Gweno Lewis, 2003, Aberystwyth
Gweno Lewis, wife of the poet Alun Lewis, was working on the text of his second book of poems, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, when on 5 March 1944 he died at the Goppe Pass on the Arakan front in the jungle of Burma. He was 28 and they had been married for barely three years, most of which had been spent apart.
The cause of Lieutenant Alun Lewis’s death, in a forward position facing the Japanese, was officially given as an accidental revolver shot to the head after he had fallen down the side of a nullah. This was the verdict his widow preferred to believe, but among the men of the 6th Battalion, the South Wales Borderers, his death was generally thought to have been suicide. His widow was awarded a war pension.
The poet’s tombstone in the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon, which Gweno Lewis visited in 1958, bears as epitaph these lines which she chose from one of his poems:
And what’s transfigured will live on
Long after Death has come and gone.
Alun Lewis’s love for his wife was a constant theme in his poetry. She was ‘a fine companion, full of life and broad of mind’ who, even when absent, remained ‘a singing rib within my dreaming side’. It was his love for Gweno, he wrote in a letter home, together with his experience of Army life in England and active service in India, that had made a poet of him: ‘What a combination! Beauty and the Beast!’
Gweno Ellis was born in Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire, in 1913; her family owned a large draper’s shop in the town and were comfortably off. Although she had been an undergraduate at the University College of Wales at the same time as Alun Lewis, it was not until 1939 that they renewed their acquaintance. She was then teaching German at Mountain Ash Grammar School, a few miles from the poet’s home in Cwmaman, near Aberdare, while he taught History at the Lewis Boys’ School in Pengam, in a nearby valley.
Their courtship was brief and tempestuous, mainly because of his moody, restless temperament and, as war grew imminent, the tensions in his intellectual and emotional life as he wrestled with his pacifist convictions before, on an impulse, joining the Army in May 1940.
He proposed to her on a visit to Llanthony Abbey in June 1941. She did not accept immediately because it would mean losing her job: Glamorgan County Council had a rule that married women could not be employed as teachers for the duration of the war and it would have been the responsibility of Alun Lewis’s father, who was Director of Education for Aberdare, to see that it was kept. But after a week or so her mind was made up. They married, without telling their families, at the Registry Office in Gloucester on 5 July 1941, and she was later allowed to keep her job.
On their way to the ceremony Lewis plucked a spray of roses from a garden and bought her a gilt-framed print of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ as a wedding gift. Next day they visited Tintern Abbey and Chepstow, after which he rejoined his regiment at Morecambe:
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.
Shortly after their wedding he wrote to his parents: ‘I think Gweno and I will always be happy together, if the world gives us a chance. I know her well now, and I know she’s a girl who reveals deeper and deeper secretions of wisdom and courage, and she loves the real things — home and family and the little ways which make people so worth loving.’
In the winter of 1942 Lewis’s regiment was shipped to India and his wife was never to see him again. In the following July he went on an Intelligence training course in Karachi and there met a married woman, Freda Aykroyd, with whom he spent a few idyllic days and for whom he wrote a number of poems. Shortly afterwards he fell prey to his old enemy, depression, a condition made worse by his unhappy relationship with his commanding officer, and he was thought to have been still suffering mental anguish at the time of his death.
Gweno Lewis lived the rest of her life with the uncertainty surrounding her husband’s death and the knowledge of his brief affair with another woman. Nevertheless, she co-operated fully with John Pikoulis, whose biography of Lewis appeared in 1984, answering questions and making available a large selection of his letters and unpublished writings, as did Freda Aykroyd.
She also welcomed the renewed interest in her late husband’s work after the appearance of Ian Hamilton’s edition of his selected poems and stories in 1966. With Jeremy Hooker she put together a new edition of his Selected Poems (1981) and a selection of his letters under the title Letters to my Wife (1989), and took great satisfaction from the appearance of his Collected Stories in 1990 and Collected Poems in 1994.
The poet’s letters to his wife reflect the comradely bond that existed between them, as well as his boyish attempts to cheer her up while he was away from home. The last one, written a few days before his death, ends: ‘I must run now. Sorry I have to go. And God be in our heads and in our eyes and in our understanding. Buy me a typewriter when someone has one to sell, and I’ll buy you a beautiful beautiful emerald or maybe a sapphire or maybe something neither of us knows.’
A reserved woman, of great dignity and retaining even in old age something of the svelte beauty she had in her twenties, after her retirement in 1974 Gweno Lewis lived quietly with her brother Hywel at the family home, known as The Château, high above the town of Aberystwyth and with magnificent views over Cardigan Bay. Although she seldom accepted invitations to literary gatherings, in 1985 she unveiled a commemorative plaque on the house in Cwmaman where her husband was born and, in 1990, presented a collection of Alun Lewis’s unpublished manuscripts to the University of Glamorgan.
Gweno Mererid Ellis, German mistress and Deputy Headmistress, Mountain Ash Grammar School (1938-74): born 7 March 1913 Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire; married 1941 Alun Lewis (died 1944); died Llawhaden, Narberth, 13 January 2016.
Gwladys Lewis, Gweno Lewis and T.J. Lewis at the ceremony in Aberdare Library, Siloa
when the plaque dedicated to Alun Lewis was unveiled, March 1961