Ernest Rhys 1860-1946

Drawing of Ernest Rhys
Welsh Apostle of Culture for the Masses
By Glyn Roberts – 24.10.1933

“In London I was born and, after some years of mining-engineering and verse-writing in the North, returned there in the middle eighties to try my fortune with the pen.”

This direct but extremely concise statement is the opening sentence in Ernest Rhys’s memoirs, “Everyman Remembers.” The story which follows is the story of the most selfless career in modern letters. Ernest Rhys, born over 70 years ago in London of Welsh parents, has devoted his whole life, in quite a literal sense, to giving the English-speaking people an opportunity of making the acquaintance of the great achievements of the world’s poets and prose-writers.

Today, in his seventies, he looks back on a career of turmoil, tussle, disappointment, and small financial remuneration, and smiles cheerfully. His face is known to very few people; none of the material rewards of life have been his. But he has created something which will not be forgotten in a day – “the most complete library for the common man the world had ever seen.”

The whole harrowing tale is told in Ernest Rhys’s memoirs, of how he, an enthusiastic poet, editor, and essayist, met the dynamic John Malaby Dent, and of how, despite every conceivable obstacle – shortage of money, shortage of credit, copyright troubles, mislaid prefaces – the series was launched and set on its triumphant journey.

The Glow of Triumph

Today Ernest Rhys has the glow and sparkle in his eyes of a man who has found a task worthy of him and has mastered it. The older he gets the younger his manner becomes. His cheeks are rubicund, his voice is a rolling basso. His face is heavily lined, and the short beard and immense inner vitality give the impression more of a traveller or explorer than of a man whose life has been spent half at an editor’s desk and half poring over the rarer Celtic MSS. of the British Museum. Ernest Rhys’s is proof enough that no man need-fear ill-health if he is engaged on work that interests him.

Although his interests have kept him all his life in London, Ernest Rhys has never ceased to feel the “hiraeth” which works just as strongly upon those Welshmen who have been born outside Wales and have never set foot in their own country as upon those who have left Wales to make a living.

The hobby of his life has been Welsh mediaeval poetry, and he confessed to me several years ago that for years it has been his pet ambition to be able to give up everything else to work in the National Library on a book which would deal with Dafydd ap Gwilym.

“If an American millionaire would step out of the blue and find the money, I’d throw up everything here and now to do it,” he told me.

Duty of Small Nations

I asked him his views on Welsh political and cultural aspirations.

“It is always hard to know exactly what is right in matters like these,” he replied, “But this I do say. The world is rapidly approaching a state of complete and irretrievable mechanisation and standardisation. The people of China and France, of Greece and of Australia get some alike in their dress, in their way of life, and in their dress, in their way of life, and in their disposal of their leisure every day. No one will deny that this is a pity; we do not all want to become Ford cars.”

“It is the small nations of the world, surely, with their peculiarities of intellect, of literature, of language, of custom, who can do most to postpone the complete Robotisation of Mankind. There is something unique in very race – something you can get nowhere else, however desirable it may be; and it is the duty of these small nations – the Czechs, the Bretons, the Irish, the Welsh, the Basques – to preserve these national heritages fiercely against all dangers, however trifling or quaint they may seem.

The Welsh Mind

“There is something in the Welsh mind you will not find anywhere else in the world; and it is difficult, almost impossible, for the Welshman to express his inmost thoughts other than through Welsh. The Welsh language – which I have had to learn in middle age, with the utmost difficulty – is a miracle of fluidity and subtlety, capable of bodying forth nuances and niceties of meaning for which the English language has no resources – perhaps because the Anglo-Saxon mind has no conception of the ideas these linguistic hair-splittings represent.”

“I don’t say the world should learn Welsh. The world has not got to live in Wales, nor need it confine its attentions to Welsh literature. Nevertheless, here is a rich and colourful literature which decidedly cannot be tasted through translations; and every Welshman who would know anything of it must know his mother tongue. If he learns it his life will achieve double the richness it had known.”

