Week 516: The Makar, by William Soutar

From about the 1920s on, Scottish writers began to engage with questions of politics and national identity, as part of what is called the Scottish Renaissance, and one aspect of this was the forging of a new language for poetry which respected the rich heritage of the past, drawing on both the archaic and the vernacular, the vernacular in question being the lowland dialects of southern and central Scotland rather than those of the Highlands. (The very different Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language, had by that time already long been in retreat and its native speakers were to be found, as today, mainly but not exclusively in the Western Isles).

The effort was not without its detractors, who saw the result as artificial, a ‘plastic Scots’ whose grammatical structures owed too much to standard English, but this poem by William Soutar (1898-1943; see also weeks 61 and 109) does seem to me to express very eloquently what moved himself and others to attempt this forging: the sense of a genuine tradition deep buried but still full of a potential vitality, heard like a music in the blood, compelling one to a particular course of self-expression whatever doubts others, the ‘fremmit men’ estranged from this tradition, might voice.

makar: maker, poet (the fifteenth/sixteenth century Scots poet William Dunbar wrote a famous poem ‘Lament for the Makaris’)
wha: who
lawland: lowland
warsles: wrestles
thocht: thought
mair: more
sang: song
nor a’: than all
wrocht: wrought
ablow: below
wastrey: waste
thorter: frustration, thwarting
leal: loyal, but here more like ‘genuine, true to itself
ain: own: gangs his ain: goes his own i.e. his own desires are in accord with this leal music
gait: way
a’: all
fere: companion
fremmit: estranged
owre: over, too

The Makar

Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue
But warsles wi’ the thocht—
There are mair sangs that bide unsung
Nor a’ that hae been wrocht.

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.

William Soutar

Week 109: The Tryst, by William Soutar

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.

The Tryst

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.

William Soutar

Week 61: The Thocht, by William Soutar

I think the meaning of the Scots words in this poem should be fairly obvious, but just in case: thocht = thought, jizzen-bed = childbed, deed = died, aye = always, owrecome = refrain, gin = if, hinny = honey, ghaist = ghost and I take ‘or’ in the second line of the third stanza to mean ‘before’.

The Thocht

Young Janie was a strappan lass
Wha deed in jizzen-bed;
And monie a thocht her lover thocht
Lang eftir she was dead:

But aye, wi a’ he brocht to mind
O’ misery and wrang,
There was a gledness gether’d in
Like the owrecome o’ a sang:

And, gin the deid are naethingness
Or they be minded on,
As hinny to a hungry ghaist
Maun be a thocht like yon.

William Soutar