Melesina Bowen’s ‘Ystradffin’

December 24, 2021 2 Comments

In recent years many Welsh women poets of the past have been rescued from the condescension of posterity, not least in the anthology edited by Katie Gramich and Catherine Brennan.  But one of them has so far escaped much attention.  In 1839 Melesina Bowen published an unusual topographical poem in English called Ystradffin.  It deserves to be better known.

Ruth Bidgood has done much to uncover Melesina’s connection with Wales.  Her parents were Thomas and Frances Clay, and she was born in Coventry in 1778.  In 1801 she married Lewis Bowen, the heir to Cefntrenfa, a farmstead south of Cil-y-cwm in the upper Tywi valley in Carmarthenshire (his father, Lewis Lloyd Bowen, was a substantial landowner).  Lewis was born in 1778, the same year as his wife.  He became an army surgeon and was posted to many different locations, including Coventry, where presumably he met Melesina.  When his father died he inherited Cefntrenfa In 1804, and came to live there with his wife.

The current house of Cefntrenfa replaced an earlier building.  It dates from the late eighteenth century (two smaller extensions were added later).  Over the front door of the well-proportioned façade is a central Venetian window, with a smaller, semi-circular window immediately below the steep gable.  The farm was a flourishing one, to judge from the long range of farm buildings, including stables and a granary and barn; a nearby spring fed a triangular pond that survives today.

Llandovery castle

At Cefntrenfa Melesina was no stand-offish English ‘ex-pat’.  She clearly immersed herself in her Welsh home, and in the history and culture of its neighbourhood.  By 1839 she was ready to give to the world some of what she had learned to love.  In that year William Rees, of the Tonn Press in Llandovery, printed a 190-page book entitled Ystraffin: a descriptive poem, with an appendix, containing historical and explanatory notes, by Mrs Bowen.  The book had two publishers, William Rees himself, and a major London firm, Longman, Orme, Green, Brown and Longmans, an indication that Melesina had two audiences in mind: readers in south Wales and a metropolitan public in London.  She was already an experienced poet, and Ystradffin was by no means her first publication.  Listed at the end of the book are three other volumes of poems : Kenilworth Castle and other poems (1818), A wreath from the willows (1829) and The village bride (1829), and an allegorical story for children, The great wheel, or The fair field of fortune: a dream (1830).

Cil-y-Cwm church

In her short introduction, dated April 1839, Melesina sets out her aim:

The object of this Poem is, to bring before the Public a small portion of the beautiful scenery of South Wales, by adding, not only the attraction of fiction, but also by a reference to real personages and facts, of which no doubt can be entertained, however they may differ under the touch of a long succession of Narrators. 

Information on the ‘real personages and facts’ is given in a long appendix, ‘the result of many years attention to the subject’.  It consists of a series of often lengthy notes on places, historical figures and customs, including coracles, Rhys Prichard, the triple harp and bidding letters.

The poem’s setting, the introduction says, is the upper Tywi valley, from Llandovery to the Cardiganshire border.  Its history and stories are well known, and the area has ‘been visited during the Summer months by numerous parties, not unfrequently by Strangers from distant parts of the Kingdom.’  The poem will take the form of a guided tour given by a local to just such a stranger.

Gallt y Tlodion

And so the poem, written in iambic rhyming couplets, begins.  We start at Llandovery castle.  The poet makes a point of using the Welsh form ‘Llanymddyfri’, and throughout she’s anxious to avoid anglicisation: she may not have been a fluent Welsh speaker, but her grasp of Welsh was good enough to appreciate much of Welsh-speaking culture.  Here we meet the Stranger.  He declares a preference for the peace of the castle’s ruins as they are now over the conflicts of when it was in its prime. He’s come here, tired of the many distractions of the urban world, to discover what nature has to offer him.  He finds a ‘practis’d Guide’, a man who in his youth was a keen huntsman and expert in the local countryside.  We shouldn’t, we’re told, take him for a peasant: he’s proud of his ancient ancestry.

The tourist and his mentor decide on a route, an ‘excursive plan / the beauteous scenes around to scan’.  They set off on horseback early in the day, ‘while still / the morning mist roll’d down the hill’ (a footnote tells us that ‘the Welsh peasants foretell fair weather when the mist rolls down the hills in the morning’).  The Stranger insists on climbing up to the church at Llanfair-ar-y bryn and admiring the view.  He notices ‘Allt-y-tlodi’ (today, Gallt y Tlodion).  The appendix explains this was woodland from which the townspeople enjoyed an ancient right to collect firewood for free, thanks to the generosity of Vicar Prichard in the sixteenth century.

