Alan Morrison on
Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets –
Poems in Transit, by Alun Lewis
Introduction by Robert Graves
George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Second Impression 1946
‘Such villages as linger in the mind’
It’s a rare thing when a poetry collection turns one’s eyes obsessively with a compulsion to re-read certain lines in order to fully absorb and assimilate their depth, originality and sheer beauty of expression. Off the top of my head, those poets who have caused this admiring and wholly positive allergic reaction in me – which some might simply term ‘being inspired by’ – include Blake, Keats (particularly 'Ode to Melancholy'), John Davidson (‘Thirty Bob a Week’ and ‘Testaments’), Harold Monro (most of The Silent Pool), T.S. Eliot (particularly ‘The Love-Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ and The Waste Land), Ivor Gurney, Hart Crane (The Bridge), Keith Douglas (‘Simplify Me When I’m Dead’ et al), the poems of Drummond Allison, Dylan Thomas (mainly Under Milk Wood), W.H. Auden ('In Memory of W.B. Yeats', 'September 1, 1939'), Philip Larkin (‘Aubade’ especially), Sylvia Plath – to name a handful.
More particularly, in terms of just sheer metrical and lyrical brilliance, and an indefinable imperfectness of touch which serves all the more to emphasize the flashes of greatness, Alun Lewis, at his very best, is (was) hard to beat. And after having sung the praises of an old tattered copy of his superb debut volume Raiders’ Dawn (1942), I have now had the pleasure of reading his equally distinctive follow up, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (another striking book title – a rarity among poets – this one taken from Job 39 and intended sardonically), published posthumously by George Allen and Unwin Ltd. in 1945 (second impression) – after the author’s apparently ‘accidental’, fatal self-maiming in Burma in 1944. The copy I have unearthed is a beautifully plain production with an elegant and half-emaciated white dust jacket peeling from a pale blue perfect bound hardback. Possibly due to the privations of post-war publishing, the collection has a continuous bleed-through of poems without any blanks or section title dividing pages, the laudable Introduction by Robert Graves ending directly opposite the beginning of the book proper. But this economy of approach only adds a feeling of refinement to the production and its exceptional poetry. The numbering of the poems, further, adds an almost hymn-like quality to the verses.
Briefly, on the Introduction: Graves – who famously survived the horrors of trench warfare only to read his own obituary when he got home – reproduces a moving and intense letter sent by Lewis to him, which his friend and mentor suggests is ‘a natural forward to the book’ itself. The letter contains so much to fascinate: a young developing poet’s anxieties regarding the tortuous fine-tuning of his own poems for publication; a very telling and involving comment on existential angst in the uniquely anomie-inducing continent of India and a foggier view of England in comparison,
…England is ‘easy’ compared with India – easier to corrupt and easier to improve. There are few deterrents at home: the inclination isn’t continually oppressed by the cosmic disinclination, the individual isn’t so ruthlessly and permanently subject to the laissez faire of the sun and the sterility. India! What a test of a man!
and, along similar lines earlier in the letter:
I’ve felt a number of things deeply out here; perhaps the jungle has moved me more deeply than anything else, the green wilderness where one has nothing but one’s sense of direction and there is no alarm because there is the Sun and there is one’s shadow and there is time...
Almost out of the novels of Joseph Conrad (cue Lord Jim, Nostromo or Outcast of the Islands), or Graham Greene (Heart of the Matter et al) in its sketch of a troubled and deep-thinking Westerner adrift in a bald, un-ironic heat where there’s no recourse to the shade of cool objectivism. As is this:
I live a certain rhythm which I’m becoming able to recognize. Periods of spiritual death, periods of neutrality, periods of a sickening normality and insane indifference to the real implications of the present, and then for a brief wonderful space, maybe every six weeks, a nervous and powerful ability moves upwards in me. India and the army both tend to fortify and protract the negative and passive phase, and if I am suddenly excited and moved by something I have seen or felt, the excitement merely bounces on the hard unchanging surface like a rubber ball on asphalt.
In light of Lewis’s sudden and mysterious, fatal ‘accident’ in Burma later that same year, the following lines of this almost tangibly phrased letter, really do spring out to the retrospective reader with a chilling sense of self-prophecy:
…meanwhile I learn to fire a revolver with either hand and try to suppress the natural apprehensions of the flesh at a thing so long delayed and postponed and promised and threatened.
