- 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 Aykroyd, who died in 2005, later wrote articles of her own about Lewis, which made available some of his unpublished poems.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.’
The poems written at Ooty had been self-denying. ‘Wood Song’ describes ‘agonies/ That love can never consummate’, but that last day’s events had changed Lewis’s mind: as soon as he left, on the long train journey to Karachi, he was writing letters to Aykroyd to make it clear that their love was not meant to be chaste after all; this realisation leaves Lewis with ‘no wish to weep but only to sing and dream’. Indeed, it is a few lines before he comes back down to prose and begins the letter proper: ‘Freda, I can’t start any other way; and there are some words I cannot say.’ In his second letter, Lewis writes that his thoughts are ‘working in the lowest coal seams, examining ruthlessly the basis of the tranquillity which you filled me with, examining its implications, assessing its enormous costs’; this is the ground that, worked over, produced the poem ‘The Way Back’, which connected being newly in love and watching the rain ‘feminise the burning land’. ‘The Way Back’ convinced Aykroyd, who had not been particularly impressed by Lewis’s first book, Raiders’ Dawn, that she was reading a poet of note. And ‘Alun’s letter brought my love for him into a reality I had not felt when he was in Coonoor.’ There is in the letters a high ardency that extends well beyond the declarations of love: whether in their Lawrentian regard for the natural world, in Lewis’s descriptions of his life, or in his recording of the near sacral parts of his existence, especially his feeling for swimming and for lakes. It is no wonder that Aykroyd was so swayed by them.
Much space in the letters is given over to what Lewis is writing, what he wants to write – when will the two of them get a chance to write a play together? – and what he is reading and wants to read. Yeats and Rilke dominate the talk of poetry. Edward Thomas, the figure behind the best poems in Raiders’ Dawn, is not mentioned. Lewis asks: ‘Will you copy for me Yeats’s poem “Solomon and the Witch” from the red Weekend Book … When I found it on the last morning I realised how much I needed it. And how closely it foretold the broken rhythm of the wood where I could not help myself.’ In the poems that Lewis had drafted at Ooty, Freda is ‘Gypsy’ or ‘peasant’: roles no more obviously fitting than Yeats’s Queen of Sheba, but categories that figured strongly in Lewis’s work and imagination.
Accounts of the poetry of the Second World War tend to describe a move away from the social and political concerns of the 1930s either towards the immediate actualities of the war or, in the case of the neo-romanticists, towards myth, the psyche, a grand style, arcana. Lewis tried to accommodate his work to his circumstances, to soldiering and to India; and he began to develop a personal symbolism in an attempt to describe a true reality that had been vouchsafed to him in a vision of ‘ice-cold death images of perfect poetry’ in a place of high upland pastures, of which Coonoor, perhaps, reminded him. But the political is not abandoned: Lewis’s archetypal soldiers, gypsies and peasants comment on contemporary social conditions and political concerns.
At the outbreak of war, Lewis had been a schoolteacher and more or less a pacifist. In May 1940 he joined the Royal Engineers, where he thought he would be least likely to do any killing. But the situation in Europe and the dullness of enforced passivity impelled him to seek action with the South Wales Borderers. He was sent to India in October 1942, but there the fight against Fascism seemed distant and the support for imperialism frustrated him. In Karachi, Lewis protested at a colonel’s views on China:
I knew I was cooking my military goose & I sat down & felt a sort of hollowness, anticlimax, & the commandant smoothed my challenge aside with ‘That’s a big question, but it’s politics. This is a military school.’ Neat convenient compartments all designed to maintain the old abuses & wrongs, the deep bitter blood-demanding wrongs which we suffer.
Yet Lewis himself was sometimes stuck in just such a compartment. In his journey from Coonoor down to Karachi, for example, he writes of cursing back at a train full of Indians who ‘booed & booed & booed’ at the troops, showing no sympathy for the cause of the opposition.
In a slightly damning defence of Lewis, the critic A.T. Tolley wrote: ‘It is easy to play down Lewis’s achievement as that of the decent middle-class Welsh boy; but his unironic decency is a mark of the centrality of his response to war.’ Lewis’s high motives and unironic temper, in life and in art, are attractive, but the cultivation of irony can help the seasoned soldier through the day when fervour and ideals are running low or won’t suit the task in hand. Lewis was an unironic man living in increasingly ironic circumstances. A socialist who had renounced pacificism to fight Hitler, he was now out in the East not fighting but instead representing an unpopular colonial power. A man more notable for uxoriousness than for a roving eye, and who deprecated the sexual habits of his fellow soldiers, was now launching into an affair.
In Karachi, Lewis was offered a staff job at the Intelligence School. He turned it down. Lewis, who was a reluctant officer, explained his refusal as the result of his feeling for the men of his battalion. But his overriding reason was that he had yet to see action and felt that those who had been to Burma had, as he put it in a letter to his wife, ‘some secret knowledge that I want’; his decision led one of his instructors to say: ‘You’re the most selfish man I’ve ever met, Lewis. You think the war exists for you to write books about it.’
