Sydney Goodsir Smith

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Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915 - 1975) : was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He came to Britain at the age of 12 and attended school in England before coming to Edinburgh to study medicine, which he later dropped to read history at Oriel College, Oxford. He returned to Edinburgh after graduating and lived there for the rest of his life, working for a time as art critic for The Scotsman.

Smith developed an early liking for Scots medieval poetry and, inspired by the great Makars, began to write his own verse. He soon followed in the footsteps of Hugh MacDiarmid in the Scots literary renaissance, going so far as to pinch a lot of MacDiarmid’s vocabulary (if not his intellectual rigour).

Unlike MacDiarmid, though, and more in keeping with the vernacular tradition of Fergusson and Garioch, Smith’s poetry is characterised by wild energy, decadence and a crackling sense of humour (where he becomes the tragic-comic butt of his own jokes). This is most evident in his book Under the Eildon Tree (1948), Smith’s longest work and a sequence of 24 elegies about love (or “luve’s arcane delirium”) in which the city of Edinburgh is personified – and sexualised – as a many-faced lover. Under the Eildon Tree was described by Smith’s friend and fellow poet Norman MacCaig as “the finest poetry to be published in Scotland since MacDiarmid’s early work.”

Along with Robert Garioch, Hugh MacDiarmid, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig and others, Smith was famously one of the regulars in the so-called ‘poets’ pubs’ in Edinburgh’s Rose Street (which included the Abbotsford, Milne’s Bar and the Café Royal). The poet’s pubs, especially Milne’s, were the social centre of the Scottish literary renaissance, where strong drink fuelled the Bohemian talk and the new makars created their own myths. (It is interesting to remember that many of these Bohemians were school teachers.) The group was immortalised in 1981 by Alexander Moffat’s painting, Poets’ Pub ( which romanticises the poets in a cosy glow, a second golden age of Scottish poetry now passed into history and legend.

This painting may be considered an appropriate tribute to Smith whose poetic persona was that of the inspired drunk. Many of his poems are narrated through a haze of strong drink, or its after-effects. Poems like The Grace of God and the Meth Drinker, Ma Moujik’s Lass or Song: The Steeple Bar, Perth. But there was a sober side to Smith: beneath the rowdy and often bawdy exterior, there was a scholar who had studied the poetry of Europe as well as the great Scottish Makars; who wrote in a voice not native to him; and who nonetheless played an influential part in the development of literature in Scotland in the 20th century.

The Grace of God and the Meth Drinker
by Sydney Goodsir Smith

There ye gang, ye daft
And dotit dotterel, ye saft
Crazed outland skalrag saul
In your bits and ends o winnockie duds
Your fyled and fozie-fousome clouts
As fou’s a fish, crackt and craftie-drunk
Wi blearit reid-rimmed
Ee and slaveran crozie mou
Dwaiblan owre the causie like a ship
Storm-toss’t i’ the Bay of Biscay O
At-sea indeed and hauf-seas-owre
Or up-til-the-crosstrees-sunk –
Wha kens? Wha racks?
Hidderie-hetterie stouteran in a dozie dwaum
O’ ramsh reid-biddie – Christ!
The stink
O’ jake ahint him, a mephitic
Rouk o miserie, like some unco exotic
Perfume o the Orient no juist sae easilie tholit
By the bleak barbarians o the Wast
But Subtil, acrid, jaggan the nebstrous
Wi ‘n owrehailan ugsome guff, maist delicat,
Like in scent til the streel o a randie gib . . .

His toothless gums, his lips, bricht cramasie
A schere-bricht slash o bluid
a schene like the leaman gleid o rubies
Throu the gray-white stibble
O’ his blank unrazit chafts. a hangman’s
Heid, droolie wi gob, the bricht een
Sichtless, cannie, blythe, and slee –

Puir gangrel!
– But for the undeemous glorie and grace
O’ a mercifu omnipotent majestic God
Superne eterne and sceptred in the firmament
Whartil the praises o the leal rise
Like incence aye about Your throne,
Ayebydan, thochtless and eternallie hauf-drunk
Wi nectar, Athole-brose, ambrosia – nae jake for
You –
God there! –
But for the ‘bunesaid unsocht grace, unprayed-for,

Further Reading

Scottish Libraries across the Internet
Good general introdution
click here

Scottish Poetry Library
A brief biog with links to an in-depth discussion of one of his major works Under the Eildon Tree.
click here