearest Lucasia
Come, My Lucasia, since we see,
That miracles men’s faith do move,
By wonder and by prodigy,
To the dull, angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love
For though we were designed t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.
Our hearts are doubled by the loss,
Here Mixture is Addition grown;
We both diffuse, and both ingross:
And we whose mind are so much one,
Never, yet ever are alone.
We court our own Captivity
Than Thrones more great and innocent:
‘Twere banishment to be set free,
Since we were fetters whose intent
Not Bondage is, but Ornament.
Divided joys are tedious found,
Add griefs united easier grow:
We are ourselves but by rebound,
And all our Titles shuffled so,
Both Princes, and both Subjects too.
Our hearts are mutual Victims laid,
While they (such power in Friendship lies)
Are Altars, Priests, and Off’rings made:
And each Heart which thus kindly dies,
Grows deathless by the Sacrifice.
I froze. I’d read this poem innumerable times. But here, in manuscript form, it was doubly hot.
In the bibliography I was developing, I had an entry that I hadn’t really understood. In fact, I had no idea what it was or whether it was worth hunting down. It was just one more item on a long list of things to find on the Eastern Side of the Pond. It was a manuscript (meaning a handwritten document). Old. Didn’t have a consistent title.
I read the museum plate in front of me.
I realized that I had just stumbled on Katherine Philips’s personal copybook. Her own bound, blank book where she would transcribe her poems once they were completed. In her own hand. Her book. I wasn’t going to get any closer to her than this.
Serious Ass Research Monkey Serendipity.
I began trembling. I breathed deeply. In… out… in… out. Show no signs of panic. Show no signs of the brief thought of breaking the glass, hiding the book under my sweater, and running for my life. OK, perhaps the thought wasn’t so much brief as it was very carefully considered and rejected for legal and moral reasons. If the libraries looked like prisons, what were the actual prisons like? Just breathe.
I went back downstairs to the rare book room desk and said oh so casually, oh this is SO casual, oh yes, this is just another ordinary day, “I saw Katherine Philips’s copybook upstairs. Could you get it out of the case for me?” I assumed this was an absolute non-starter but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to ask.
“Sure,” he said without looking up. “You’ll be in the rare books room? We’ll bring it to you.”
I went back to my desk and sat quietly. The other materials I had gathered to that point, the materials that were so important an hour ago, were now just paper.
They brought me her book. I spend three leisurely hours reading and re-reading all of my favorite poems in her own hand. I didn’t have to wear gloves there. I touched paper that she had touched. Felt the leather binding. Gazed at the cover (plain, brown, no inscription). I read the odd bits written on the inside cover by others who had owned the volume through the years. I went back and read my favorite poems again and again. Read until I was bored with the poetry but still trying to soak up the moment. The feel of the room. The enormous, beautiful, honey colored desks and chairs. The natural light pouring in through the enormous windows. The quiet. The other researchers. The day I held Katherine Philips’s 350-year-old personal copybook.
At last, the day was through. The library was closing. I returned the book to the front counter and handed it to the librarian on duty, the one who had gotten it for me originally.
“Done?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said and handed it to him.
He dropped the book on the counter. Dropped it. Like it was a book. Like it was a book one could drop on a counter.
I held my someday-librarian right index finger tightly by my other hand to prevent it from issuing the scoundrel a good scolding on the importance of his national treasures!! And the value of rare books!! And didn’t he understand the binding was fragile?? And I’m pinning a note about what you did on your sweater for your mother to read!!
I headed out. The forty pounds of books on my back never felt so light. I bought a bottle of wine and retired to my room, blaring the Indigo Girls on my Walkman, dancing alone at the YWCA in Aber, Wales. I had just read Katherine Philips. Really, really read her.
This is what I came here for.