Raiders' Dawn, and Other Poems, 1942
Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: Poems in Transit, 1945
Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, 1981
Collected Poems, 1994
The Last Inspection, 1942
In the Green Tree, 1948
Collected Stories, 1990
Letters from India, 1946
Letters to My Wife, 1989
Selected Poetry and Prose, 1966
Alun Lewis: A Miscellany of His Writings, 1982
Alun Lewis was, like Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas, an important young British poet killed in World War II. He was the eldest of four children born to Thomas J. Lewis, who had escaped spending life as a miner by becoming a teacher, and Gwladys Evans Lewis, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. She and her future husband had met at a suffragist meeting shortly before World War I, in which he was wounded. Thomas Lewis spoke Welsh and English, but his wife and their children spoke English only. They enjoyed a close family life, although Alun evidently felt the displacement many oldest children feel when siblings arrive. At eleven, he won a scholarship that took him to board at Cowbridge Grammar School near Cardiff. In the somewhat spartan life of such schools during that period, he kept private his feelings of isolation and unhappiness, while succeeding at sports, especially field hockey, and at academics. He excelled at English, history, and debating and contributed six stories to the school magazine.
Lewis did well in the scholarship examination at the traditionally Welsh Jesus College, Oxford, but, since he was only sixteen, he was advised to apply again the next year. In the interim, however, he accepted a scholarship to the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. Here again he distinguished himself on the hockey field and in the classroom; his thesis on forestry administration in the thirteenth century earned him first-class honors in history. He won another scholarship, to Manchester University, where he earned a master’s degree with a thesis on the activities of a papal legate in England in the thirteenth century. Discouraged about the practical benefits of doing further research, he returned to Aberystwyth for a year’s training as a teacher, qualifying in the summer of 1938. During his years at the university, some of his stories and poems appeared in student periodicals and in national newspapers, such as The Observer and The Manchester Guardian.
Late in 1938 he began teaching in a grammar school. Yet he remained unsure about his future, especially the problem of whether to remain a pacifist if Great Britain went to war against Adolf Hitler. The next spring, he chanced to meet Gweno Ellis, who had been on the undergraduates’ council with him four years previously, and they fell in love. In May, 1940, while the Nazis swept triumphantly across Western Europe, he abruptly resigned from teaching and went to London with the intention of joining Gweno’s brother in the Merchant Navy. There was no suitable job for him with the crew he had hoped to join–luckily, because that crew’s ship was torpedoed on its next voyage, with only one survivor. Meanwhile, Lewis responded to a poster calling for dockers to enlist in the Royal Engineers.
During his training in Hampshire, Lewis became strongly influenced by the poetry of Edward Thomas, who had lived in the vicinity prior to being killed in World War I. Several of Lewis’s poems, notably “To Edward Thomas” and the much-anthologized “All Day It Has Rained,” have marked affinities with Thomas’s poems.
On July 5, 1941, he married Gweno Ellis. Although Lewis disliked the snobbish mentality of the officer class, he underwent officer training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers. While training in Dorset, he discovered Clouds Hill, the cottage where T. E. Lawrence lived and wrote in the 1930’s. Lewis formed a lasting bond with Lawrence; like Lewis, Lawrence was born in Wales, preferred the comradeship of the ranks to the often unearned superiority of the officers, served in India, and had a close friendship with Robert Graves. A visit to Lawrence’s home is the topic of Lewis’s story “Dusty Hermitage,” included in The Last Inspection. This volume of stories was well received by the critics, as was Raiders’ Dawn, and Other Poems, published a few months before. Robert Graves’s radio comments on Lewis’s poetry led the latter to initiate the friendly correspondence between them (they would never meet).
In October, 1942, Lewis went on overseas service with his regiment. Sailing via Brazil and South Africa, where he noted the ominous effects of apartheid, he reached India in December. Always prone to accidents, within a month Lewis had broken his jaw in a soccer game and was hospitalized for a painful six weeks in Poona. This experience resulted in several poems and stories, including “The Earth Is a Syllable.” The latter title is derived from the Upanishads and is symptomatic of the growing influence India was having on him. In the story, a soldier reflects, “He’d always known he’d die if he caught up with [the war] in Burma,” an ironic prophecy of Lewis’s fate a year later. Another profoundly affecting experience happened later, in 1943, when he met and immediately fell in love with Freda Aykroyd, a gentle and sympathetic married woman living in India. Their intense relationship was documented in letters from both as well as in Lewis’s later poems.
Early in 1944 Lewis was part of a British force moving from India into northwest Burma to oppose the Japanese invaders. His fascination with the jungle is reflected in one of his last poems, “The Jungle,” in which description of its luxuriance is juxtaposed with moral reflections: “And though the state has enemies we know/ The greater enmity within ourselves.” In the last lines he ponders again the meaning of death: “Or does the will’s long struggle end/ With the last kindness of a foe or friend?” Early on March 5, 1944, he was found shot in the head with his revolver in his hand, one round fired. The assumption of suicide was not supported by his demeanor during the preceding period, and the official verdict ruled that the shooting was accidental.
Having never been in combat, Lewis is not a war poet in the sense that his contemporaries Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas were, and his work is even less like that of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. Yet Lewis’s experiences during almost three years of army service–moving from camp to camp, witnessing civilians suffering air-raids, and coming under the influence of the utterly different atmosphere of life in India–make him representative of many who served in World War II. This experience of waiting, threatened but frustrated, gave him the opportunity to probe his contradictory feelings about his quest for personal fulfillment. It also deepened his sympathy for those less privileged than himself, a sympathy that first focused on the people of the Welsh mining community and later extended to the colonial nations he encountered during the war. This humanity, both inner-and outer-directed, informs his poetry and his stories and gives them abiding value.