Poet who Outlived his Fame
Poetry has been likened to a sieve that retains the essentials of life and
discards the chaff, leaving a concentrate distilled upon the page in verse
or rhyme. The American cinquain is perhaps the best example of such a
concentrate being the most succinct and compact poetic form devised and
created especially for the English language, arising, so to speak, from
its own literary roots.
The Scottish poet, William Soutar(1898-1943) so renown for his poetry
in the Scots dialect also wrote many excellent poems in the English lyric
form and penned over a hundred in the short, concise, and ingenious
epigram form that has now become known as the American cinquain.
William Soutar was a published poet in his homeland with ten titles in
the years from 1931 to his death in 1943. He was the only child of
John Soutar, a master-joiner, and Margaret (Smith) and was born in Perth,
a seaport on the Firth of Tay on the east coast of Scotland. He developed
his literary skills at the Academy in the town, joining the Navy from
school in 1916, serving in both home and foreign waters. In 1919 he
attended Edinburgh University where he graduated M.A in English in 1923.
It was at this time his health failed and he became bedridden for the
remainder of his life.
William consoled himself with poetry (and later as a diary writer), in
the care of his devoted parents. His diaries abound in expressions of
gratitude to both his parents for their encouragement of his literary
work. In his diary just before his early death at the age of forty-five,
he hoped to be remembered as a poet, if for no other reason than that his
folks may not be forgotten, or the fact that they had done so much for
him, and had received so little in return.
Soutar, as a poet, was as prolific as Emily Dickinson, writing lyrics
in Scots, Rhymes and Riddles for bairns (children), lyrics in English and
what he termed Whigmaleeries (whims or fanciful
notions). It was his poetry in the Scots dialect that created his fame
during his life-time, especially Seeds of Time, poems in Scots for
children. His English lyrics remained largely unknown, particularly his
epigrams in the American cinquain format of his forbear Adelaide Crapsey,
that is ,until recent times.
William's cinquains number in excess of one hundred and are an
equal in quality to Adelaide's, perhaps thereby, furthering his
existing reputation as this cinquain image examples:
Which can endure
Is made more wise by woe---
As colour deepens on the flower
Despite being bed-ridden William's poetry contains much humour
and experience of all that life throws at each of us. From his bed he
could view his parent's garden and the hill in the distance beyond. His
cinquains reveal that little inside or out escaped his notice.
Also like Adelaide his cinquains cover a wide variety of topics that
reflect the influences upon their life and up-bringing and similar to
Adelaide he did not always keep to a rigid two:four:six:eight:two
syllable pattern within the five-line format.
There are five broad categories of to his cinquains, ranging from
those concerned with nature exemplified by Snow in Spring and
Summer Snow to those of the human condition exampled in The
Mask and Passion contrasted with others that remind us of William's
Christian background in The Task, Symposium and The
Certainities and those that typify the depth of his poetic affinities in
those cinquains of a literary bent as For a Poet and Eternal Spring, to
the typical epigrammatic form of Consolation and Happiness.
Much of William's cinquains have a down-to-earth flavour compared to
the some of the more classical-orientated cinquains of Adelaide e.g her
Roma Aeterna and For Lucas Cranach's Eve illustrating their differing
influences and backgrounds. Notwithstanding, each in their better
cinquains reflect the uniqueness of the American Cinquain as image poetry
of th highest quality exampled by Adelaide's November Night and William's
The Bridge. Each of which confirm how the cinquain devised by Adelaide
specifically for the English language 'work' better than the imported
image forms of another culture.
Lifts up its brow
Like a half-shrunken skull
Within whose sockets darkly moves
None of William's cinquains were published in his life time. A collection
of what he termed his best English lyrics he gathered together into a
volume entitled 'The Expectant Silence' and were published in the year
following his death. He had commenced to write his cinquains in the seven
years up to 1933 but the majority where penned in the latter part of his
writing career to 1939. It was at this time he also took to writing in the
'doublet' form similar to the Adelaide's epigram doublet On Seeing
Weather-beaten Trees. However William did not use the
integral title whereby Adelaide created her doublet into a rival image
form to the haiku, but thankfully has left us with many more than the two
doublets that we have of Adelaide's.
In addition to his Scots poetry and American cinquains and other
English lyrics William's reputation as a diarist and journal keeper
has been confirmed with his Diary of a Dying Man . His untimely
death from tuberculosis robbed Scotland of one of its most talented poets
of the vernacular dialect. In the wider realm William Soutar's
reputation in the burgeoning world of cinquain writers is now enhancing
the fame he achieved within his own land in his short but productive life.
Brian Strand is an English cinquain writer and enthuiast and is
the editor of Flowers of Life (a selection of cinquains by William
Soutar) and the editor of a booklet on short poetic form Short Hand of the
Return to the front page of this issue:
4, No. 1
Go to the
Poets & Authors page for the poet's
biographical sketch and email link.
All poems are copyright © 2006 by their respective authors.