Song

 Overview

As you may have guessed, this poem was actually a song written by Lewis and it is more commonly referred to by the title ‘On seeing dead bodies off the Cape’. This might seem like a rather morbid title for a song, but it was a reflection upon one of Lewis’ war time experiences (which I will yammer on about in the context section below).

The poem is presented from the perspective of a distant lover awaiting the return of their other half who is unfortunately bobbing up and down lifelessly in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Her love and hope for his return are explored through comparison with a failed pregnancy with all the promise and hope extinguished and replaced with despair and emptiness.

Mini-Glossary
tempest –
a powerful, violent storm;
self-effacement – 
being humble and staying out of the limelight.

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick

The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.

The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.

And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’

The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.

We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.

But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.

Alun Lewis (1915-44)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Lewis had a relatively modest background as one of four children of two teachers working in the south of Wales and, after failing to meet the grade as a journalist, spent his pre-war career working as a supply teacher.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Lewis initially joined an Engineering division as he was a pacifist. However, he seems to have changed his mind and signed up for the front line with the infantry. This experience was to inspire his first published work and he would go on to be recognised as one of the most significant war poets (although I would say he is significantly less well-known than a fair few others).

Although I am sure he was overjoyed that his writing had found an audience, his reflections on his experiences of war are overwhelming gloomy and desolate. In 1944, while fighting in Burma (modern-day Myanmar in South East Asia) he had clearly had enough and put a bullet through his brain (although the army reported this as an accident, it seems highly unlikely).

Our poem was written in 1943 as Lewis sailed with his infantry company to India before their deployment to Burma. As they headed around the Cape of Good Hope (in South Africa) and crossed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian their ship was diverted to help rescue survivors of a submarine attack in the area. Here Lewis was confronted with lifeless bodies floating in the water.

He reflects upon this from the perspective of his wife and as if he were one of those bodies. Apparently when he left his wife they had both hoped she would be pregnant and thus the poetic voice seem to be Lewis’ projection of how his wife would respond to this tragedy.

 Themes

This is a deeply melancholic reflection on the impact of war from the perspective of the family and our loved ones. We explore the soul struggling with hope, disbelief and then despair. This is atypically in many senses for a war poem because we do not get a graphic or brutal image of warfare, but instead we are presented with the ignominy of this type of death only through the eyes of the waning hope of his lover.

Content

We have established that we are following the perspective of a distant lover awaiting the return of her other half. The first four stanzas each reflect her changing emotions as his absence goes on from one month to four.

In the opening stanza, the woman is clearly suffering from morning sickness and the early stages of pregnancy. Don’t think about this as a literal pregnancy, but rather Lewis is using it as a method of exploring their love. Thus this sickness also reflects her worry about his well-being.

In the second stanza, the sickness gives way to despair as the baby/their love is now referred to as a ghost suggesting she has given up hope of his return. However, hope is a nasty bastard and he rears his head again in the third as her mind teases her with tenuously plausible reasons her lover may have been delayed either from returning or being able to send her a message.

Again she squashes this hope in the fourth and fifth stanzas and contemplates his fate in the midst of the ocean.

This gives way to her reflecting on their relationship and what it has come to in the end, in the sixth stanza. The opening line had me stumped for a while, but seems to demonstrate that they always had an idea of love as something permanent and not something that would come and go. She paints her heartbreak as leading her to a stillness akin to death, while his death in this silent, empty and peaceful ocean is seen as a kind of eternal sleep.

However, this almost romantic view of his death and therefore peaceful state of rest, is shattered by the sense of passionate anger that concludes the poem. His death is a torment to her as life feels empty and has no meaning, but goes on and on while her memories of their love fade and are less easy for her to grasp.

Language and techniques

This is relatively long and there is a lot going on throughout, so forgive me if I miss some things out.

The first element of the poem I would be keen to dissect in any essay is this dual meaning of the failed pregnancy in the opening stanzas. Lewis refers to the ‘seed of love [being] sick’, which can be interpreted both as their seed growing inside of her or also can be seen as the vestiges of their feelings towards each other. From a contextual point of view, Lewis was only recently married and thus we could see their love being at this early stage and there being an expectation that it would grow and mature, as a baby in the womb, through their life together.

As ‘life did not turn or kick’ we can see that all is really not well. A baby wouldn’t be doing this at the early stages of pregnancy, but clearly there is a sense of dread that she is going to miscarry. Metaphorically this also connects with her failing sense of hope for their love as it is going to be cut short before it realises its full potential. The baby is also described as ‘his promise’, which suggests that his love was a binding commitment not to be broken.