After the elation of the early letters, it isn’t long before darker notes are heard. There is a weird passage in a letter to Aykroyd on 24 August:
One huge thing happened to me on Monday night when I was all alone – I sang it to myself, the thing that happened; the room was empty & I was naked splashing water over myself & singing this enormous & dreadful joy that came up to me so casually and said something quite final & terrible to me & I laughed and sang it back.
The frustrations of two days spent waiting for a letter via the unreliable postal service don’t quite account for ‘all the time the malaise has grown and I’m sick of it hammering away, hammering, hammering. I need your real presence & that is all I need. Otherwise I ache only for oblivion, the desert, fighting & the laughter of a spirit grappling with brutality.’
On 2 September, Lewis was in better spirits, having been granted leave at the end of the month and hoping that Freda would stay with him at the Taj Mahal in Bombay. The next day he wrote a letter defending himself to Gweno, who was alarmed at the content of the work he was sending home: ‘Breasts, breasts, breasts you roar.’ Two weeks later, on the train down to Bombay, he wrote to Gweno that she and their unborn children would ‘ever be part of the burning circle’ of his existence. With Wallace in Delhi, and under the guise of meeting a mutual friend, Aykroyd had finally agreed to Lewis’s request. She drew the line at the luxurious but rather notorious Taj Mahal, and she and Lewis stayed at a beach-side guest house. After they had made love for the first time, Aykroyd revealed that she was pregnant with Wallace’s child. ‘For a moment he did not move, then he got swiftly out of bed and went over to the window. He stood staring out at the sea … After a time he turned and came back to where I sat on the edge of the bed.’ Lewis, who doted on Aykroyd’s daughter, and who had dearly wanted children with Gweno, put his arms around Freda. ‘“I’m glad,” he said.’
One afternoon, Lewis read Aykroyd Arthur Koestler’s article on Richard Hillary, the fighter pilot and author of The Last Enemy. On 25 May Lewis had written to Gweno: ‘What twaddle of Koestler’s about him being wilfully led to a fascinating death!’ Now his voice cracked as he came to a passage that described a time ‘when all isms become meaningless and the world an alley of crooked query marks, then indeed a man’s longing for the Holy Grail may become so strong that he flies like a moth into the flame, and having burnt his wings crawls back into it again.’ Aykroyd writes that, though his letters had made her aware that he thought of death, ‘it was only after our meeting in Bombay that I realised the compelling nature of his obsession.’ When she left, Lewis ‘was not looking towards where I leaned out of the train window but stood with hunched shoulders, his head down as though awaiting the executioner’s axe’.
The letters start up again, and on 1 October, Lewis is managing to be happy at the pregnancy, while at the same time displaying the sort of wishfulness that leads him to use Aykroyd’s maiden name and declare: ‘I can’t imagine you as Frieda Aykroyd.’ ‘I am in love with your child,’ he writes. ‘Sometimes it will seem as though you are bearing me. For of course you are. Such is the nearness in us.’ A week later, he says that the two of them ‘are in the same place in eternity: our alonenesses are identical.’ He recalls ‘the allegory of the two beasts we whispered about at the window and on the bed, the yellow-eyed proud soft moving beasts that go their own way and in some clearing in the jungle sometimes come upon each other and become thereby sublime’.
Though he initially got it right, Lewis put an ‘i’ in ‘Freda’ long after he would have known this to be a mistake. Pikoulis thinks this a dig at its earlier deletion, made in order to make her sound less German at the time of the First World War. But several years earlier Lewis had written a story describing the depression he suffered while studying for his MA in history at Manchester. ‘Attitude’ centres on a disenchanted student who writes poetry, a female version of Lewis whose name is Frieda. Lewis believed that Freda, like him, was a lonely soul in need of freedom, and that she had a similar propensity to depression. On 8 November Lewis was ill with bronchitis, and possibly malaria. ‘I’ve never been so cast off, so worthless, purposeless, unresponsive,’ he writes. ‘It’s a long time since my ancient enemy made such a determined assault on me.’ From here on, though he still turned his mind to other things and records moments of happiness, no letter escaped the action of that enemy.
In England, Lewis had written in his poem ‘The Soldier’: ‘my fellow soldiers stroll among the trees./The cheapest dance-song utters all they feel.’ The lines prompted sharp comment from Robert Graves, which caused Lewis to write to him, defending the poem as an expression of ‘simple cosmic loneliness’. Graves replied: ‘To feel cosmic loneliness I think means merely that one is short of friends who think cosmically.’ Having found in Freda someone who thought cosmically, Lewis complained a lot about fellow soldiers and cheap dance songs. And, despite taking evident pride in arranging concerts for the troops, he wasn’t much keener on Variety. When it came to films, however, Lewis turns out to have been an unlikely Arthur Askey fan. He also enthuses about Walt Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon until he remembers himself, complains about ‘pretty-pretty’ and ‘plebeian’ art and refers Aykroyd to ‘a nice little essay’ on our ‘age of low standards’ by Max Beerbohm.
