BOOK REVIEW / The tug of war: Fifty years ago in Burma, the young writer Alun Lewis was found dead, a gun in his hand. A new edition of his poems show his mastery of language, but the mystery of his life remains

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IN FEBRUARY 1944 the Sixth Battalion of the South Wales Borderers left India for a two-week journey by train and ship to Bawli Bazar in Burma, where they were to engage the Japanese. Lt Alun Lewis, the battalion's Intelligence Officer, wrote his last letter to his wife Gweno on 23 February: 'I philosophize and contemplate and remain neutral amid a massive hurry-scurry of regimental mankind . . . We must breathe free and keep our own world alive with sunlight and growth and health. The darkness and threats are from another part of ourselves. And the long torture I've been through is resolving itself now into a discipline of the emotions and hopes of you and me . . .'

He'd been in the army three and a half long years, training and retraining, eventually posted to India but still far from the action, a reluctant soldier more interested in engaging Rilke ('I asked him about silence, and what price one paid for going my way') than some unknown enemy. He felt closer to Indian peasants and their gods ('A little Vishnu of stone . . . Bidding me come alone') than to his fellow officers and the mad rumblings of the war machine. On 6 March his commanding officer agreed that he should go on patrol up to the high ground at Goppe Pass; it wasn't strictly necessary, but the CO thought it would 'do him good' to be out and about. No dawn attack came, so Lewis breakfasted, shaved, and made off for the officers' latrine on the hillside, carrying his revolver. Moments later a shot was heard. Lewis's batman, Harry Tudor, ran out to find him lying on the ground, a bullet through his right temple, the revolver still in his hand. He died six hours later and was buried in a military cemetery alongside the river near Bawli Bridge, aged 28. His greetings telegram to Gweno arrived the next day, on her birthday.

A brief court of inquiry was held and a verdict of accidental death brought in. Apparently he had fallen or stumbled on the rough ground. The revolver struck a stone or a branch and discharged into his brain. In this official account the revolver was found lying on the ground, not in Lewis's hand. The death certificate read 'Killed as a result of an accidental revolver shot - wound of head'. He was posthumously awarded three medals, and Gweno got a pension.

There's not much doubt that in reality Alun Lewis pulled the trigger himself. But why? What burden did he impulsively lay down on that Sunday morning in March 50 years ago? There are at least three possible beginnings of an answer to this question, none of them entirely convincing, all having to do with a mixture of guilt and depression.

The first is that, as a lifelong visceral Socialist, pacifist and poet, he found the idea of taking another life, even an 'enemy' one, impossible. The second is his inability to reconcile his love for Gweno, and loyalty to all that she stood for, with the passionate love affair he had just had with a married woman called Freda Akroyd, in India. The third is the impact that the East and its ways of life and thought had had on his sensibility, one which had been riven by melancholy since boyhood, like that of his hero Edward Thomas. 'I am seeking less and less of world', he announced in his poem 'Karanje Village':

And Love must wait, as the unknown yellow poppy

Whose lovely fragile petals are unfurled

Among the lizards in this wasted land.

And when my sweetheart calls me shall I tell her

That I am seeking less and less of world?

And will she understand?

There's a whole web of allusion here, from Eliot and Keats to the visionary note struck by the Great War poets. But this poppy is yellow, not red - the Buddhist colour of acceptance and transcendence, rather than the passion-flower that bloomed on the Western Front. This is not death as the last best lover but some otherworldly amalgam of lizard and petal and sweetheart in a capitalised Love known only to the mystics, or (in an earlier verse) to 'Creation's silent matrix'. It is a theme that comes to dominate the later poetry, culminating in his fine valedictory poem 'The Jungle'.

No religion sanctions suicide, however. The affair with Freda might have been sorted out and assimilated, one way or another. He might not have had to kill; he might have found some way out of the jungle (which he liked instantly) and home to Wales. The mystery of his death remains, though we can weave explanatory circles around it, as we always do, crossing ourselves with scholarly footnotes. Enlightenment is most likely to come from his journals and the forthcoming and long overdue Collected Poems, which, together with the best of his short stories and letters, are his claim to our lasting attention.

LEWIS was born in Cwmaman, a small mining village in Mid-Glamorgan, on 1 July 1915, the eldest son of two schoolteachers, Tom and Gladwys. He won a scholarship to Cowbridge Grammar School, where he wrote stories for the school magazine, another one to read History at Aberystwyth, where he got a First, and a third to Manchester, where he ground his way miserably through his graduate studies, hating equally the 'evil streets' of the slums where he lived and the dusty politics of a 13th-century Papal legate called Ottobono, who helped settle the Barons' Revolt.

Meanwhile he wrote stories, poems, plays, bits and pieces of journalism, agonised over his uselessness, had unsatisfactory relationships with girls, failed to get jobs (much to his father's annoyance), trained as a teacher, quarried the rich seams of Rilke and DH Lawrence, and finally landed a job at a grammar school. So the late Thirties slipped away, while he dreamed himself into and out of Great Books and took himself up 'The Mountain over Aberdare' to be tempted by all the isms and abstractions of the age. In the poems and stories of the period his yearning is palpable, and there are fine moments in both, but they seldom go far without grandiose gestures and soulful personifications. 'I reach for the thing I feel; the words that come are only a cheap reproduction.'

