Alun Lewis was, like Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas, an important young British poet killed in World War II. He was the eldest of four children born to Thomas J. Lewis, who had escaped spending life as a miner by becoming a teacher, and Gwladys Evans Lewis, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. She and her future husband had met at a suffragist meeting shortly before World War I, in which he was wounded. Thomas Lewis spoke Welsh and English, but his wife and their children spoke English only. They enjoyed a close family life, although Alun evidently felt the displacement many oldest children feel when siblings arrive. At eleven, he won a scholarship that took him to board at Cowbridge Grammar School near Cardiff. In the somewhat spartan life of such schools during that period, he kept private his feelings of isolation and unhappiness, while succeeding at sports, especially field hockey, and at academics. He excelled at English, history, and debating and contributed six stories to the school magazine.
Lewis did well in the scholarship examination at the traditionally Welsh Jesus College, Oxford, but, since he was only sixteen, he was advised to apply again the next year. In the interim, however, he accepted a scholarship to the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. Here again he distinguished himself on the hockey field and in the classroom; his thesis on forestry administration in the thirteenth century earned him first-class honors in history. He won another scholarship, to Manchester University, where he earned a master’s degree with a thesis on the activities of a papal legate in England in the thirteenth century. Discouraged about the practical benefits of doing further research, he returned to Aberystwyth for a year’s training as a teacher, qualifying in the summer of 1938. During his years at the university, some of his stories and poems appeared in student periodicals and in national newspapers, such as The Observer and The Manchester Guardian.
Late in 1938 he began teaching in a grammar school. Yet he remained unsure about his future, especially the problem of whether to remain a pacifist if Great Britain went to war against Adolf Hitler. The next spring, he chanced to meet Gweno Ellis, who had been on the undergraduates’ council with him four years previously, and they fell in love. In May, 1940, while the Nazis swept triumphantly across Western Europe, he abruptly resigned from teaching and went to London with the intention of joining Gweno’s brother in the Merchant Navy. There was no suitable job for him with the crew he had hoped to join—luckily, because that crew’s ship was torpedoed on its next voyage, with only one survivor. Meanwhile, Lewis responded to a poster calling for...
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