The poet, William Soutar, was born in Perth, on the 28th of April, 1898.
William Soutar was probably the finest poet that Perth has ever produced and certainly one of the finest Scottish poets of the 19th Century. He was a poet and writer of national stature who wrote in both English and Scots, but it is for his Scottish poetry that he will surely be remembered for a very long time. He kept a journal from an early age and selections from it were published after his death, under the title ‘The Diaries of a Dying Man’. Significantly, it was not until illness disabled him that Soutar began his sustained work as a poet. During thirteen bed-bound years he continued to write, composing poetry, escaping through his imagination, and holding court to his many visitors and fellow writers, dressed in a jacket and bow tie. Many of Soutar’s poems recall tall stories of the old worthies he could no longer visit and some of his most evocative concern his home town of Perth and the surrounding countryside.
John Soutar was born in Perth on the 28th of April, 1898 and, between 1912 and 1916, he was a pupil at Perth Academy, where he excelled in the classroom and on the sports field. He was a popular character in his year and his literary skills were beginning to show through as the school magazine, the ‘Young Barbarian’, published some of his poems. At the beginning of 1917, he joined the Navy and served in the Atlantic and the North Sea. After demobilization in April, 1919, he entered Edinburgh University with a view to studying medicine. However, he was quickly disenchanted and changed to reading English Literature. His first volume of poetry, ‘Gleanings of an Undergraduate’, was published in 1923, within a year of his graduation.
Towards the end of his time in the Navy, he had begun to suffer from the early symptoms of the genetic disease that so afflicted his life. He was granted an invalidity discharge and spent his last days in the Service on leave. Later, and tragically, Soutar was diagnosed as having ankylosing spondilitis and, from November, 1930, he was permanently confined to bed. William Soutar was lovingly cared for by his parents, in his home at 27 Wilson Street, Perth, until his death, incidentally, from tuberculosis, on the 15th of October, 1943.
Writing about his life, in 1937, when he was already permanently confined to bed, Soutar told of his time 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.”
This sonnet of Soutar’s, entitled ‘The Halted Moment’ and written in Scots in 1943, has been favourably compared to William Wordsworth of ‘golden daffodils’ fame. According to the website at www.williamsoutar.com this poem “might well have brought a gasp of envy from Wordsworth.”
“Wha hasna turn’d inby a sunny street
And fund alang its length nae folk were there;
And heard his step fa’ steadily and clear
Nor wauken ocht but schedows at his feet.
Shuther to shuther in the reemlin heat
The houses seem’d to hearken and to stare;
But a’ were doverin whaur they stude and were
Like wa’s ayont the echo o’ time's beat.
Wha hasna thocht whan atween stanes sae still,
That had been biggit up for busyness,
He has come wanderin into a place
Lost, and forgotten, and unchangeable;
And thocht the far-off traffic sounds to be
The weary waters o’ mortality.”
Soutar was an associate of Hugh MacDiarmid’s, whom the latter affectionately satirised in ‘The Thistle Looks at a Drunk Man’. Indeed, MacDiarmid described Soutar as being in the vanguard of the top fifty contemporary Scottish poets. Soutar was most definitely a partisan of the revival of poetry written in Scots, producing rhythmically compelling verse, notable for its imaginative range. Soutar’s extensive prose journals are represented by the aforementioned ‘Diaries of a Dying Man’ (1954), which were edited by A. Scott, who also produced a biography, entitled ‘Still Life’ and which was published in 1958. Soutar’s reputation as a writer of prose is indubitably enhanced by Joy Hendry’s assessment of ‘Dying Man’ with her comment that “Soutar’s diary writings put him into the rank of the great diarists of the world.” Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.
Further praise comes from the introduction to ‘Into a Room: Selected Poems of William Soutar’, which was published in 2000 by Carl MacDougall and Douglas Gifford. It states that Soutar “is one of the greatest poets Scotland has produced.” Many of Soutar’s best loved poems are about Perth, known itself as ‘Yon Toun’. Favourites include; ‘The Deuchny Wuds’, ‘The Bogle Brig’ and ‘Whan Gowdan are the Carse-lands’. Soutar is also remembered for his ‘Bairnrhymes’, which are children’s poems that first appeared in ‘Seeds in the Wind, in 1933. Those short, somewhat whimsical, often humorous, children’s poems, such as ‘Bawsy Broon’ or ‘The Three Puddocks’, were written in Scots and are also known as ‘Bairnsangs’ or ‘Whigmaleeries’. They are deceptively simple pieces, but many of them deserve a second look between the lines.
Soutar’s father, who was a master joiner, adapted a downstairs room into a bedroom with a huge window so that his son had a view overlooking the back garden and out beyond to Craigie Hill. Notwithstanding his condition, Soutar derived inspiration from his environment as in his poem, ‘Cosmos’, where he wrote poignantly, “There is a universe within this room.” That house, where William Soutar lived and composed his poetry, is now known as ‘The Soutar House’ and is the abode of a ‘Writer in Residence’. It is used for readings and community events.