He was close to his family, especially to his mother and his younger sister Mair, but in 1939 he met Gweno Ellis, a young German teacher who shared his interest in the arts. He found her 'a fountain of joy, very lively. We live together tempestuously'. That meant friendship, not sex, and grappling with the demons of depression. Gweno soon grew familiar with the 'cello of despair' which sounded in him, 'my self-hatred', 'my living Mr Death'. Later he wrote: 'I can't think without a cold sweat of the terrible anguish I lived in once, when I was 19, 20, 21.' To some extent this was a common fixation of the period, Keith Douglas's 'beast on my back', Sidney Keyes' 'meadows of despair', but in Lewis's case self-doubt and self-loathing ran wide and deep. Enlistment provided temporary relief.

'IN the army you begin again. All you are seems to have vanished.' He joined up in May 1940, originally hoping for a non-combatant job in the merchant navy, and was sent to a training centre at Longmoor in Hampshire. This was Edward Thomas country, where he walked the poet's walks, visited his house above Steep, and wrote the first and best-known of his early poems, '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 . . .

The moral climate and the physical one coalesce, perfectly capturing the boredom of army existence, the larger interregnum of the phoney war, the sacrifice of private life in dubious public rhetoric ('loud celebrities / Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees'). It also joins one world war with another. Those acorns snatched up and 'pattered against . . . our upturned dreaming faces' recall Rosenberg's lines about the song of the skylark dropping on 'our upturned listening faces' ('Returning, we hear the Larks'). What a soldier expects to fall out of the sky is not birdsong, nor acorns riding on a Shelleyan wild wind, but death. It is a moment of reversal, renewal, transcendence, all the more poignant for the relaxed, colloquial pentameters in which it occurs, the supple, un- Popeian couplets, the homely rhyme of 'faces' and 'braces'. It sounds more like a man musing to himself than leaping to answer the big questions of the time (and the ancillary one: 'Where are the war poets?'), yet it touches convincingly on both. Edward Thomas looms large, appropriately, as the passage goes on in what is almost a recension of one of his greatest poems, 'Rain'. There is a companion piece, 'To Edward Thomas', almost as fine, in which a 13-line sentence takes us to the limit of human sight, 'and the mind alone / Can find the sheeps' tracks and the grazing . . .' until it too possesses 'that hinted land' where dream merges with death.

Lewis married Gweno in June 1941, while he was on leave. Other postings took him to the east coast, where they watched out for air raids (hence Raiders' Dawn, his first book of poems, published in 1942), and to the Bovington tank range in Dorset, where he visited T E Lawrence's house, Clouds Hill, and identified with its writer-soldier-mystic owner. (See the short story 'Dusty Hermitage'.) After two and a half years of hanging around he shipped out to India, via South Africa. He was stationed near Poona, where he fractured his jaw in a hockey match and was hospitalised. (Later he was to return with dysentery. None of his injuries were the expected 'heroic' ones.) This experience, together with his interest in India's vastnesses and religions, triggered his greatest story, 'Ward 'O' 3(b)'. The baldness of the title matches the hopelessness of the men in the ward recovering from their physical and mental wounds. 'Well, I don't lick Lazarus's sores, Weston. I take the world the way it is,' says a fellow-patient to the Lewisian hero. We might take this as Lewis's angry verdict on himself, though of course it is also the immemorial ego of the thick-skinned proceeding on their way. The story ends on a gentle, lyric, brooding note - 'under the green strata of mosses the scaled goldfish moved slowly in their palaces of burning gold' - which anticipates the lush, colourful imagery of 'The Jungle', where the beauty and 'green indifference' of nature 'exudes a sinister content', one which is preferable to 'the slow poison of a meaning lost / And the vituperations of the just.'

One of those lost meanings is probably his love for Freda Akroyd, whom he had met in the summer of 1943. She and her husband, a food scientist, kept open house for British officers at Coonor in the Nilgiri hills, 100 miles south of Poona. It was, apparently, love at first sight. 'There was a frailty about him, a look of not belonging in all the horror and mess of war, that gave his white face and high forehead, his strange, blind-seeming eyes and soft voice a particular pathos,' Freda wrote. In his richest lines, interestingly enough, Lewis often identifies with moles, earthworms, snakes, dragonflies, creatures of touch and tact. She was a striking blonde, slightly older than him, with two children and a secure but unexciting marriage, and behind that an insecure childhood. Lewis's reaction was similarly swift: 'Beloved when we stood / And saw each other standing there / I did not know that all / The ordinary days / Had fallen from the earth . . .' ('The House'). He had been 'preparing . . . death', not 'love and its ache'.

