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Lewis, Alunfree

(1915–1944)
  • Jon Stallworthy

Lewis, Alun (1915–1944), poet and short-story writer, was born on 1 July 1915 in Cwmaman, Glamorgan, the eldest in the family of three sons and one daughter of Thomas John Lewis (1885–1964), a schoolmaster, and his wife, Gwladys Elizabeth (1884–1979), teacher, daughter of Melchizedec Evans, a Unitarian minister. He grew up in a depressed community and would never forget what he saw there:

I used to watch the wheel of the pit spin round year after year, after school and Saturdays and Sundays; and then from 1926 on I watched it not turning at all, and I can't ever get that wheel out of my mind.

Selected Poetry, 9

From Glynhafod elementary school, Aberdâr, he won a scholarship to Cowbridge grammar school, Glamorgan, a tough boarding establishment. He was unhappy there but, determined not to slip back into the pits where his grandfather had wielded a pick, worked hard and won scholarships both to Jesus College, Oxford, and the University College of Aberystwyth. Having to choose between being 'poor in Oxford or comfortable in Aber.', he chose Aberystwyth, where he worked on the university magazine, published his first poems and stories, and dabbled in left-wing politics. He left Aberystwyth in 1935 with a first-class degree in history, for Manchester, from which he returned a year later, with an MA, to take a teacher-training course at Aberystwyth.

In 1938 Lewis took a job in a Welsh secondary school, but could see the shadow of war approaching and worried over the problem of pacifism. In a letter to Richard Mills dated 30 May 1939 he wrote:

I have a deep sort of fatalist feeling that I'll go. Partly because I want to experience life in as many phases as I'm capable of—i.e. I'm more a writer than a moralist, I suppose. But … I'm not going to kill. Be killed perhaps, instead.

Selected Poetry, 18

He joined up in the spring of 1940 and spent the next two years moving from camp to camp around England with the Royal Engineers. During this period and against this background he wrote the poems of Raiders Dawn and the short stories of The Last Inspection, both published in 1942. Poems and stories alike reveal a compassionate concern for the victims of oppression and tyranny: Welsh miners, private soldiers, women, and children. Lewis never forgot that the military chain of command replicates the social scale, and the issues of the class war meant more to him than those of the fighting war.

On 5 July 1941 Lewis married Gweno Mererid Ellis, a 28-year-old schoolteacher and daughter of William Ellis, furniture dealer. That October he was commissioned as a reluctant second lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers. A year later, taking leave of his wife with some piercing poems of separation, he set sail for India. There, troubled by the poverty of the peasants and his own involuntary role as a supporter of the imperial system, he became, as he wrote to Richard Mills on 3 March 1943, 'more and more engrossed with the single poetic theme of Life and Death' (Selected Poetry, 53).

On leave in the Nilgiri hills in July 1943, Lewis met—and fell instantly in love with—Freda Aykroyd, wife of a scientist eleven years her senior. Two months later, she and Lewis met in Bombay and became lovers. Their happiness was clouded, however, by the prospect of distress to their respective spouses. In November Lewis fell ill with malaria, which left him exhausted and increasingly prone to depression. His Indian writings reflect the turmoil of his emotional life in their recurrent images of sunlight and darkness. As in the work of his favourite poet, P. Edward Thomas, the darkness is often that of the forest. One of Lewis's more ambitious poems, 'The Jungle', ends with a question—

does the will's long struggle endWith the last kindness of a foe or friend?

—a question answered on 5 March 1944 when, hours before the start of his first patrol against the Japanese at Bawli Bazar on the north Burma coast, he did himself that kindness with a shot from his own revolver; his body was buried the same day in Bawli north military cemetery. He had no children.

Sources

  • A. Lewis, Ha! Ha! among the trumpets: poems in transit (1945)
  • A. Lewis, Letters from India (1946)
  • A. Lewis, In the green tree (1948)
  • Alun Lewis: selected poetry and prose, ed. I. Hamilton (1966)
  • Alun Lewis: a miscellany of his writings, ed. J. Pikoulis (1982)
  • J. Pikoulis, Alun Lewis: a life (1984)

Archives

  • NL Wales, corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • NL Wales, typescript drafts of writings
  • NL Wales, letters to Brenda Chamberlain
  • NL Wales, letters to John Petts

Likenesses

  • J. Petts, two engravings, repro. in Pikoulis, Alun Lewis

Wealth at Death

£390 19s. 7d.: probate, 12 Dec 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales