Week 514: In Hospital: Poona, by Alun Lewis

This week another from the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (see also weeks 48 and 258) who died aged twenty-eight while out in India in the Second World War, and again his subject is the pain of separation from home and loved ones that wartime entails. There are slight awkwardnesses about the poem, and still a few rags of rhetoric that he might have purged given time – I think in particular that the closing two lines are a bit forced – but for me any such flaws are far outweighed by the passion and precision of his remembrance.

In Hospital: Poona

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,
Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.

And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.
And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:

I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there,
And the great mountains, Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,

And also the small nameless mining valley
Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves –
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders –

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

Alun Lewis

Week 258: Song, by Alun Lewis

This is one of several poems of wartime separation and loss written by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (1915-1944), this one being unusual in that it is written from the woman’s point of view. The historical context is of course the Second World War but its message of grief is universal, and when I visited the beautiful Falklands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne, not far from where I live, it was this poem that came strongly to my mind: there were enough in that conflict too who never came home again to wives or sweethearts.

(On seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick.

The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there
And my heart was sick with care.

The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.

And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’

The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.

We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.

But oh, the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.

Alun Lewis

Week 48: All Day It Has Rained, by Alun Lewis

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 move 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 the 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.

I think that Alun Lewis, who died in Burma in 1944 aged only 28, was along with Keith Douglas the best of the British Second World War poets. This poem of his reminds us that the cost of war lies not only in death and destruction but in sundered lives and wasted time, yet the blank tense boredom of this particular wasted day seems at least partially redeemed by the poet’s beautiful interweaving of mood and weather.