Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My hungry hound

The Scottish poet William Soutar passed away seventy years ago today, his death having come slowly but inevitably after more than a decade of being bedridden and constantly confronted with his own incapacity. His poetry is considered to have made an important contribution to the Scottish Literary Renaissance, but it is because of his diaries, perhaps, that he is mostly remembered, at least outside of Scotland. One of his diaries contains a witty poem about how the diary is ‘a hungry hound’, yet his mind is so bare he has nothing to feed it. He started a new journal in the last months of his life, and this he named The Diary of a Dying Man.

Soutar was born in Perth, an only child in a religious family. His father was a master-joiner, and his mother wrote poetry. William studied at the local academy before joining the Royal Navy during the latter part of the First World War. While serving, he contracted a disease - later diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis - which blighted the rest of his life. After the war he studied, first medicine, then English, at Edinburgh University. He contributed to the university magazine; and his father financed publication of slim volumes of poetry, the first being Gleanings by an Undergraduate.

Encouraged and inspired by Hugh McDiarmid, who is credited with developing a literary Scots style of writing, Soutar evolved into an important figure in the so-called Scottish Literary Renaissance. After contracting TB and an unsuccessful operation in 1930, Soutar spent the rest of his life confined to a specially-adapted room in his parents house, where he received many literary visitors. In the house, also, was an orphaned cousin who prompted Soutar to write for children (Seeds in the Wind, for example). He died on 15 October 1943. Further information is available from the Scottish Poetry Society, the William Soutar website, the BBC or Wikipedia.

Soutar’s extant diaries date from 1917, when he was still with the Royal Navy, but until his operation in 1930, they contain but brief notes of appointments and information on books read. According to Alexander Scott, another Scottish poet, who edited the diaries for their first publication in 1954, ‘from the date of the operation, [. . .] the entries extend greatly, both in length and in range, until they provide a fascinating and detailed picture of Soutar’s “still life” in the room where he was bedfast - a life unique in achievement as in environment.’

The diaries were published by W. and R. Chambers Ltd under the title Diaries of a Dying Man, and much of this is available to browse at Googlebooks. Joy Hendry, author of Soutar’s entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (login required), says it was unfortunate that Scott chose that title because, she felt, Scott had ‘appropriated’ the title that Soutar himself gave to his very last, and very special, diary, started just months before his death. Hendry says it is thanks to American diarist scholar Thomas Mallon, moved by the tragic story of the diaries and amazed at their literary quality and Soutar’s obscurity, that a process began that brought the diaries back into print (i.e. an edition published in 1991 by Chapman Publications).

4 April 1932
‘Writing and reading: continue to wrestle with words in a very sticky fashion. Perhaps my concentration on verse has made it difficult for me when I turn to prose - anyhow, there is often a strained sound about such prose as I write. Of course all men, I expect, come upon these periods of mental stiffness - but they are depressing at the time and bring with them the fear that they may not pass away. At such moments, the mood is disintegrated - a stimulating talk with a kindred spirit may also disperse it - but alas! I rarely enjoy that. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if much of the irritating tattle which is washed my way lies like a weight on the spirit.’

28 June 1932
‘Just realised to-day that it was round about this time, 10 years ago, when I was Mercer’s age (24) [Soutar’s cousin] that the pains and stiffness in my back began. We were on holiday at Montrose. When I look at Mercer I can scarcely accept the fact that my youth was actually dying then. Seeing him walking about in my clothes - I sometimes wonder what strange necessity brought about the humiliation of my body. Man must look for a reason, and when he has lost his old gods must peer into himself. It is not self-compliment to surmise that one had to sacrifice one’s body to make a self.’

29 June 1932
‘. . . Just now as I lifted my eyes to the hillside I saw the trees waving like a wall of fire. If only one could respond to life as the earth to the sun - but the heart is so often a trim little garden with neither luxuriance nor the conflict of the jungle. It is so easy to retreat within the safe walls of mediocrity.’

4 June 1935
‘TO MY DIARY (on a dull day)
Since verse has power to give a grace
Even to the commonplace
I shall, within a rhyme, declare
The cupboard of my mind is bare
Not only of an underdone
Cutlet of thought; the very bone
Of prosy platitude is gone.
And since for you, my hungry hound,
No meaty morsel can be found;
And since I would not have you own
A master who could proffer none,
I bleed myself to be your drink:
Is not the blood of poets - ink?’

3 August 1940
‘Jennie in emancipated mood this morning, dashing about at her window-cleaning with no stockings on: sometimes the glimpse of a free, young body gives me a sudden, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.’

6 October 1943
‘How snail-like the temp at which I seem to be living now - and yet my days are hurrying out of the world. I do not think any of my friends suspect as yet that I am under the sentence of death; and it will be fine if they continue for a good while yet to imagine that I have a touch of bronchitis, or something like that: when at last they know, an undefinable restraint will come between the free interchange of friendship.’

13 October 1943
‘Writing in the forenoon: G. G., with the concern of an elder brother, trotted in to find if I was more settled this morning: I could say that I was, but that that was due in the main to the fact I wasn’t attempting to get rid of the phlegm. The stuff was accordingly accumulating - and could not but be a factor in the increase of breathlessness and palpitation: thus one is threatened from all around, by night and by day: whichever way one may turn, the net is closing and cannot be evaded.’

14 October 1943
‘[. . .] Last night I must have been talking quite a lot; as the folks said they heard me making noises around 1:50.’

The Diary Junction

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