Alun Lewis Goodbye Poem Analysis Essays

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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. 

Selected poems (text)

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic
An elementary school classroom in a slum
Fall of a city
Ultima ratio regum

Some Recent English Poetry (audio)

Introduced by Walter de la Mare with a commentary by the compiler, John Lehmann Prepared by The Writers' Group, the Society for Cultural Relations between the People of the British Commonwealth and the USSR Recorded by Levy's Sound Studios Ltd, London W1 in 1946

Walter de la Mare: Introduction and recital
John Lehmann: Compiler's introduction
T. S. Eiot: Triumphal March / Marina
Edith Sitwell: Still Falls the Rain / Heart and Mind
Cecil Day Lewis: The Rebuke / Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy
T. S. Eiot: Triumphal March / Marina
Stephen Spender: Stephen Spender: 1929 / The Conscript / Absence
Alun Lewis: Lines on a Tudor Mansion / Goodbye (read by David Peel)
Sidney Keyes & Frank Thomson: Europe's Prisoners (Keyes) / War Poets (Keyes) / Nikolai Gogol (Thompson) (read by David Peel)


Happy, they leap
Out of the surface
Of waves reflecting
The sun fragmented
To broken glass
By the stiff breeze
Across our bows.

Curving, they draw
And serifs with
Lashed tail and fin
Across the screen
Of blue horizon -
Of their delight
Outside, displaying
My heart within.

Across this dazzling
August morning
The dolphins write such
With power to wake
Me prisoned in
My human speech
They sign: ‘I AM!’


In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic

In railway halls, on pavements near the traffic,
They beg, their eyes made big by empty staring
And only measuring Time, like the blank clock.

No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament
To make them birds upon my singing tree:
Time merely drives these lives which do not live
As tides push rotten stuff along the shore.

- There is no consolation, no, none
In the curving beauty of that line
Traces on our graphs through history, where the oppressor
Starves and deprives the poor.

Paint here no draped despairs, no saddening clouds
Where the soul rests, proclaims eternity.
But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds
This Time forgets and never heals, far less transcends.



At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle
Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
Her hair a harp, the hand of a breeze follows
And plays, against the white cloud of the pillows.
Then, in a flush of rose, she woke and her eyes that opened
Swam in blue through her rose flesh that dawned.
From her dew of lips, the drop of one word
Fell like the first of fountains: murmured
'Darling', upon my ears the song of the first bird.
'My dream becomes my dream,' she said, 'come true.
I waken from you to my dream of you.'
Oh, my own wakened dream then dared assume
The audacity of her sleep. Our dreams
Poured into each other's arms, like streams.


An elementary school classroom in a slum

Far far from gusty waves these children's faces.
Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor.
The tall girl with her weighed-down head. The paper-
seeming boy, with rat's eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir
Of twisted bones, reciting a father's gnarled disease,
His lesson from his desk. At back of the dim class
One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,
Of squirrel's game, in the tree room, other than this.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare's head,
Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.
Belled, flowery, Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map
Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this world, are world,
Where all their future's painted with a fog,
A narrow street sealed in with a lead sky,
Far far from rivers, capes and stars of words.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked and the map a bad example
With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal--
For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes
From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children
Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel
With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.
All of their time and space are foggy slum.
So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

Unless, governor, teacher, inspector, visitor,
This map becomes their window and these windows
That shut upon their lives like catacombs,
Break O break open 'till they break the town
And show the children green fields and make their world
Run azure on gold sands and let their tongues
Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open
History is theirs whose language is the sun.


Fall of a city

All the posters on the walls
All the leaflets in the streets
Are mutilated, destroyed or run in rain,
Their words blotted out with tears,
Skins peeling from their bodies
In the victorious hurricane.

All the names of heroes in the hall
Where the feet thundered and the bronze throats roared,
Fox and Lorca claimed as history on the walls,
Are now angrily deleted
Or to dust surrender their dust,
From golden praise excluded.

All the badges and salutes
Torn from lapels and hands
Are thrown away with human sacks they wore
Or in the deepest bed of mind
They are washed over with a smile
Which launches the victors when they win.

All the lessons learned, unlearned;
The young, who learned to read, now blind
Their eyes with an archaic film;
The peasant relapses to a stumbling tune
Following the donkey`s bray;
These only remember to forget.

But somewhere some word presses
On the high door of a skull and in some corner
Of an irrefrangible eye
Some old man memory jumps to a child
- Spark from the days of energy.
And the child hoards it like a bitter toy.


Ultima ratio regum

The guns spell money's ultimate reason
In letters of lead on the spring hillside.
But the boy lying dead under the olive trees
Was too young and too silly
To have been notable to their important eye.
He was a better target for a kiss.

When he lived, tall factory hooters never
summoned him.
Nor did restaurant plate-glass doors revolve to
wave him in.
His name never appeared in the papers.
The world maintained its traditional wall
Round the dead with their gold sunk deep as a well,
Whilst his life, intangible as a Stock Exchange rumour,
drifted outside.

O too lightly he threw down his cap
One day when the breeze threw petals from the trees.
The unflowering wall sprouted with guns,
Machine-gun anger quickly scythed the grasses;
Flags and leaves fell from hands and branches;
The tweed cap rotted in the nettles.

Consider his life which was valueless
In terms of employment, hotel ledgers, news files.
Consider. One bullet in ten thousand kills a man.
Ask. Was so much expenditure justified
On the death of one so young and so silly
Lying under the olive trees, O world, O death?



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