'We hanker after one-ness, it's the dominant urge - monotheism, monogamy, the uniquely beloved,' he wrote on one occasion, and on another 'I'm not a monogamous creature . . . the guiding force in me seeks always the leading vision of love . . . 'Fidelity' is an expanding not a brittle ideal, I hope.' Freda had no intention of quitting 'the anchor' of her marriage, and was happy for it to co-exist with her 'romantic . . . never- thought-to-be-found love'. He, less worldly perhaps, or more nave, found it harder to reconcile this new love with betrayal of Gweno. The 'conflict of two tides of loving' washed over him incessantly. 'I would prefer to lie or die or not be born than hurt her like that.' Yet he goes on to insist that he has never felt a moment of guilt.

Quite when he told Gweno we don't know, but she was disturbed by the increasing sensuality of the poems he sent home, and in the Preface to Letters to My Wife she comments: 'Alun disapproved of his friends' affairs . . . Alas, his wisdom was only skin-deep and . . . he helter-skeltered deep into the toils himself.' There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of Alun and Freda's love, but if the poems are any guide there was a fair degree of fantasy and wish-fulfilment mixed up in it.

He spent his last six months training for Burma, unable to write much apart from letters, at odds with his new colonel, a martinet. His old melancholy redoubled. He dreaded the 'sterility' and the heat, certain that the war would go on for years and years. 'I've never been so cut off, so worthless, purposeless, unresponsive . . . It's a long time since my ancient enemy made such a determined attack on me.' Even his poems he regarded as 'half baked morbidities'. He was waiting for 'it', 'a showdown with fate', one which was swaddled in literary precedents yet fearfully close now in literal prospect. He prepared his second book of poems, Ha] Ha] Among the Trumpets, for publication, with help from Gweno and Robert Graves. The jungle was a revelation when he first encountered it, 'dark and soft like a mass of congealed blood'. Then came the last patrol, and 'the nervous clocktower of my being' fell.

LIKE the First, the Second World War claimed most of its best serving poets - Lewis at 28, Keith Douglas at 24, Drummond Allison at 22, Sidney Keyes at 21. Had they lived, Larkin (as he remarked himself) would not have been such a lonely eminence. 'I write always against the tug of war & the horror & tedium of it . . . all I'm trying to write is love,' said Lewis, reminding us, quite properly, that 'war poet' is a contradiction in terms. Not even Homer celebrates bloodshed (pace Christopher Logue's excited update), and nor does Kipling. The poetry is in the pity, as Owen said, and this links it indissolubly with the classic genres of elegy and lyric, ballad and ode (eg Owen's 'Strange Meeting').

Publication of Lewis's works has been painfully erratic, dogged by difficulty and delay, and even what we have now is far from complete. This is partly due to the estate, and the tact that necessarily extends to family and friends - Gweno is alive and well in south Wales, now in her late seventies - and partly, perhaps, to the ups and downs of literary fashion. There are two books of short stories, The Last Inspection (1942) and In the Green Tree (1948), and the two books of poems. Ian Hamilton edited a Selected Poetry and Prose (1966) and wrote a sympathetic Introduction. John Pikoulis wrote a useful but somewhat eccentric Life in 1984, including a medium's chats with Lewis beyond the grave, and collected various juvenilia and other unpublished material in his Miscellany (1982). Since then Seren Books has published Letters to My Wife (1989) and the Collected Stories (1991). Some day we may have the Complete Letters and Journals, and the 200 pages of an unfinished novel he left behind.

Why should we read him now? Because his concerns are still ours. His neglected stories, among the best of the mid-century, and his sensuous poems are alive with insight, observation, paradox. 'King Charles I's ideas with Oliver Cromwell's efficiency,' he remarked of the army. 'That's England all over. They never settle their differences, they always keep both sides going.' He was similarly clear-eyed about his beloved Wales, the great good place, yet one which he also imagines as the 'pursuing footsteps of the heavy-jawed deacon of Zion, with his white grocer's apron and hairy nostrils sniffing out corruption'.

The later poems alternate between song and narrative, ballad and descriptive pentameter, as though his mind divides between submissive lyric and irritable fact. The best ones, including 'The Jungle', arrange a marriage between the two. He belongs partly to that 'native' British tradition sometimes opposed to cerebral Modernism; but also to questioning, Thirties Auden and sage-summoning Yeats. Lewis puts it this way in one of his stories: 'Maybe if you could avoid saying Yes or No to life, and yet be free, you'd be stronger, better? Would you? How did the dust columns form? What did the Upanishads say? The earth is a syllable.'

His deepest instinct is to snuffle with the mole, crawl with the snake, hang 'leathery-arid' with the bat, hover with the dragonfly (a recurring image of evanescence and beauty), enrol himself among the outcasts, the gipsies, those whose wants have been pared to the bone, exult in moments when 'the act of being was no more than a fall of snow or the throw of a rainbow'. He had from an early age 'the deep stubborn urge to regard everything as a manifestation', to look through phenomena to something 'beyond', like Blake. Yet this damaged spirit-doctor with the soft voice and blind-seeming face, who never found his way out of the jungle, also said: 'Religion resides in our eyes rather than in our minds. We see; then we love.'

'Collected Poems of Alun Lewis', ed Cary Achard, is published by Seren Books this spring, at pounds 10.95. 'Alun Lewis: A Life' by John Pikoulis is published by Seren Books at pounds 8.95

(Photographs omitted)