Dolauhirion Bridge

They pass Tonn and arrive at William Edwards’s famous stone bridge at Dolauhirion:

And Dolauhirion Bridge is near,
And beauteous Towy deep and clear,
Over its rocky bed is leaping,
Or in its dark caves silent sleeping,
Or forming frightful whirlpools there,
Or sparkling in the sunny air,
Romantic, awful, beauteous still,
From its first source of mountain rill,
Until it forms Caerfyrddin’s pride,
The consort of old ocean’s tide.

In the appendix Melesina notes that from the bridge there’s a choice of two roads towards Ystradffin, one on each bank of the river; she recommends, to the Stranger and to the reader, the one through Cil-y-cwm.   At Erryd the Guide reminds the Stranger how violent the Tywi can be when in flood, and recalls the time when he was caught up in the aftermath of a waterspout that caused widespread destruction.  This, according to Melesina’s appendix note, happened in 1808 (‘the description of its effects here given is closely confined to the accounts received at the time’).  The flood, says the Guide, washed away a shepherd’s cottage, and all its meagre contents, including a metal ‘crochan’:


But that brass pan, as some will tell,
Floated along the wild waves swell,
Just like a coracle, but bright,
And many a silly crone did fright;
And then, (a lengthen’d voyage past,)
At Llyn-yr-hên-bont sunk at last;
That deep dark pool we now are near
And Henllys walks are lovely there.

Now the two can see Melesina’s own home, Cefntrenfa, to the west, high above the river:

And Erryd to the right is here;
And on the left hand, rising still,
Stands Cefntrenfa, on the hill,
Casting a side-long glance of pride
O’er Cae’r-allt-fach’s fair sloping side.

Neuadd Fawr

Next they come to the village of Cil-y-cwm – ‘tis a poor village, Sir and mean / not over large, not over clean’ – with its church and the modest former home of ‘Daniel the Harper’ (1750-1811), a noted blind harpist known from other sources.  Beyond Cil-y-cwm, below the heights of Craig Rhosan and Y Foel, is Neuadd Fawr, the mansion, now a ruin, that belonged in Melesina’s day to Captain Richard Davys.  The Guide laments his death in 1831 at the age of 55 (‘that eye is shut, that hand is cold! / All that was mortal, in the tomb; / Oh! How unlook’d for was the doom!’).

Further upstream, Craig Mwyn is where Lord Cawdor’s lead miners toil.

Deep buried in whose gloomy sides,
The shining pond’rous metal hides;
The vaulted cave’s unequal height,
Beset with spar, and crystals bright,
Conceals the multitude within …

The pair cross the Tywi by a ford, Rhyd Pengarreg, easily passable in summer: ‘… fearlessly the mountain maiden / Steps o’er, barefooted, and well laden’ is glossed by a footnote, ‘This I have more than once seen while crossing’.  By the riverside stands a small building, the ‘Miner’s Arms’.

The hills now close in as the two travellers as they ride north-east into the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains:

So still their rambles they pursue,
With lofty Dinas full in view.
The crumbling rock, with moss o’ergrown,
The crystal streamlet trickling down,
The rushy swamp, the crisped heath,
Crackling the hasty foot beneath …
… Masses immense, promiscuous hurl’d,
Speak the convulsions of a world,
Which sequent centuries have drest,
With shrubs, and herbs, and mossy crest.

Towards Ystradffin

They’ve arrived now at their destination, Ystradffin and the cave of the legendary trickster Twm Siôn Cati.  At the mouth of the cave they eat a picnic while the Guide reads long passages from a manuscript book he says an older friend gave to him years before: first, ‘Calangauaf’, about a Calan Gaeaf fair held long ago at Ystradffin, with wine, dancing, a harper singing of Welsh princes, and teenage romances; then, in ‘Llyn-yr-hen-bont’, the doomed romance of Blethyn and Esyllt; and then, in ‘Cwrt y Cadno’ and ‘Capel Peilin’, the happier story of Angharad and Twm Siôn Cati. 