“There are men in Wales today who claim that Wales cannot much longer preserve her national culture, her language and her eisteddfodau, against the gold-stained octopuses of the radio and the cinema unless she gets home rule and the power to legislate in those interests. They show that it was not until Czechoslovakia and the Irish Free State attained their independence that the Czech and Gaelic languages stirred into life.”

“This may be; and I personally would welcome an independent Wales. But is it practicable? I doubt that.”

A Welsh Katherine Mansfield

“And I do not believe the language need to go. Today, after seven centuries pf Anglo-Saxon rule, it is as vital as ever it was; it is in normal use everywhere. It has its newspapers and its periodicals its poets and its dramatists. I have just read the short stories of a young Welsh schoolmistress who has achieved a reputation in Wales. They are superb – hard observant, and economical, worthy of Katherine Mansfield or de Maupassant. But in English they will have lost much of their force.”

“I think that Wales needs a few great writers – men, like Yeats, Synge, Moore and O’Flaherty in Ireland – who will tell the world about her through the medium of English. Machen and Caradoc Evans are both great artists, but I do not think it will be either of them who will herald a great Welsh revival. Richard Hughes and Rhys Davies are men of great promise.”

He added that he believed the National Theatre would do great things for Welsh culture.

As I left Ernest Rhys I ruminated on the ways of Fortune and her favourites. I thought of some of the “literary giants” of the day, noisy bloated poseurs and charlatans.

Then I thought of the man I had just left, a man who has assuredly done more than anyone else now living to raise the general level of culture in these islands. If he does not deserve some visible symbol of his country’s appreciation, then who, in the same of sanity, does?

Ernest Rhys at 80
Recalls His Days in Wales
By George A. Greenwood – 21.07.1939

Ernest Rhys, described not so long ago by a good judge as “undoubtedly the most distinguished litterateur given by Wales to England,” has this week entered the ranks of the octogenarian.

When I went to congratulate him is seemed incredible that this man, still with his air of distinction, his kindly, bearded face, his courtliness and his activity – I had almost said agility – could really be 80.

I found him immersed in preparing what he tells me will be much revised edition of his reminiscences, “Everyman Remembers,” which, when it comes out in the autumn, will be a great deal more autobiographical than his earlier volume published eight years ago.

The title of this volume is a suitable reminder as the author’s greatest contribution to letter and learning, which led to the late Glyn Roberts describing him so aptly as “the apostle of culture for the masses” – his foundation and editorship for well over 30 years of “Everyman’s Library,” in which already 952 volumes have been published.

Link with Sir Gaer

Although born in London, Ernest Rhys is upon his father’s side, pure Welsh and proud of it, but nowhere, so far as I know, has the story been told of his family association with the Principality and his own retention of the early links.

Ernest Rhys is a grandson of Sir Gaer. His grandfather, whom he still remembers vividly and with affection, was a prosperous bookseller in King Street, Carmarthen, who, with his wife, had fully intended that their son, John, should be a minister.

John went for two years to the training college, but at 19 met and fell in love with Emma Percival, the daughter of a Hertfordshire man, ran away with her and married her. They settled in London.

When their boy, Ernest was only 11 months old they went back to West Wales where John Rhys, who had become through his marriage, a wine merchant, pursued his business.

So young Ernest came under the influence of his pure Welsh grandfather.

“He used to take down books from his shelves when I was four or five and give them to read while I sat quietly under the flap of the counter,” said Mr. Rhys. “He was a merry sort of man, who loved jokes and gaiety. I recall that sometimes he would take me to the room behind the shop and there act most realistically some part of other from one of Shakespeare’s plays.”

“Unfortunately, my life at Carmarthenshire was short. My father came into the wine business through my mother’s relationship to the Gilbey family, and when I was about five the firm asked him to move from Wales to organise their business in the North of England. This took us to Newcastle-on-Tyne and the neighbourhood, where after leaving school I was trained as a mining engineer.”

