(Please note that “context” is not an assessed element of this component of the WJEC GCSE in English Literature.)
Janet Eiluned Lewis was born near Newtown in Montgomeryshire (now Powys) in November 1900. Her family was well off, cultured, and educated; for example, Lewis’s Welsh-speaking mother earned a Master’s degree, had been a headmistress, and was friends with the creator of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie. Lewis was educated at boarding school and college in London, and worked in journalism for most of her life, notably as a member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times and as a long-term contributor to Country Life magazine (1944–1979).
Her first literary success was the novel Dew on the Grass, which was a bestseller on its publication in 1934 and won the Gold Medal of the Book Guild for the best novel of the year. Her second novel, The Captain’s Wife, came out in 1943 and was also ‘immediately popular, being reprinted twice within a matter of months’. Between these novels Lewis published her first collection of poetry, December Apples, in 1935, and a collaborative, non-fiction book with her brother Peter Lewis, entitled The Land of Wales, in 1937, which depicted the landscape and people of her native country.
Lewis’s second, and final, collection of poetry was published in 1944, called Morning Songs and Other Poems. According to literary critic Katie Gramich, Lewis’s poems are ‘lyrical and song-like, almost invariably expressing a sense of loss, nostalgia or longing’.
Lewis married in 1937 and moved to rural Surrey, where she lived until her death in April 1979. Despite the success of her literary career in the 1930s and 1940s, Lewis’s fame waned over the following decades; however, her novels have been republished recently amid a new scholarly interest in female Welsh writers of the twentieth century.
 Katie Gramich, Introduction to The Captain’s Wife by Eiluned Lewis (Dinas Powys: Honno, 2012), p. ii.
 Katie Gramich, Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing in Wales: Land, Gender, Belonging (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), p. 84.
Comments on the Poem as a Whole
‘Ships’ Sirens’ contains similar themes to the other poems in Eiluned Lewis’s 1935 collection December Apples: loss, longing, and nostalgia. Written in the first person (‘I’), the poem offers the reader access to the most personal and intimate thoughts of the speaker. By directly addressing their ex-partner in the second person (‘you’), the reader is, at times uncomfortably so, pulled directly into the middle of the emotional drama.
As in most good poetry, a productive ambiguity forms a central part of ‘Ships’ Sirens’, as ideas are suggested and presented metaphorically, rather than being expressly declared. In this way, no single interpretation of the poem can be seen as the correct one and it is left to the reader to make up their own mind. For example, a couple of key questions to take into consideration when reading this poem are: what is the status of the addressee (are they alive or dead?), do the speaker and the addressee reach any kind of agreement or understanding by the end, and what kind of closure, if any, does the speaker find?
In addition, tempting as it is to think of the speaker of ‘Ships’ Sirens’ as Lewis herself, there is nothing concrete in the poem to show that the speaker is a woman and the addressee a man. On the one hand, a stereotypical view of women as being more in touch with their emotions might lead the reader to assume the ‘tide of tears’ from the poem’s final line indicates the speaker is female. On the other hand, however, the speaker compares their situation in the first stanza with that of a ‘mariner’, which was traditionally an overwhelmingly male occupation. Likewise, the poem tells the reader next to nothing about the addressee, beyond the opinion that they would probably enjoy the sound of the ships’ foghorns. As a result, the reader must make their own assumptions about the identity of the poem’s two characters.
In the end, it is arguable whether the speaker finds solace in their situation: the poem starts with an acknowledgment that they are still regularly tormented by thoughts of the addressee, and though they then claim they will no longer express their unhappiness, the poem finishes with an admission that there will be more tears in the future. However, the idea of an uncontrollable passion needs to be set against the regular, precise form and rhyme scheme of ‘Ships’ Sirens’, which reminds the reader that this is a planned and calculated poem.