Tuesday Poem: 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 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.

Alun Lewis
First Published in Horizon, 1941.
Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, ed. Jeremy Hooker & Gweno Lewis
Unwin Paperbacks 1981

It's the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which ranks as one of the most brutal and senseless slaughters of WWI.   Over a million men were killed or wounded and it is the most costly battle in military history. All that was gained was a few kilometres of ground without any strategic importance.

Alun Lewis is a poet of WW2 and his work has a quiet, lyrical brilliance. He's good at narrative - focusing on telling detail (he also wrote short fiction).  In this poem he's in training for war up on the moors in Edward Thomas country, thinking about his predecessor both as soldier and poet.

War hasn't changed much.  We still have 'the loud celebrities/Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;'.  What this poem does is focus on the dichotomy in a soldier's life - 'we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome' - the constant clash between the horror of war and the mundane details of every day.

Alun is famous for his letters to Gweno, his wife, and the poems he wrote for her. But he fell deeply in love with Freda Ackroyd when stationed in India in 1943, writing passionate love letters that have also been published (A Cypress Walk - Enitharmon Press).  When he was reassigned to his regiment after sick leave, he wrote to her on December 30th 1943 of his repugnance for war.  "I'm afraid of the fighting when it comes. I'll loathe it so utterly, & be so faithless to Life, beloved Life." His personal situation and beliefs created a turmoil which he couldn't resolve.

'A trackless wilderness divides
Joy from its cause, the motive from the act:
The killing arm uncurls, strokes the soft moss;
The distant world is an obituary'

 He died in March 1944, in Burma, with a bullet through the head from his own revolver. The military inquest brought in a verdict of 'accidental death' but this may well have been to spare his family the anguish of 'suicide'.  It makes the last line of the above poem very poignant. 


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