All of this would be routine grousing were it not evident that Lewis was trying to give serious consideration to the relationship between mass culture and egalitarianism, to whether the mass culture of the West was damaging India and whether ‘we’ll corrupt the Japs with swing as they corrupt the Manchurians with opium.’ Lewis writes: ‘Although Max Beerbohm deplores the century of the common man, it is the common man who is the last repository of worth – not in the mass for then he becomes a blind force: but in himself.’ From such a gleam, one could fondly imagine Lewis heading towards Orwellian maturity. But his worries about cultural politics, like his thoughts about politics in general, seldom have the chance to go beyond being just that: worries.
In December Lewis mentions having spent three midnights running contemplating a story, ‘The Reunion’, about an uneasy meeting with his brother Glyn in Poona. In the story, the protagonist lies in bed worrying about the meeting and about his life, ‘avoiding love, refusing socialism, rejecting a better world because my self is worse, worse, worse but doesn’t matter, my self doesn’t matter, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was bound to be hell, I couldn’t. I had to, if only they’d stop singing.’ Here, the raucous singing of some drunk officers represents the breakdown of harmony between ideals, self and world. Lewis’s most ambitious poem, ‘The Jungle’, makes a more determined effort to connect – the soldier to his war, the personal to the political, India to the ‘humming cultures of the West’ – before concluding that ‘we’ soldiers
Prefer the instinctive rightness of the poised
Pied kingfisher deep darting for a fish
To all the banal rectitude of states
The dew-bright diamond on a viper’s back
To the slow poison of a meaning lost
And the vituperations of the just.
Lewis had temporarily found a way to still the noise in his head, to regain some innocence, a glimpse of Eden on a snake. But he would not stop feeling the ‘slow poison of a meaning lost’, or finding the ‘Cargoes of anguish in the holds of joy,/The smooth deceitful stranger in the heart’.
The correspondence, compared to the August deluge, soon turned to a trickle. Weeks passed between letters. Sometimes Lewis was unhappy that Aykroyd hadn’t written to him: this was partly the fault of the postal service, but also a result of the fact that Aykroyd, increasingly troubled by the tenor of Lewis’s letters, was becoming more absorbed by the forthcoming birth of her child and her day-to-day existence. Lewis also chided himself for not writing, and for missing a chance of leave when he could perhaps have seen her. By Christmas, he was beginning to sound very desperate indeed.
Despite this, and his guilt about betraying Gweno, Lewis enacted a sort of marriage. He asked Freda for a plain ring, which she sent: ‘I’ve got the golden ring, my talisman. It glitters in the sun in the jungle pools when I strip and dive in & swim. It’s a sweet ring and I’m always aware of it.’ And there was the baby: ‘Bear him well, Gilly’s little brother. I have strange thoughts about him. He means many things to me. Oh many many things there are no words for.’ Lewis was not only confident of the baby’s sex, he had also privately given him a name: Curig.
On 24 January 1944, his request to see action was finally granted: Lewis prepared to go to Burma. He had been revising his poetry collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (the title is taken from Job 39). As he ensured some things would survive, others had to be destroyed: ‘I watched the words fade from your letters, each one as I burnt them. They grew nearer & nearer to me all the time. The ashes were delicate & intangible. The wind blew them about.’ On 10 February Lewis writes:
There is no end to all this, except the accidental end, the bulb fusing, the mind failing, the body ceasing to function, lungs & heart & eyes. Don’t be fretted with loss, Frieda; I feel wonderfully happy whenever the certainty moves in me that I have lived indestructibly in thee. And in mother, & Mair, and boyhood, and Gweno, and words sometimes joining in flame.
The next day, the South Wales Borderers were on a troop train going from Bombay to Calcutta, and on 13 February they were in a reserve position in Burma. On 5 March, Lewis and his company were at the Goppa Pass. Having breakfasted and shaved, Lewis was on the way down the steep slope to the latrines. Under orders to carry loaded arms at all times, he was holding his Smith and Wesson. The gun went off, shooting Lewis through the right temple. Six hours later, he died.
The subsequent Court of Inquiry returned a verdict of accidental death: Lewis had fallen heavily, causing the gun to go off. He was awarded posthumous honours, including the Burma Star; his widow received a war pension. This verdict is supported by Gweno Lewis, whose last letter from Lewis speaks of a future ‘full of sunlight and growth and health’ and declares that his grasp is ‘broader and steadier than it’s been for a long time’. Neither the letters she had received, nor what she later saw in Lewis’s journal, which appears to count down the days to his death, gave Freda Aykroyd such comfort, or persuaded her that Lewis had not in fact killed himself. Her baby – a girl, as it turned out, called Juliet – was born two months later. Juliet Aykroyd prepared A Cypress Walk for publication.