This emotional rawness and baldness of psychological self-expression lends Lewis’s actual poetry – his equally beguiling prose aside – an outreaching inclusiveness of tone which arguably lacked in his more remote contemporary, Keith Douglas. This essential emotionalism to his poetry – perhaps, in part, impelled by a certain vehement, impassioned Welshness – is what, for me, sets him apart from the other War poets (both First and Second), as an outstanding heart on paper; generally free of ego, deeply feeling and philosophical, gentle, morose, hopeful, but with an occasional stutter of subtle anger. For me his poetry is more emotionally affecting than Douglas (whose oeuvre was brainier, technically brilliant, metaphorically first rate, but often a little distant in approach); and arguably more varied in style and subject than the exceptional Wilfred Owen, the pity-trumpeter, though comparisons between him and Lewis seems somewhat impossible. On the back cover blurb however, the publishers do attempt a subtle swipe at Owen in favour of Lewis with:
...for like Thomas (Edward), the war has become an integral part of his (Lewis’s) life experience, not a violent thought-slaying wound as it was to Owen.
The blurbist does contextualise his comparison by noting that Owen, for instance, was consumed entirely by the war owing to his dying at the front, so didn’t have the fortune to survive the conflict and write at length afterwards about his experiences. But then that neither Lewis did does serve to suggest a slight denigration of the very different brilliance of Owen’s poetry. But what is most germane here is the publishers’ comment on the front flap blurb:
The influences of other poets have diminished: the only influence now apparent is that of life, and of the larger, anonymous tradition of English poetry that owns no school and seeks a virtue deeper than that of modernism.
This is a bold statement, and one which, to an extent, I’d concur with: it is precisely the lack of emotion in much modernism – post-Eliot – which, for me, and for many, forever excludes the hearts of readers from any deeper involvement in the style than the cerebral. Where, one might argue, Romanticism sometimes bashed us into recoiling stoicism by its occasional melodrama, and later, Georgianism undermined itself now and then with surface whimsy and overt pastoral nostalgia, modernism has to many – and seemingly as far back as the Forties – continually failed to absorb the full emotions of readers, often spluttering into almost autistic stylistic gymnastics at the expense of more immediately involving self-expression. For me certainly, the last great modernist – and arguably also the first major one in English – was T.S. Eliot, who just about managed to get the balance right between intellect and feeling, mind and heart. But for a comparable panache at subtly metrical, half-rhyming blank verse, but with even more of a heart-pump about it, Alun Lewis is one of the very best exponents.
Also on the flap blurb, another interesting notice made particularly moving in light of this book being posthumously published:
In his last letter to his publishers, Alun Lewis wrote of these poems that they should be read as the musical score of a life that will again express itself in prose when the din of war and preparation for war had died down, and there was time again to write and re-write.
For me, it’s in Lewis’s longer pieces, such as the masterly ‘Embarkation’, that his gentle genius is at its most evident. There’s a breathtaking ease, an enviable beauty of verbiage mingled with economy, to such passages as:
Consider this silent disciplined assembly
Close squadded in the dockyard’s hooded lamps,
Each blur a man with some obscure trouble
Or hard regret as bulky as the cargo
The cranking derricks drop into the hold.
Good natural agents of a groping purpose
That sends them now to strange precipitous places
Where all are human and Oh easily hurt
And – the temptation being to forget
Such villages as linger in the mind, …
Masterly and beautiful in its subtle musicality, and deep tugging humanity. Lewis is a master of human nuance, of gently tapping the surface to observe and collect the ripples of our condition, in fragments and glimpses of peculiar insight. He is, demonstrably, a master too of the striking line and beguiling phrase:
Ask whether kindness will persist in hearts
Plagued by the snags and rapids of a curse,
And whether the fortunate few will still attain
The sudden flexible grasp of a dangerous problem
And feel their failures broaden into manhood
The profundity of this lightly Biblical, soteriological phrasing and allusion to the innate ‘failure’ of the human condition, forever pulled under by the conflict of morals and survival, is at times startling. This poem goes on at some length, but at no point does it feel in any way a struggle or a push, it carries the reader along in its cadence, punctuated throughout by moments of striking description, image and metaphor underpinned by a restless, gentle yet painfully honest humanism:
Yet each one has a hankering in the blood,
A dark relation that disturbs the joke
And will not be abandoned with a shrug:
Each has a shrunken inkling of the Good.
