You Should Know: William Soutar

posted in: Poetry, School | 2
Scone Palace, Scotland. (Guess what's for breakfast?? Wakka-wakka!)
Scone Palace, Scotland. (Guess what’s for breakfast?? Wakka-wakka!)

Though I’ve had to take a wee break, I am still working toward my Master’s degree. My advisors have informed me that Columbia is the place to continue the MLA I began at the University of Chicago; if I can get in, stay put for long enough to do the work and not get sick for any length of time, why, I might just be able to get that ol’ girl done. I have a ways to go but I also will probably not die anytime soon. I’m saying there’s time.

I’m not wasting precious reading hours while I get my ducks lined up, though; there’s thesis research to be done and I’m doing it. I know what I want my thesis to be about after taking several workshops about putting together a thesis: I want write about diarists. Being one, and being a fan of them and (by and large) the diaries they write, I suspect I’ll be endlessly fascinated. As I think more and more about tackling a thesis in my life and as I read more and more, the actual intent and focus of the thesis will be revealed and who knows? Maybe I’ll actually discover or contribute something to a body of study that is pretty robust already. For now, I’m just reading diaries and biographies of diarists and books about the diary’s role in Western literature and that’s my school right now.

And in my para-research (doesn’t that sound fancy) I have discovered a wonderful poet that I hadn’t known about before: William Soutar. English majors may groan and shake their heads that this person was unknown to me, but cut me some slack: I studied theater in undergrad. Can you quote a line from Major Barbara? Ah-ha! Didn’t think so. (Note to self: Look up pithy line from Major Barbara.)

William Soutar was a Scottish poet and writer who had a rather tragic life. Born in 1898, he contracted a virus when he was in his twenties and this went untreated. By the time he was thirty-two, he was bedridden, quite ill, and essentially paralyzed. He spent fourteen years in bed and died when he was just forty-five.

But he was an incredible poet and writer and refused to let his ill-health take his brain or his passion as his body lay so feeble. He read and read and wrote and wrote and had all kinds of things published. It was said that his bedroom was one of the centers of the 20th Century Scottish Literary Renaissance, due to all his work and all the heavyweight writers that came to hang out with him.

He wrote wonderful poems for children (“the bairnrhymes”) but is maybe best known over here in America for his Diaries of a Dying Man. The diaries he kept for so many years are all in a book that you can buy (because the world is amazing) and just this very morning I wept reading a certain entry. It is such beautiful writing. Soutar was human and he has his moments of despair and frustration and angst, but by and large, he’s just crazy lion-hearted and awesome and so freaking smart that you ache for his situation while you marvel at his talent. Yes, I am slightly in love with William Soutar (no, Yuri does not feel terribly threatened.)

Here, to whet your appetite, two passages from Diaries of a Dying Man, by William Soutar. The first one is the one that made me cry a little this morning over my tea. The second is a favorite so far.

“I wonder if fit mortals realise that infirmity makes the most ordinary actions wonderful. A person, like myself, set aside from the thoroughfare of life can often look on life’s manifestation with a detachment denied the protagonist in the market-place. Common acts become isolated from particular times and places and grow, by recollection, into moments of beauty loved in themselves without desire or regret. Thus everyday phrases can bring to such a watcher a rounded image of loveliness mysteriously coloured by the consciousness that he himself can no longer enact them; phrases such as ‘he lifted a stone’, ‘he stood by the sea’, ‘he walked into the wood’.”

“For some weeks past I have found myself, from time to time, putting out an imaginary hand as if to touch the earth in a comprehensive gesture of love — but I do not deceive myself by these vague stirrings of affection : it is so easy to love a ‘thing’ : one must learn to love people first.”

2 Responses

  1. Mary Fons
    | Reply

    Here you go, from Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw: “Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted.”

    It was either that or this:

    “Oh Snobby, if you had given your poor mother just one more kick, we should have got the whole five shillings!”

  2. Melissa Trujillo
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing a bit of Mr William Soutar works. I may have to look him up as well although I’m not working on my masters. 🙂 I’m sure you’ll be brilliant in writing your thesis.

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