William Soutar was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1898, son of John, a joiner, and Margaret. At school, he excelled on the sports field, and led a pupil strike. At Perth Academy, he began to develop his literary skills. Later he would recall:
“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.”
In 1917, he joined the Navy and served for two years. By the end of his military service, he was beginning to suffer from skeletal pains. He went up to Edinburgh University, initially to read medicine, but then changed to English. At this time, Soutar sent some of his poems to Hugh MacDiarmid, who described him as already being in the top fifty Scottish poets. Soutar’s first volume of poetry was published before he graduated in 1923. But by then his symptoms had spread from his legs to his back, which prevented him pursuing his plan to become a teacher.
The family moved house to 27 Wilson Street, now a museum to the poet. His condition continued to worsen, and eventually he was diagnosed as having ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable spinal condition. On getting his diagnosis:
‘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.” ‘
He would become a leading figure of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. As time went on, more and more of Soutar’s poetry was written in Scots:
Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue
but warstles wi’ the thoucht-
there are mair sangs that bide unsung
nor a’ that hae been wroucht.
Ablow the wastrey o’ the years,
the thorter o’ himsel’
deep buried in his bluid
he hears a music that is leal.
And wi’ this lealness gangs his ain;
and there’s nae ither gait
though a’ his feres were fremmit men
wha cry: Owre late, owre late.
By 1930, he was confined permanently to bed. His father made adaptations so he could live comfortably at home in a ground floor bedroom with a large window looking onto Craigie hill.
Whan Gowdan are the Carse-lands
Braw are the Grampian Mountains
Whan simmer licht is still;
And gowdan are the Carse-lands
Ablow the Corsie Hill.
Yonder the gowdan steeple
Spires up frae the auld toun,
And the brig wides through the water
Owre far awa for soun’.
And its easy in this quiet,
Sae gowdan and sae still,
To lippen that a’ the world
And your ain hert will hale.
Soutar would lie propped up in bed, in jacket and bow tie, and receive a constant stream of visitors, many of them leading literary figures, and when they went away, he would write poems. He kept a diary, published as Diaries of a Dying Man, and one entry reads:
‘I see eight people have called this week…this means at least twenty hours at least spent in mediocre conversation. My God!’
He yearned for emotional and sexual release, but lived under the protection of his fiercely religious parents.
When his parents adopted a five year old orphan cousin, Evelyn, this spurred Soutar to write poetry for children, what he called bairn-rhymes, a volume of which were published in 1933, For example:
The tattie-bogle wags his airms: Caw! Caw! Caw!
He hasna onie banes or thairms: Caw! Caw! Caw!
We corbies wha hae taken tent, and whamphl’d round, and glower’d asklent,
Noo gang hame lauchin owre the bent: Caw! Caw! Caw!
For a long time, he was best known for these short verses for children.
Willie Soutar was a socialist and a nationalist. He wrote in 1932:
‘My life’s purpose is to write poetry – but behind the poetry must be the vision of a fresh revelation for men.’
In July 1943, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and by October he was dead, aged only 45. The editor of his diaries wrote:
“His poetry was the prize wrested from a battle against death and despair which he fought for half a lifetime.”
Seeing life with clear eyes, knowing joy as well as bleakness, Soutar himself summed up life in a poem:
Out of the darkness of the womb
Into a bed, into a room:
Out of a garden into a town,
And to a country, and up and down
The earth; the touch of women and men
And back into a garden again:
Into a garden; into a room;
Into a bed and into a tomb;
And the darkness of the world’s womb.