Thursday, 20 June 2013

Alun Lewis's 'Raider's Dawn' By Way of Hardy's 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"'

John Constable, A ploughing scene in Suffolk (A summerland), c 1824

When I lived in Canada, I was quite often asked if I was any relation to Dan Aykroyd, the Canadian actor. I am not - he belongs to the other branch of Canadian Aykroyds, who seem unrelated to my family (and furthermore, he pronounces it Ack-royd while we pronounce it Ayk-royd - which has caused no end of confusion over the years.) Living in England, I seldom get asked about Dan Aykroyd but I do get asked occasionally about author Peter Ackroyd (no relation) and very occasionally about artist Carry Akroyd (also no relation.)

A few days ago I went to the London launch for George Szirtes's Bad Machine (which is excellent) and chatted with a gentleman who I had met previously at one or two literary events, and also saw online occasionally on George's Facebook page (which is a bit like an online literary salon.) He asked me about my name and we chatted a bit about the people I wasn't related to. Later that evening, this gentleman messaged me through Facebook to say that at his local train station that evening, where people left books to trade, he had come across a copy of World War II poet Alun Lewis's letters to Freda Aykroyd and had wondered about the surname, given our conversation.

I was quite surprised by this coincidence, because I actually do have a family connection to Freda Aykroyd. She was the wife of my great-uncle W R Aykroyd, who was then the director of the Nutrition Research Laboratories in southern India. Freda Aykroyd and Alun Lewis met in 1943 and fell in love. Lewis's death in 1944 from a self-inflicted gunshot is thought to have been a likely suicide, and it is also thought that the affair had something to do with it. I have not read the letters, which were published as A Cypress Walk, but it seems that both were very aware that they were betraying spouses who they loved, and apparently Lewis's awareness was particularly acute. All the evidence suggests that he was also very much in love with his wife, Gweno.

The coincidence was made a bit stranger by the fact that this copy was signed by Juliet Aykroyd, who is Freda and Wallace's daughter and thus another of my distant-ish cousins, who also helped with the editing of the letters, I think. The people who were directly involved in the drama either died before I was born, or were sufficiently distant relatives that I would never have met them, and thus the story is on mostly an intellectual level for me. It is a strange, sad story to have in the family, though. I am quite unable to find such developments in people's lives romantic; just sad, mainly.

This rather long-winded anecdote did remind me that I have wanted to write about one of Lewis's poems, 'Raider's Dawn', and one of Thomas Hardy's, 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"', for some time. Here, first, is the Hardy poem, written during World War I, in 1916:


Only a man harrowing clods
  In a slow silent walk,
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
  Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
  From the heaps of couch grass:
Yet this will go onward the same
  Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
  Come whispering by;
War's annals will fade into night
  Ere their story die.

Alun Lewis's World War II poem can be found here:

RAIDER'S DAWN (Alun Lewis)

The title of the Hardy poem makes reference to Jeremiah 51:20 ("Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.") The counterpoint to Lewis's reference to "Paper on paper,/Peter on Paul" - the falling of fragile pages from a Bible - is very interesting.

Essentially, I haven't come across anything to directly confirm it (if anyone has, please let me know) but I am absolutely convinced that these two poems are related. It seems to me almost impossible that Lewis wouldn't have come across Hardy's poem, and that 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"' wasn't either a conscious or a subconscious inspiration for 'Raider's Dawn'. The poems seem to reflect each other almost like mirror images.

The major difference is, of course, in the conclusions that the poets reach. Hardy saw that the war was changing the world around him, but he chose to focus on the eternal things that would outlive war; love, the basics of human survival, and so on. In Lewis's poem, ominously, the lovers are "Eternity's masters,/Slaves of Time", no longer lost in their own world, but observing the fall of bodies into mass graves. The concluding image of the "blue necklace" on the "charred chair" is especially haunting, and depressing. For me it seems to conjure up thoughts of the deserted house after the pogrom, or the aftermath of the atomic bomb. 'Raider's Dawn' seems to become the dark shadow of 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"', the final loss of innocence in World War II which began with World War I.

The John Constable painting above, incidentally, was chosen simply because Hardy's poem makes me think of Constable's paintings.


  1. I get the odd sensation of drifting through intermittent states of time and consciousness while reading and comparing these poems. Both also seem distinctly set at evening in mood, though the texts don't exactly say this. Sleep seems to reign: perhaps they are dreams. I am struck by the slightly disjointed rhythms of the lines: I can't manage to quite read them (except for Lewis' first stanza, which I think very fine) in an even manner to harmonize with the whole. Oddly, Hardy's horse-drawn plough is about to pass into history even as he writes the poem, though he thinks the practice will outlive the era. Also: Lewis' blue necklace on charred chair, which to me too speaks of pogrom, seems also very Trakl. Or perhaps I'm just thinking Expressionism and 'Der Blaue Reiter'. The 'fall of small faces in pits of lime' is pure concentration camp. These poems are oddly serene and disturbing at the same time. Yes, they must have some sequentiality to them.

