Alun Lewis was born on 1 July 1915, exactly one year before the first day of the Battle of the Somme, at Cwmaman, a South Wales mining village. His father was a school teacher; his three brothers worked in the mines. From a young age, Lewis felt he had a vocation to be a writer. He was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School and at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. He undertook postgraduate work at Manchester University and trained as a teacher. He was unsuccessful in his wish to become a journalist and instead earned his living as a supply teacher.
As a boy, Alun Lewis had discovered and greatly admired the work of Edward Thomas, an admiration that continued for the rest of his life. He had written poetry from an early age, but between the Winter of 1939 and the Autumn of 1940, he matured as a poet and his first published collection, Raiders Dawn and Other Poems, was published in 1942, establishing him as one of the outstanding war poets. He describes the loneliness of military life, the effect new places had on him and the experience of love with extraordinary maturity. The volume of his short stories, The Last Inspection, was also published that year and showed that he was equally distinguished as a prose writer.
Despite his Pacifist leanings, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1940, In November 1942 he sailed for India and in early 1944 he was moved to the Burmese front. On his way, at Arakan in Lower Burma, he was killed in a mysterious incident involving his own pistol.
Alun Lewis’s second book of poems, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, was published posthumously in August 1945 with a foreword by Robert Graves, whose eldest son David had also been killed in the Arakan. Robert Graves had corresponded with Lewis and helped him with this collection.
Alun Lewis married Gweno Ellis in 1941 and much of his fine love poetry is addressed to her.
ALL DAY IT HAS RAINED
All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap
And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap,
All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,
Drenching the gorse and heather, a gossamer stream
Too light to stir the acorns that suddenly
Snatched from their cups by the wild south-westerly
Pattered against the tent and our upturned dreaming faces.
And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,
Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks,
Reading the Sunday papers – I saw a fox
And mentioned it in the note I scribbled home;
And we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome,
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;
-Yet thought softly, morosely of them, and as indifferently
As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
Tomorrow maybe love; but now it is the rain
Possesses us entirely, the twilight and the rain.
And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard’s merry play
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o’ Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song.
Vanessa Davis, February 2005.
Channel4.com’s microsite for its TV documentary: Soldier Poets (First shown November 2003):
Biography of Alun Lewis.
- UK National Register of Archives (4 records).
- Finding List of papers held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth: Papers of Alun Lewis, 1915-44, poet, compiled by Mary Davies, 1990.
- Search the Location Register of 20th-Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters based at the University of Reading, England.
- (NB: for comprehensive results, but these may contain some irrelevant material, click on blue box marked “Search Location Register” and type “Alun Lewis” in the box marked “words or phrase”. For more precise results, enter instead the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Lewis, Alun, 1915-1943” in the same box. Do not type the quotation marks in either case.)