And one man, wrapped in blankets, solemnly
Remembers as he bites his trembling nails
The white delightful limbs, the nest of peace.
And one who misses what it’s all about,
Sick with injections, sees the ‘tween-decks turn…
Then a killer metaphor emerges:
To fields of home, each tree with its rustling shadow
Slipped like a young girl’s dress down to its ankles;
Where lovers lay in chestnut shadows.
‘Embarkation’, a mini-masterpiece in my view, and possibly Lewis’s crowning poem of all, is infused with stunning aphorisms and images, often beautifully alliterative and assonantal, as in ‘Oblivion is the colour of brown ale’, ‘Lust unconfessed’; or supremely original: ‘Opinion humming like a nest of wasps’. His turn of phrase is singular and sometimes breathtaking:
And farther on the mortgaged crumbling farm
Where Shonni Rhys, that rough backsliding man
Has found the sheep again within the corn
And fills the evening with his sour oaths;
The cure of failure’s in his shambling gait.
One of Lewis’s great gifts as a poet – apart from his visionary, Taliesinic qualities – is his ability to nail a moment of insight in a brilliantly lit aphorism, echoing the powers of Eliot and showing, had he survived the war, how far and lastingly Lewis
would have developed as a poet,
… when he laughs and bends to make
Her laugh with him she sees that he must die
Because his eyes declare it plain as day.
And it is here, if anywhere, that words
– Debased like money by the same diseases –
Cast off the habitual clichés of fatigue
– The women hoping it will soon blow over,
The fat men saying it depends on Russia –
And all are poets when they say Goodbye
And what they say will live and fructify.
Again, as throughout most of Lewis’s poetry, this tug always towards truth, no matter how dark or damaging, which seems to pull his lines on like a holy compulsion.
And I – I pray my unborn tiny child
Has five good senses and an earth as kind
As the sweet breast of her who gives him milk
And waves me down this first clandestine mile.
The poem preceding the masterly ‘Embarkation’, and the beginning of a thematic sequence spanning the second part of the book, The Voyage, is the similarly striking but much shorter prologue, ‘The Departure’. Again this poem tips and tilts with brilliant images and phrases, right from its start:
Eyes closed, half waking, that first morning
He felt the curved grey bows enclose him,
The voyage beginning, the oceans giving way
To the thrust of steel, the pulse and beat
Of the engines that even now were revolving,
Revolving, rotating, throbbing along his brain
Rattling the hurried carpentry of his bunk.
Setting an unknown bearing into space.
A little later, echoes of Eliot’s supremely rhythmic blank verse continues to hold sway and pull the eye along with enviable ease:
And he remembered all that was prevented,
How she came with him to the barrier
And knowing she could come no further
Turned back on the edge of his sleep,
Vexed, fumbling for her handbag,
Giving the world a dab of rouge and powder,
A toss of head, a passing hatred,
Going in all these trivial things, yet proudly; …
This poem ends with the chill and impersonal description of the soldier in question later waking up once the ship has arrived at its destination, which adds a deep and ominous resonance to its close in contrast to the dreamt-of image of his devoted fiancée, and ‘…the chafing/ Of nettles her hands would be weaving into a garment/ To turn her white-winged lover back to man’,
And then he woke unrested from his longing,
And locked himself and hurried to offload
Boxes of ammunition from the wagons
And send them swaying from the groaning derricks
Deep into the unrefusing ship.
Following, sequentially, ‘Embarkation’, comes the assonantly chiming, half- and perfect-rhyming, iambic tetrameter – excuses this prosodic lapse – of ‘A Troopship in the Tropics’, and here is a snippet of the poem, for me, the most striking stanza, full again with a classically Lewisian mix of aphorism and beautiful turn-of-phrase:
Time is no mystery now; this torrid blueness
Blazed in a fortnight from the English winter.
Distance is subject to our moods and wishes.
Only the void of feeling must be filled.
This is perhaps the least formalistically tight of all this poem’s verses, adhering only to a faint assonantal chiming with ‘winter’, ‘wishes’, ‘filled’, as opposed to the half- and –perfect rhymes of the ABCB scheme, but this is not the only reason it stands out.
