I was glad to be reminded of this beautiful lyric by hearing it on a poetry program on Radio 4 last Monday, ‘The Still Life Poet’, in which Liz Lochhead discussed the life and work of the Scots poet William Soutar (1898-1943). Though given particular poignancy by Soutar’s situation – he was for years bedridden with a painful spinal condition – the poem also stands in an ancient Celtic tradition: an early Irish saga, Aislinge Óengus (The Dream of Óengus), tells the story of how Aengus Og, the Irish god of love, was visited in dream by ‘the most beautiful woman in Eriu’ and fell sick with the ‘sercc ecmaise’, the ‘love of absence’.
I don’t think the Scots words should give much trouble. ‘Caller’ means fresh, ‘smool’d’ means slipped away, ‘waukrife’ means wakeful.
Sae luely luely cam she in,
And luely she lay doun;
I kent her by 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 aboot the waukrife hour
Whan cocks begin tae craw
That she smool’d saftly thru the mirk
Afore the day wud daw
Sae luely luely cam she in
Sae luely was she gaen
And wi’ her a’ my simmer days
Like they had never been.