Example poetry

Poem of the week: Ballade de William Soutar | Poetry

Ballad

O! shairly you saw my love
Doun whaur the wind of the waters:
He walks like a man who fears no one
And yet his e’en are nice.

O! shairly you saw my love
At the turn of the tide;
For then he gathers in the nets
Doun be the waterfront.

O! Lassie I saw your love
At the turn of the tide;
And he was with the fishermen
Doun be the waterfront.

The fishermen were at their job
Not far from Walnut Grove;
They gathered in their fishing nets
And fund your true love.

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Born in 1898 in Perth, Scotland, the poet William Soutar served in the navy during the First World War and afterwards studied at the University of Edinburgh by then he was already suffering from the disease later diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis. His talents then focused on restoring and popularizing the Scots language, first by writing verse (“bairn rhymes”) for children. Influenced by Hugh MacDiarmid and Ezra Pound, he became a leading figure in the scottish renaissance. He also wrote many poems in English, and these are often quietly innovative, with sudden surprises in syntax and vocabulary.

The ballad form always seemed a particularly effective poetic time traveler and was naturally appealing to Soutar. The one I chose, written in 1943, consists of a dialogue between a young “lassie” and a character who may or may not be one of the fishermen, although he is an authoritative witness to what happened. past. There’s a haunting combination of escapism and brutality in the tones from both speakers.

The girl’s repeated call, “O! hairy [surely] you saw my love,” yearns for a positive response. The first time she describes the man she is looking for, she emphasizes his moral qualities. The detail that his ‘e’en [eyes] are nice” would be of crucial importance to her, but not as a means by which a stranger would recognize him. As she goes on to describe her work of gathering in the nets, she gets closer to the reality of her death at sea. The revelation of what happened to her is forestalled by the third verse in a characteristic ballad-story device. It is a kind of aside, addressed to the reader to make us guess and hope a little longer: ‘O! Lassie I saw your love / At the turn of the tide; / And he was with the fishermen / Doun to be at the water’s edge. Of course, the last verse reveals how he was found – not safely ashore with the other fishermen, but as a corpse brought up by the tide and caught in the “dreepin”. [dripping] fillets. Soutar knows when to end the story. Anything more would be superfluous.

Soutar’s earlier wartime experience indirectly informs various poems of the 1940s. In the English-language poem Who are these children? for example, he captures the scene in which a triumphant feast of “fox people” is observed by the children of the village “gathered here / Out of fire and smoke / Who with faces that remember…” The deadly ritual is vividly evoked in the second stanza: “The shine of blood on the tunics / And on the lips of women: / The shine of silver on the throats / And on the hunting whips.”

Behind both poems there is an awareness of working class vulnerabilities. Ballade avoids pastiche because nothing in it rings false or modernized: the story and the language are rooted in their tradition but they also belong to the 20th century and to the time of war in writing.


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