Battle of the buildings

November 4, 2022 0 Comments
Felicia Hemans

Felicia Hemans, the leading woman poet of the Romantic period in Britain, came to Wales in 1800 when she was seven years old.  (Felicia Browne was her original name: her father, George, owned a wine-importing business.)  Her first home was a cottage near Abergele, before the family moved in 1809 to St Asaph to live in Bronwylfa, which belonged to her mother.

Felicia was well educated, mostly by herself with the help of the family library, and could speak all the main European languages, as well as Welsh.  She was already publishing poems in English by the age of fourteen, and attracted the attention of Shelley, before her marriage in 1812 to Alfred Hemans, an army officer (they had five sons before separating in 1818).

In 1825 Felicia moved from Bronwylfa to Rhyllon, a house less than half a mile away but on the other side of the river Clwyd, and stayed there till 1828 (her mother died the year before).  It was presumably while she was living at Rhyllon that she wrote a curious, playful poem called ‘Dramatic scene between Bronwylfa and Rhyllon’.  In it she anthropomorphises the two facing houses, and imagines an argument breaking out between them:


Bronwylfa, after standing for some time in silent contemplation of Rhyllon, breaks out into the following vehement strain of vituperation:

You ugliest of fabrics! you horrible eyesore!
I wish you would vanish, or put on a visor!
In the face of the sun, without covering or rag on,
You stand and outstare me, like any red dragon.
With your great green-eyed windows, in boldness a host,
(The only green things which, indeed, you can boast,)
With your forehead as high, and as bare as the pate
Which an eagle once took for a stone or a slate,
You lift yourself up, o’er the country afar,
As who would say, “Look at me! – here stands great R!”
I plant – I rear forest trees–shrubs great and small,
To wrap myself up in–you peer through them all!
With your lean scraggy neck o’er my poplars you rise;
You watch all my guests with your wide saucer eyes.

(In a paroxysm of rage.)

You monster! I would I could waken some morning,
And find you had taken French leave without warning;
You should never be sought like Aladdin’s famed palace.
You spoil my sweet temper – you make me bear malice:
For it is a hard fate, I will say it and sing,
Which has fix’d me to gaze on so frightful a thing.

Rhyllon (with dignified equanimity):

Content thee, Bronwylfa, what means all this rage?
This sudden attack on my quiet old age?
I am no parvenu: you and I, my good brother,
Have stood here this century facing each other;
And I can remember the days that are gone,
When your sides were no better array’d than my own.

Nay, the truth shall be told–since you flout me, restore
The tall scarlet woodbine you took from my door!
Since my baldness is mocked, and I’m forced to explain,
Pray give me my large laurustinus again.

(With a tone of prophetic solemnity.)

Bronwylfa! Bronwylfa! thus insolent grown,
Your pride and your poplars alike must come down!
I look through the future (and far I can see,
As St Asaph and Denbigh will answer for me,)
And in spite of thy scorn, and of all thou hast done,
From my kind heart’s brick bottom, I pity thee, Bron!
The end of thy toiling and planting will be,
That thou wilt want sunshine, and ask it of me.
Thou wilt say, when thou wakest, looking out for the light,
‘I suppose it is morning, for Rhyllon looks bright;’
While I – my green eyes with their tears overflow.


Come! – let us be friends, as we were long ago.


Bronwylfa dated from the seventeenth century.  We know how it looked at the time, at least from the outside, because Felicia did a drawing of the building, later reproduced as an engraving.  A central three-storey block with a central porched door was flanked by two-storey tower-like wings, and there was an extension, possibly including stables, clearly shown in a later engraving.   It’s a large and comfortable-looking gentleman’s residence.  


Bronwylfa does not survive, but Rhyllon still stands today (it is a listed Grade II building).  It probably dates from the seventeenth century, but was redesigned in the eighteenth, when it had three floors (reduced to two, with dormer windows above, in the nineteenth century).  Unlike Bronwylfa, its walls are of brick, with a slate roof and brick chimneys.


As the larger, stone-built house, the voice of Bronwylfa in Hemans’s poem could afford to take a superior view of its neighbour.  It also makes much of the fact that it’s shaded from the sun, and presumably the prying eyes of others, by poplar trees (some are visible in front of the house in Hemans’s drawing).  Rhyllon, by contrast, was brick-built, and lacked tree cover.  It stood on a hillside, ‘like any red dragon’ (dragons, presumably, were a marker of plebeian status in Wales).  Its windows, Bronwylfa continues, are over-large, and the frontage too large and plain, like the bald head of the playwright Aeschylus, the target of the eagle’s stone that was supposed to have killed him.

Rhyllon replies that it is at least as old as its neighbour, and that Bronwylfa was once a more modest property (before its extensions were built?).  Shrubs and creepers once adorned Rhyllon, even if it looks bare now.  As its trees grow Bronwyfa will come to regret that it is in constant shadow, and will envy Rhyllon’s sunshine.  So let’s call it quits, Rhyllon finishes, and be friends, as we were long ago.

It’s unclear what occasioned the poem, but you can imagine the family conversations about the move from Bronwylfa to the more modest Rhyllon, possibly made necessary by a drop in income (Alfred Hemans having decamped to Canada by now): ‘Why did we have to leave the old place, Mummy, we were so fond of it?’; ‘But the new one is just as good, darling, and so much less gloomy!’

Bronwylfa (John Douglas)

Today Bronwylfa and Rhyllon are separated for good, not just by the river but by the thunderous roar of the A55.  Bronwylfa’s later history is colourful.  In the 1860s Hemans’s building was destroyed by fire.  It was rebuilt as a huge mock-Jacobean pile in about 1884 by the prolific architect John Douglas, but this in turn burnt down in the late 1930s and was rebuilt.  Another house, now renamed Richmond Hall, arose and became the home of a local gangster, John Damien Gizzi, and then the site of a large cannabis farm (all concerned were sent to gaol).

Before her death in Dublin in 1835, Felicia Hemans wrote a large amount of poetry and prose, much of it religious in nature.  Wales featured in many of her poems, and in 1822 she published A selection of Welsh melodies, with music by John Parry (Bardd Alaw): the lyrics were her own work and show a keen interest in Welsh poetry and history.  But she was equally content to celebrate the values of British imperialism, as in ‘Casabianca’ (‘The boy stood on the burning deck’).  Another much-parodied poem, ‘The stately homes of England’ expands on the proverb ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, and returns to the ‘Bronwylfa and Rhyllon’ themes of cherished homes and social distinctions:

The stately homes of England,
   How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
   O’er all the pleasant land.
The deer across their greensward bound
   Thro’ shade and sunny gleam,
And the swan glides past them with the sound
   Of some rejoicing stream.

The free, fair homes of England!
   Long, long, in hut and hall,
May hearts of native proof be rear’d
   To guard each hallow’d wall!
And green for ever be the groves,
   And bright the flowery sod,
Where first the child’s glad spirit loves
   Its country and its God! 

Felicia Hemans memorial window, St Asaph Cathedral

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