Poets are difficult to compare. Time, culture, context and ideology defy objective comparison. The views of the reader in relation to the role of poetry and its form equally make it impossible to decide which of several poets is the greater. Despite this truth it can be said without fear of falsification that William Soutar born in Perth on 28 April 1898 is one of Scotland’s greatest bards in both the English and Scots medium.
Born in sight of the Tay to John Soutar and Margaret Gow Smith, spending his early years in a flat by South Inch Terrace and then in a cottage near the harbour and dying within the burgh made Soutar very much of Perthshire. His early death on October 15 1943 was due to an illness contracted whilst in the navy. He was educated at Perth Academy. “That was my eighteenth year while yet the shadow of war was unacknowledged. Then I was one of the fleetest at the Academy; one of the strongest; first in my year at most things; I was writing poetry; I was in love; I was popular both in the classroom and the playing field. I never reached this condition of living fullness again except in brief moments.”
Soutar after leaving Perth Academy (the old Rose Terrace site) was conscripted under the 1916 Military Service Act into the Royal Navy and spent the years 1916-1918 as a sailor aboard a battleship on the Atlantic and North Sea. A bout of food poisoning that saw him hospitalised in December 1918 led to his contracting a form of spondylitis(1)that through his lifetime would leave him invalid and finally kill him. Part of the problem during the early stages of the ailment was the failure of medical experts to achieve the correct diagnosis. He was often told that he had rheumatoid arthritis.
His literary output began whilst a student at Edinburgh University and includes 10 volumes of poetry published during his lifetime and one posthumously. His style and approach in his own words concerned; “all the passions and pains of humanity stark clear from the shadows of individuality.” His religious upbringing and his rejection of its traditional forms and conventionality inform his poetry and prose. Its topics range from comical rhymes for bairns and adults to serious engagement with society, current events, the role of poetry and his own existence.
Soutar intended to study medicine at Edinburgh but quickly found it uninteresting and began a degree in English literature. His academic life was affected by his illness and dissatisfaction with the Anglo-Saxon dominated syllabus led in part to his failure to achieve higher than a third class honours degree. After graduation Soutar’s medical condition and deteriorating state left him incapable of employment, but ample opportunity to study philosophy, theology, psychology and literature. He returned to Perth in 1923. William Soutar was a pacifist and this ideological tendency can be located in his poetry and prose. He empathised greatly with Wilfred Owen both for his words against war and for his brilliance as a poet. For Soutar, “A pacifist cannot compromise but must accept that the use of arms is wrong under all conditions.”
In February 1929 a bout of pneumonia preceded a series of difficult and unsuccessful leg operations. From 1930 until his death William Soutar was confined to bed. Throughout this period he worked and wrote and was visited by many people that would influence him and that he would influence. Most notable was the poet who was leading the renaissance of poetry in the Scots tongue Hugh MacDiarmid. It would be MacDiarmid that would be the catalyst for Soutar’s move from English to Scots within his writing.
Soutar’s bedroom was enlarged by his father and the window through which he would gaze upon and lyricise the world was enlarged. Although through even this expanded portal William Soutar could only view a garden, he some how managed to see the world and the diversity which resides within.
His published poetry includes, ‘Gleanings of an Undergraduate’ (1923), ‘Conflict’ (1931), ‘Seeds in the Wind’ (1933), ‘Poems in Scots’ (1933), ‘Riddles in Scots’(1937), ‘In the Time of Tyrants’ (1939) and ‘The Expectant Silence’ (1944). Soutar’s ‘Diaries of a Dying Man’ not published until 1954 and facilitated by Alexander Scott articulates the story of Soutar’s decline and eventual death from May 21 1930 onwards. This collection of his diaries and notes contain insights into Soutar’s view of poetry and poets but also into both humanity in the individual form of those who visited his bedside for conversation and the wider social collective. Details of his falling health can be found as well as Soutar’s approach to death and hopeful immortality through his writing. Other prose writings consist of journals and thirty four ‘Dream’ interpretation journals. Soutar adopted the unicorn as a symbol for himself and this image was printed onto five of his books of poetry.
The awful infliction that had confined Soutar was by July 1943 taking hold of his lungs.
“Yesterday¹s experience of coughing for 3 hours without clearance … was a most wearing one … I can guess that many very unpleasant experiences are awaiting me; and one of the most unfortunate consequences is the loss of time.”
William Soutar October 12 1943
Hugh MacDiarmid in 1948 put together a final volume of Soutar’s work entitled ‘Collected Poems’ which despite its name was full of unseen material. Much of the last ten years of his productive output was involved with ‘whigmaleeries’ that are poems of humour, imaginativeness and hyperbole.
There is a Soutar archive in the National Library. The house – 27 Wilson Street – in which he lived, is presently the home of Perth and Kinross writer in residence and Soutar Fellow; currently Ajay Close. The other holders of the fellowship have been Brian McCabe, Raymond Vetese, John Herdman, Donald Campbell, Alan Jamieson and Carl McDougall.
The A.K. Bell Library houses a collection of the personal library of William Soutar. These contain his signature and can be viewed on request.
In the High Street in Perth a sculpture is located which features an inscription of the poem ‘Nae Day Sae Dark’.
“Nae day sae dark; nae wud sae bare;
Nae grund sae stour wi’stane;
But licht comes through; a sang is there;
A glint o’ grass is green.”
At the end of April 1958 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Soutar’s birth the playwright Robert Kemp opened an exhibition at Perth Art Gallery, where a bust of the poet continues to be on view today. A plaque was also unveiled at 27 Wilson Street. There is an extensive Soutar archive at the National Library for Scotland.
“Although he (Soutar) was born and died in Perth he was no merely local achievement. The man and his poetry, both in Scots and English, have won many readers and admirers, not only in Perth and Perthshire, but also throughout the country and indeed the world. Over the years his reputation has grown steadily and his place in the Canon of Scottish literature is now generally recognised.”
John Buchan, Lord Provost of Perth January 1958
1 This being a form of ossification of the vertebrae.