Nae Day Sae Dark
Nae day sae dark; nae wüd sae bare;
Nae grund sae stour wi’ stane;
But licht comes through; a sang is there;
A glint o’ grass is green.
Wha hasna thol’d his thorter’d hours
And kent, whan they were by,
The tenderness o’ life that fleurs
Rock-fast in misery?
His life was short, his dying long and he bore his fate with cheerful dignity. William Soutar died for 13 long years, confined to a bed in the house of his parents, receiving visitors, writing poetry and bearing it all with strength and productivity, knowing he would never get better again.
How could he bear it? How could he not fall into despair?
Soutar 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.” This was written in 1937 when he was already permanently confined to bed. (1)
William Soutar was full of life, a young student of English, a soldier in the Navy , an ardent swimmer and a poet with a deep love of the Scots language. He joined the Navy during the war, a young man full of strength and with a future.
During this, his most active time of his life, he caught food poisoning which went untreated. A fatal omission which caused his death eventually. He had to face his hardest battle after the end of World War I.
In October 1923 and again a year later, Soutar had X-rays and consultations with Professor John Fraser, whose final diagnosis of the young man’s trouble was that it was a form of spondylitis, too late to cure. Realising at last that the illness was to be permanent, Soutar recorded that ‘suddenly I halted in the dusk beside the pillars of West St. George’s, Edinburgh, and stood for a moment bareheaded, saying over to myself, “Now I can be a poet.” (2)
And he sure was.
Poetry and heroism are inevitably associated in any consideration of the life of William Soutar. His poetry was the prize wrested from a battle against death and despair which he fought for half a lifetime. Death defeated him in the end, but in the struggle with despair he was victorious; and even of his conquest by death he made a triumph, for in that last battle he expressed such fortitude and magnanimity as to make one proud of humankind.
– Alexander Scott, Still Life: William Soutar 1898-1943
Soutar was part of what is known as the Scottish Renaissance, bringing the traditional Scots as a language back to life and recognition.
Unlike many poets of the school of MacDiarmid, Soutar wrote a pure Perthshire Scots. (4)
The great Scottish poet died of tuberculosis on the 15th of October 1943. He never stopped writing until the day of his death.
O luely, luely, cam she in
And luely she lay doun:
I kent her be her caller lips
And her breists sae sma’ and roun’.
A’ thru the nicht we spak nae word
Nor sinder’d bane frae bane:
A’ thru the nicht I heard her hert
Gang soundin’ wi’ my ain.
It was about the waukrife hour
When cocks begin to craw
That she smool’d saftly thru the mirk
Afore the day wud daw.
Sae luely, luely, cam she in
Saie luely was she gaen;
And wi’ her a’ my simmer days
Like they had never been.
(3) Alexander Scott (ed.): William Soutar: Diaries of a Dying Man. Canongate, 1991
(4) Charles King (ed.): Twelve Modern Scottish Poets. Hodder & Stoughton, London; 1971
poems taken from Collected Poems, edited by Hugh MacDiarmid (Andrew Dakers, 1948), and included in Into a Room: selected poems of William Soutar ( Argyll Publishing, 2000)
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