    1. I think my sensations when reading the poems are very similar to yours - also the evening moods. The Hardy poem is a little more concrete. 'Raider's Dawn' seems exceptionally dreamlike, even nightmarish, though a low-key nightmare.

      'Raider's Dawn' was apparently published in 1942, and I'm not sure how much outside-world knowledge of the concentration camps there was then, yet. Obviously, my reference to the atomic bomb is totally historically off because that was 1945, after Lewis died. And yet the poem does seem to look forward to those events or similar events, or the images can certainly be interpreted that way. It's very eerie and feels almost prophetic.

      It is possible to draw distinct parallels between the two poems, but there are also a lot of differences. Still, I have a really intense gut feeling that a concrete link between them exists. I have just "known" for some time that they were related. I would love to somehow have this hunch confirmed. At the least, it is probably time for me to read Lewis in more depth, something I've hardly done yet.

  2. Now I'm really curious too. There are the Alun Lewis papers at the National Library of Wales, if you've got the time and inclination, and some published collections of letters which are no doubt full of interesting things. And of course there may simply be a footnote in one of the poetry collections someplace which could resolve the whole issue--I'm sure you've thought of all of this long ago. By the way, I found your account of your family connection to Lewis to be fascinating. It's this kind of writing about writing which really brings a literary work to life for me.

    1. Ah, to have the time! I think I must start by getting Lewis's collected poems. So far, out of the Big Three of the World War II poets, and despite the family connection, he appeals to me considerably less than Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, both of whom I adore - I had an especially visceral and almost instantaneous reaction to Keith Douglas. But then I really haven't read enough Lewis. I would be surprised if no one else has had the same "gut feeling" about these two poems as I have, at least. A verifiable link would be lovely. But it's interesting just to have an intuition about it, too!

      Despite the lack of time, if I were to do some sort of major project on 20th-century poetry, I think the World War II poets would be a likely choice for me.

  3. I think I know what you mean about enjoying the intuition, even if there's no time for extended research. So many things in life are like that, of course. They don't need to be actually embarked upon or made concrete for the contemplation of them to be well worth their figurative weight in gold. I also imagine that both Lewis and Hardy would have us concentrate upon the poems themselves first of all, and perhaps exclusively. All the evidence we need for a connection might well be contained within their lines, with no need to look elsewhere.

  4. The Hardy poem reminds me of Gray's Elegy with its pastoral references; the Lewis poem has an echo of 'Safe in their Alabaster Chambers' by Emily Dickinson: Lewis's lines, "Tells that Beauty[/]Was startled there." immediately reminded me of "Ah, what sagacity perished here!" from the 1859 version of Dickinson's poem. Both Lewis and Dickinson use a personal quality (beauty/sagacity) to refer to a person or persons. All four poems reflect in different ways on the relentless march of history and the victims it leaves in its wake: Dickinson and Gray both reflect on nature's indifference to the fate of the dead who thought themselves immortal. Hardy's line, "War's annals will fade into night", seems to sum up the innocent notion of the time that WW1 was 'the war to end all wars' while, as you point out, Lewis's darker vision points towards a future where wars, cold and hot, are continually played out as an ironic means to preserve 'peace'. (The use of the term 'peacetime' in the UK and US to describe the period after WW2 must have seemed strange to people in Vietnam and other war-torn countries!) I imagine your hunch about Lewis is right: after all, the best poets always read other poets over and over...

    1. Thanks for pointing out those further parallels, David. I think that it can be a journey of self-discovery to find which works of art remind you of which other works of art. Different people will draw different parallels. I'm going to look up the Dickinson poem, which I don't know (I don't think).

  5. I was thinking about Lewis's ending, "Beauty[/]Was startled there." Do you think the choice of "startled" is mild in the context of soldiers bursting in or an atomic bomb exploding? I found this definition:
    "startle (transitive verb): to frighten or surprise suddenly and usually not seriously" (merriam-webster on-line)
    It sounds like a very genteel understatement of the terror one would feel in the circumstances. Is he suggesting that the owner of the necklace was so used to her elegant lifestyle that she had no idea of her fate and was initially just "startled" by the door bursting open? Maybe it's a reminder that no matter how secure you feel your life can be turned upside down by terrible events. I remember the shock of 9/11 and the realisation that this could happen in downtown Manhattan (brilliantly alluded to in Heaney's 'Anything can happen'); you have also referred to the tense atmosphere on the London Underground following 7/7. I think there was a feeling in the early 20th century that technology was bringing the world closer to lasting peace and plenty: the reality is war after war and millions in poverty.

    1. I personally like the word "startled" here because it doesn't overstate it. Yes, I realise it probably understates it! But it seems in keeping with that overall dreamlike atmosphere which seems to exist in both poems and especially Lewis's. It's not a harsh word. Yes, I think it does suggest the initial reaction, the moment before the full horror hits you.

      The world changed irrevocably in 1914, even if in 1916 Hardy was still optimistic enough to suggest that not so much had changed. Some things, even many things have improved (for some people...), but too many things have stayed the same or got worse. I remember being very struck by the fact that in the twentieth century, reportedly more died in wars than in all the previous centuries of recorded human history put together.