‘By the Gateway of India, Bombay’ has an almost Blakeian form to it, strongly reminiscent of both the rhythm and prepositional style of the latter’s anthemic ‘Jerusalem’:
The storm’s cold javelins constrain
The swirling roads, the anchored fleet
Curled in Elephant’s lee
Where pilgrims walked on naked feet:
– And in the darkness did they see
The darker terrors of the brain?
And did the hollow oracle resound
In caves of unexpected pain?
And were they drenched as we who loiter
Beneath the Imperial Gate
By the biting arrows of the rain?
And did they also hate?
Perhaps an unconscious (or deliberate) parody of Blake’s lines: ‘And did the countenance divine/ Shine forth upon these clouded hills?/ And was Jerusalem builded here/ Among these Dark Satanic Mills?’
The collection is richly infused with khaki travelogue and fascinating descriptions of India and Burma. ‘Karanje Village’, for instance, exemplifies this aspect, as well as demonstrating a masterly control of form and an emerging confidence in experiment with language:
– The trees were obscene with the monkeys’ grey down-hanging
Their long slow leaping and stare,
The girl in a red sari despairingly swinging her rattle,
The sacred monkeys mocking all they care.
And never entirely turning me away,
But warning me still of the flesh
That catches and limes the singing birds of the soul
And holds their wings in mesh.
Beautiful stuff. As is the fizzing descriptiveness of ‘The Mahratte Ghats’:
The valleys crack and burn, the exhausted plains
Sink their black teeth into the horny veins
Straggling the hills’ red thighs, the bleating goats
– Dry bents and bitter thistles in their throats –
Thread the loose rocks by immemorial tracks.
Dark peasants drag the sun upon their backs.
‘The Journey’ is a beautiful and intimate lyric, moving in its soldierly candour:
We were the fore-runners of an army,
Going among strangers without sadness,
Danger being as natural as strangeness.
And typically of Lewis, it rolls on and on, lushly unfolding with piercing insights, sumptuous images, punctuated with more bald truths of soldiering:
We had no other urge but to compel
Tomorrow in the image of today,
Which was motion and mileage and tinkering
When cylinders misfired and the gasket leaked.
Distance exhausted us each night;
I curled up in the darkness like a dog
And being a romantic stubbed my eyes
Upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.
It’s rich with beautiful aphorismic lines: ‘Daylight had girls tawny as gazelles,’; ‘Then caravanserais of gipsies/ With donkeys grey as mice and mincing camels’; ‘Sometimes there were rivers that refused us,’; and the biting,
There was also the memory of Death
And the recurrent irritation of our selves…
The brilliance in this book is copious and never cloying, and seeds much admiration in the reader through its gifted humility. ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ is hauntingly beguiling:
And we who feel the darkness twitch
With death among the orange trees
Seek, and not in vain, your hills
Whose bridle paths all end in dark
And find love in the gap of centuries
Although the swart brown heather bears no mark
Of boy and girl and all they planned.
We surely were not hard to please
And yet you cast us out. And in this land
We bear the dark inherited disease
Bred in the itching warmness of your hand.
There’s an almost prophetic tone to much of this poetry; an appalled nihilism almost holy in its intensity. Lewis’s gift at brooding lyricism is arguably unsurpassed by any other British poet of his era, as demonstrated brilliantly in ‘In Hospital: Poona (1)’:
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves –
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders
– And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; …
Lewis always rises to the occasion of form, rocking to and fro with bristling energy within the confines of, in the case of ‘In Hospital: Poona (2)’, frequently forming couplets:
And from the polished ward where men lie ill
Thought rubs clean through the frayed cloth of the will…
That which the whiplash sun drove out of bounds –
The heart’s calm voice that stills the baying hounds.
And there are more of this calibre throughout. Certainly in this, his final collection, Lewis was beginning to more markedly merge his instinctive Welsh lyricism with a broader, arguably more Anglo-Saxon drift to adventurous metaphor, reminiscent in places of his contemporary Keith Douglas, as such lines as ‘Night bibles India in her wilderness’ (‘Indian Day’).