Lewis demonstrates the intensity of love through this comparison and the physical sickness of pregnancy seen in the poetic voice being ‘sick and numb’ are associated with the impact of lovesickness and therefore their love is elevated by actually being able to hurt her physically as well as emotionally.

After Lewis has created this sense of impending doom and tragedy in the first, we are dragged down into grief in the second stanza. Again we have the physical signs of a failed pregnancy with ‘sunk’ eyes suggesting a prior flood of tears and her ‘bed was like a grave’ as her weakness from the ordeal is accompanied by the foetus either remaining lifeless her womb or her baby bump still showing despite miscarrying.

These ideas are also used by Lewis to show the death of her hope. Her tears and inability to stir from bed are manifestations of her ‘darkness of despair’ as she accepts that her love will never return. Associating her despair with darkness presents further connotations of fear, loneliness and dread to accompany her sense of loss. Her misery is compared to the grave in parallel to her acceptance that her lover is now a ‘ghost… lying there’.

One of the particularly powerful ways that Lewis demonstrate the importance of love is through the desperate sense of hope that the poetic voice snatches from her despair. ‘I thought I heard him say’ are slightly misleading words as clearly their physical distances renders her ears completely useless, but instead this line represents her mind’s desperate hope that her worst fears won’t be realised. His supposed words suggest he has merely been delayed and not, as she fears, lost at sea. However, the ‘tempest blew his words away’, which presents an image of her consuming fears that a storm (either literal or perhaps figuratively the storm of war) has taken him and also represents the metaphorical storm of fears that are consuming her as drowning out this brief glimpse of hope. Even these faint hopes give way and are replaced with acceptance of his fate in the fourth stanzas as his voice now confirms he is lost and she needs to move on.

The fifth and sixth stanza replace the traumatic, chaotic and angry vocabulary of the failed pregnancy and the storm with a mini tranquil semantic field of ‘skim’, ‘sway’ and ‘rest’. Our poetic voice represents his death as bringing him peace and even associating it with him ‘sleep[ing] well’ and thus shutting out his fears and pain. This is a loving portrayal of hope that her other half no longer feels the pain she is suffering from his loss. The imagery of his cells becoming part of a coral reef further demonstrate this sense of his death being a release and leading to something almost better and more beautiful than his prior state of existence.

While he ‘sleep[s]’, ‘[she]’ll not stir’. Lewis draws a parallel between the lovers, one in death, the other in life. However, whilst death is described in terms of calm and restful sleep, her continued existence is compared to the physical state of death as there is no suggestion of rest, just stillness and nothingness.

We also have this really painful opening to the sixth stanza to deal with. The line they ‘never thought to buy and sell’ suggests that they were not interested in or expecting to have their life change, but rather anticipated their love, marriage and life going on forever. The subsequent line reveals a reflection that this attitude is somewhat naive given that life ‘blooms and withers in the leaf’ and thus is relatively short-lived. This metaphor compares our existence with flowers in order to demonstrate how fragile and how short-lived their love and happiness was.

The final stanza is really sad. We begin with a mournful exclamation demonstrating her sense of despair and misery, followed by her lamenting the ‘drag and dullness of [her] Self’. This basically means that in her state of woe life seems to have no meaning and she almost feels like she wants it to end.’Self’ is capitalised here as she is personifying her soul as being the cause of this, as if a spiritual side of her were no longer willing to go on living, even if her physical body was perfectly healthy. This idea is repeated in the third line of the stanza, when Lewis describes her life as filled with ‘slowness’ and ‘hardness’ representing her desire for it to end and her inability to be moved by anything respectively.

When the poetic voice speaks of the ‘nearness that is waiting in [her] bed’ she means that her death is with her at all times as her soul has effectively died or given up after losing her love. This feeling is compounded by the ‘self-effacement of the dead’ who, through lack of being there, are seen to find peace quicker and contentment quicker than those losing a loved one.

Structure

Comment on the use of the first four stanzas to reflect the changing emotions as the length of absence grows and her love veers from fear to despair to faint hope and finally to acceptance.

I would also mention the use of alliteration and sibilance in the fourth stanza that create a more hushed and peaceful tone as Lewis’ lover imagines a tranquil resting place for her dearly departed.

Your could also discuss the rhyme scheme, which generally follows an ABABB structure, but is kicked about and disrupted as her emotions sway one way and another.

Tone

We have established that this changes throughout the poem, particularly at the beginning as her hope ebbs and wanes. Once she accepts her love’s fate Lewis creates a tone of somber, respectful calm, but she cannot find peace and we end with the woe and torment of the final stanza.

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