When the Guide falls silent, so too does the narrative.  The Stranger and the Guide go their separate ways, never to meet again, and ‘Ystradffin’ winds to its melancholy end:

Twm Sion Cati’s cave

Where is the Stranger? where the Guide?
Whose rambling words our theme supplied;
Where is the rock, the stream, the hill,
Whose pictur’d charms would volumes fill?
The rock, the hill, the stream remain,
To seek the Wand’rers were in vain;
They parted each a devious way,
Along life’s wilderness it lay,
Where many a joy and many a sorrow
The empire of the hour might borrow;
Yet ev’ry joy and sorrow too,
Was fleeting as the morning dew!

Ystradffin is a ‘descriptive’ poem, according to its author.  Today we’d be inclined to call it ‘topographical’, and to place it in an established tradition of topographical poetry.  As it happens, the genre, in English verse at least, was pioneered, if not actually invented, elsewhere in the Tywi valley.  John Dyer wrote his poem ‘Grongar Hill’ over a hundred years earlier, in 1726.  With its painterly view of the hill (Dyer was also an artist as well as a writer), its personal approach, and its gentle moralising, it quickly became a model for those writing about rural place. 

Above Rhandirmwyn

By contrast, Melesina Bowen, for all her philosophising, doesn’t follow the Dyer model.  His poem mentions only one other geographical feature, the river, and otherwise abstracts the hill from its topographical and cultural context.  She scatters real places and their names generously across the first part of her poem.  They give the landscapes she describes a solidity and particularity that’s entirely missing from ‘Grongar Hill’.  And they’re not just decorations; they’re at the heart of the poem’s meaning.  The named bridges and fords, farms and mansions, woods and crags, the river that flows through the whole poem – they combine to create an entire local world, with its unique geographical and human landscape.  In Wales, Richard Llwyd’s poem of 1800, Beaumaris Bay, with its many detailed explanatory notes, is a much closer model for Ystradffin.  But Melesina Bowen’s poem, at least in its first half, adds another, dynamic element to the topographical poem: human movement through the landscape.  The device of the Stranger and Guide allows her to share with us the sensation of travelling up-river, as if we were walking or riding along the roads and tracks ourselves.  As we progress we realise that we’re in the presence of our own expert guide, who stops now and then to give us the background, through her appendix and footnotes, to what we’re seeing.  Ystradffin is a moving poem, in a most literal sense, as well as one grounded in a deep knowledge of and love for her environment.

Little is known about the later career of Lewis Bowen.  He may have continued to travel, with Cefntrenfa as his base.  The house was advertised to let in 1812, and in 1821 Lewis was living in Lower Wick, Worcestershire.  He was dead by 1842.  His brother William is recorded as living in Cefntrenfa before his own death in 1833.  It’s therefore possible that he and Melesina had left Wales for good by then, and that Ystradffin is a poem of retrospective affection.  The couple had two daughters, who died young, and three sons, each of which became a surgeon. 

Glenmore, Durban

After Lewis’s death Melesina lived for a time in Greenwich with her sons, and spent time in Brazil with her youngest son.  In the 1840s they moved to South Africa and settled in Glenmore, a suburb of Durban in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. The son soon died and was buried in the garden of their small house, called ‘Kefentrenfa’.  Melesina was remembered fondly by a close Durban friend as a ‘peculiar’ woman, who would not let anyone live with her, or most other woman to be with her.  She died in 1861 aged 83.  Two roads in Glenmore are named after her, Melesina Avenue and Bowen Avenue.

Ystradffin is a poem that deserves more attention.  It may be uneven – the second part fails to match the first – and its metre can be clunky and lacking in variety.  Ruth Bidgood, herself a poet, calls it ‘no masterpiece, but competent’.  But it’s unusual in its take on the topographical poem, and it’s clearly written with great understanding of, and sympathy for, the upper Tywi valley and its people.  When summer returns it will be tempting to walk the twelve miles or so along the Tywi from Llandovery to Ystradffin, following in the footsteps of the Stranger and the Guide, text in hand.

Ruth Bidgood, ‘The Lewis and Bowen families at Cefntrenfa, Cilycwm’, Carmarthenshire Antiquary, vol.48, 2012, p.38-50.

Comments (2)

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  1. Gill Lewis says:

    Facinating to read about the history of her marital home. I love to dwell on the varied fortunes and organic growth of both house and occupants. To read her poetry is like wearing a pair of her no doubt sturdy leather lace up boots…We spent time walking along The Tywi last spring, a truly wonderful sight when the river in in full pelt, but I must admit we declined the very steep,slippery,slimy steps up to Twm Soon Cati’s cave…self preservation was paramount! For a woman of her times Melesina travelled much, Coventry, Wales,Greenwich, Brazil and South Africa….Diolch Andrew

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