Possibly one of the finest poems in the book – and that’s not easy to pin down, though for me ‘Embarkation’ remains its pivotal tour-de-force – is the sublime threnody ‘Burma Casualty’ subtitled (To Capt. G. T. Morris, Indian Army). It begins with no holds barred, and is tangibly alliterative throughout and faintly reminiscent of the passionately grisly details of Wilfred Owen’s oeuvre –
I reproduce, for me, the most striking extracts below:
Three endless weeks of sniping all the way,
Lying up when their signals rang too close,
– “Ooeee, Ooee,” like owls, the lynx-eyed Jap, –
Sleeplessly watching, knifing, falling back.
And then a cough of bullets, a dusty cough
Filleted all his thigh from knee to groin.
The kick of it sucked his face into the wound.
…Great velour cloaks of darkness floated up.
A lump of bitter gristle that refused.
The Beast that breathed with pain and ran with puss
Among the jumping fibres of the flesh.
And then he saw the Padre by his cot
With the Last Unction: and he started up.
… And could a rubber tube
Suck all the darkness out of lungs and heart?
Then through the warped interstices of life
The darkness swept like water through a boat
In gouts and waves of softness…
He went alone: knew nothing: and returned
Retching and blind with pain, and yet Alive.
Mending, with books and papers and a fan
Sunlight on parquet floors and bowls of flame…
The poem closes with the quite staggeringly phrased final angry death-call:
And Life is only a crude, pigheaded churl
Frowsy and starving, daring to suffer alone.
In conclusion – though for me there could never be one for this most sonorous of poets, whose blossoming promise was typically cut short by a bullet – Alun Lewis is an almost perfect fusion of all the known British war poets: he combines a similar compassionate anger to Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, with a lyricism arguably above that of Edward Thomas in its emotional depth, and some of the imagistic grit and metaphorical might of his more cerebrally-affecting fellow WWII casualty, Keith Douglas. After reading and savouring the superb Raiders’ Dawn, I wondered how a second volume could possibly compete with its depth and breadth and lyrical beauty, but Lewis pulled out all the stops with his second and – unbeknown to himself – last poetic statement, the stunning Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets.
For me often the case historically is that sometimes the most obviously striking work produced in any medium – whether art, poetry, music, drama, prose – is overlooked by critics and spectators, almost as if the very obviously striking qualities are thus distrusted for tapping too blatantly into a collective vein; that this aspect therefore might indicate a lack of originality or newness, in some sense. One might note this tendency in, for instance, classical music, where almost mathematical complexity, melodic evasiveness and bombast is often perceived as a sign of genius or greatness (cue baroque; Vivaldi, Mozart etc.), whereas, to my mind anyway, more formal but beautifully uplifting, melodically direct and rousing music (romantic; Satie, Debussy; folkloric, Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Walton, Arnold), simply because of retrospective aspects in some cases, is appreciated, but labelled relatively as less great – almost as if its clearer tunefulness is somehow a crudity. In some cases this might be true, but for me personally, I’d listen to the latter composers till the cows come home but would have to make more of an effort of the ear with the former, none of whom touch me on an emotional level. (But it’s all subjective, and I’ve probably just damned myself in the eyes of classical music connoisseurs).
By parallel, in poetry, it is predictable that a poet as cleanly-hewn, gentle but softly striking, faintly romantic, but always musical and emotionally affecting as Alun Lewis, one not so impelled to modernistic pyrotechnics as Keith Douglas, should have for so long been partially overlooked in the latter’s reappraisal (and this might have protracted to a similar fate as for the late Victorian visionary poet John Davidson – though still lauded in certain circles – and the somewhat mis-categorised, observationally sonorous Harold Monro (who to my mind shows more in common with the early T.S. Eliot – re ‘Prufrock’ –, or early George Orwell – cue suburbia-scorning parallels of motif between ‘Aspidistra Street’ and Keep the Aspidistra Flying – than with any of the ‘Georgians’ he was often confused with), if, thankfully, recent revisionism and nostalgia had not also turned back to less 'difficult' voices as Lewis. There is both a place for the metaphorical precision of Keith Douglas (championed more by the modernists) and for the sublime lyricism of Alun Lewis. Certainly now the spotlight is slowly moving back to the latter's subtler, gentler take on human conflict and condition – cue, for example, Owen Sheers’ tribute play, Unicorns – and I have no doubt Lewis will in time be recognised as one of the Greats, not only in War Poetry, but in British poetry as a whole. I, for one, salute his lasting contributions to English literature.
Alan Morrison © 2009