Today it’s the 70th anniversary of VE Day, marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War in Europe, and so today’s poem comes from Alun Lewis’s Collected Poems.
Alun Lewis (1915-1944), the remarkable poet and story writer, died, aged 28, in Burma during the Second World War. Some critics see him as the last of the great Romantic poets, a twentieth century Keats. Others view him as the bridge between pre-war poets like Auden and Yeats to post-war poets such as Hughes and Gunn. He was born and raised in Depression-struck south Wales and, following degrees in history at Aberystwyth and Manchester, became a teacher there. Early in 1940, despite his pacifist inclinations he enlisted and, after long periods of training, joined the war in India.
Becoming a soldier galvanised Lewis’s writing. By 1944 he had written two collections of poems and one of short stories, all published to considerable acclaim. Firmly established with Keith Douglas as the leading writer of the Second World War, Lewis’s death in an accident while on active service was a huge loss to English literature. Collected Poems comprises a body of work which has endured and which transcends the label ‘war poetry’; it is complete in itself and full of promise of greater things.
So we must say Goodbye, my darling,
And go, as lovers go, for ever;
Tonight remains, to pack and fix on labels
And make an end of lying down together.
I put a final shilling in the gas,
And watch you slip your dress below your knees
And lie so still I hear your rustling comb
Modulate the autumn in the trees.
And all the countless things I shall remember
Lay mummy-cloths of silence round my head;
I fill the carafe with a drink of water;
You say ‘We paid a guinea for this bed,’
And then, ‘We’ll leave some gas, a little warmth
For the next resident, and these dry flowers,’
And turn your face away, afraid to speak
The big word, that Eternity is ours.
Your kisses close my eyes and yet you stare
As though god struck a child with nameless fears;
Perhaps the water glitters and discloses
Time’s chalice and its limpid useless tears.
Everything we renounce except our selves;
Selfishness is the last of all to go;
Our sighs are exhalations of the earth,
Our footprints leave a track across the snow.
We made the universe to be our home,
Our nostrils took the wind to be our breath,
Our hearts are massive towers of delight,
We stride across the seven seas of death.
Yet when all’s done you’ll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet.