- A Cypress Walk: Letters to ‘Frieda’ by Alun Lewis
Enitharmon, 224 pp, £20.00, October 2006, ISBN 1 904634 30 3
Alun Lewis is usually remembered as a war poet or, more precisely, as a soldier poet. ‘All Day It Has Rained’ is familiar to those who know nothing else about its author and to some who don’t usually read poetry. Ian Hamilton edited a selection of Lewis’s work, and there is a good biography by John Pikoulis. But his achievement has been hard to focus on. He moved quickly as a poet, and the poetry he wrote while on home service is markedly different from that written after his arrival in India in December 1942. There are also short stories, among the best of the Second World War, and there are the letters. The letters have had a following since a small selection was included in the prose collection In the Green Tree (1948): ‘It may be,’ Walter Allen wrote in the New Statesman, ‘that these letters will ultimately take a higher place than either the poetry or the stories for, like Keats’s, they point to a maturity beyond anything their author had been able to express in his work.’ A heavily edited selection of his letters to Gweno Lewis appeared in 1989, in Alun Lewis: Letters to My Wife.
The contents of A Cypress Walk: Letters to ‘Frieda’ are not a complete surprise. A 1952 issue of Modern Writing contains ‘Some Letters of Alun Lewis’, ‘a selection from the letters received by my husband and me during the eight months we knew him in India’. The letters were, in fact, addressed to Freda Aykroyd alone; as Pikoulis’s 1984 biography made clear, Lewis and Aykroyd were lovers. Aykroyd, who died in 2005, later wrote articles of her own about Lewis, which made available some of his unpublished poems. But much more is revealed in the forty-page memoir that prefaces A Cypress Walk, and the letters that follow. They met on 25 July 1943, at the Aykroyds’ house in the Nilgiri hills above Madras. On being granted sick leave, and without bothering to wire anybody, Lewis decided not to visit the aunt who was expecting him in Darjeeling and to stay instead with the Aykroyds, who kept open house for officers, and had recently entertained a friend of his. Wallace Aykroyd ran the Nutrition Research Laboratories in Coonoor. Freda, while playing the role of colonial wife and mother, wrote book reviews for the Madras Mail and the Calcutta Statesman and was an amateur painter. She also wrote poems.
When Lewis walked up to the house, unannounced, Wallace Aykroyd happened to be away at a conference in the United States. Freda had accepted an invitation to dinner and a dance that night, and asked Lewis along. Getting ready, Lewis appeared ‘holding the top of his khaki trousers together’. ‘“A pin?” he asked in his soft voice.’ Aykroyd found him a safety-pin and found her ‘fingers aware of the warm flesh beneath his khaki shirt and above all the sense of an old intimacy, one which asked of him no apology, no light conversational comment from me’. At dinner, their fellow guests didn’t think much of the socialist teacher’s son from Cwmaman; for his part, Lewis chided Aykroyd for lunching with some ‘Bulgarian atrocities’. Nevertheless, by the end of the dance, Lewis ‘knew’ he was in love.
For a soldier repelled by the boorishness of army life, Coonoor was an idyll. Over the next few days Lewis and Aykroyd embraced in the woods, read aloud and listened to Handel and Beethoven on the lawn. Aykroyd wanted to be alone when her husband returned, so Lewis stayed for a while at the officers’ rest home at Ooty, where he wrote love poems. Then Lewis and the poems came back to Coonoor, the walks in the woods resumed, and on their last day together they stopped beneath a tree: ‘He then lay back, his dark hair among the leaves, and very gently took my hand and laid it upon his body so that I felt him move and strengthen beneath my hand. He sighed breathlessly. Then came the bitter failure when his strength left him, his passion faded.’