“While a very young man I ‘chucked it up’ and came to London as a freelance writer – much to the annoyance of my father, who had spent a good deal of money on my training, and no doubt thought I was quite mad. But there it was, I had tired of engineering, which held no interest for me, and to London I came in order to make my living in an entirely new and distinct field.”

New Call of Wales

When Ernest Rhys started to learn Welsh father John strongly depreciated the exercise as a waste of time, telling the youngster that it would do him no good. “We had, indeed, quite a sharp quarrel about it in my youth,” said Mr. Rhys.

To what extent his father’s objection deterred him from pursuing his lessons in the Welsh language I do not know, but it certainly had no effect upon his love for the country of his origin, his study of its lore, history, and literature, and his glow of pride in his Welsh heritage. For that we may be thankful, since in so many and diverse ways Ernest Rhys has rendered incalculable service to the Land of his fathers and to the Celtic nations in general.

For 75 years – that is ever since he left Carmarthen as a little lad – he has been going back to Wales; never, I believe, missing a year in his pilgrimages and sometimes going more than once in a twelvemonth.

Thought for Flood Victims

He had heard so much about the distressed areas that last year he paid a special visit to the mining valleys and he hopes to go again before the present year is out, for he has been terribly moved by the reports of suffering among people already hard it as a result of the recent floods.

His services to Wales have included membership for some years of the Council of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion who quite rightly gave him their Gold Medal, and also the Council of the Celtic Congress, in the affairs of which he has always been interested. It is a pity, however, that the mass of men and women and young folk, too, in the Principality do not yet know more of this great man whose heart beats in unison with their own.

Helping Young Writers

Of the man himself you will get, perhaps, the best notion from one of his most famous poems, “Autobiography,” which he recited to me before I left him.

Here it is:

“Wales England wed; so I was bred.
‘Twas merry London gave me breath,
I dreamt of love, and fame: I strove.
But Ireland taught me love was best:
And Irish eyes, and London cries, and streams of Wales may tell the rest,
What more than these I asked of Life I am content to have from Death.”

The love he learnt from Ireland was through his charming and accomplished Irish wife, Grace Little, of Co. Roscommon, who before she dies 10 years ago had written many delightful books and compiled a now well-known Celtic anthology. Her death was a great blow to Ernest Rhys, who has now given up the home which they had in the country and has left him, as he describes himself, “a wanderer.”

But he wanders always with interest and a purpose. A great walker throughout his life, he, at 80, strides out still. And so, too, does his mind, for he is not merely tolerant but actively encouraging to the young writers of our time who, he sees, are, like Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden, vital, arresting figures on the literary horizon.

Picture of Ernest Rhys
Ernest Rhys, Miner, Author, Poet 27.05.1946

The death occurred on Saturday in a London nursing home after a long illness of Mr. Ernest Rhys, author and poet, and editor of the “Everyman” Library, which now numbers nearly 1,000 volumes. He was in his 87th year.

His father was a Carmarthen man, his mother a native of Herefordshire, and he was born in Islington, though he spent the greater part of his boyhood in his father’s native town.

At 16 he went to work in a Durham pit and became a mining engineer, but 10 years later he sought to earn a living with his pen in London. He was starving in a garret when two representatives of a publisher visited him to invite him to edit a series of books. They had mistaken him for a namesake, Professor John Rhys, an Oxford scholar. Ernest Rhys persuaded him to let him undertake the work, and the result was the “Camelot” series, which proved a success.

Literary work was thereafter plentiful, culminating in the “Everyman” Library, of which he was editing the 965th volume in 1940 when his autobiography “Wales England Wed” appeared.

A vice-president of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, he took active interest in London Welsh movements. Author of many publications, including Welsh ballads and one the Welsh coast, he helped W. B. Yeats form the “Rhymers’ Club,” which met for some time as the Cheshire Cheese in the Strand.

He married Grace, youngest daughter of Bennett Little, of County Roscommon. She died in 1929.

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