Obituary: Tom Scott
Monday 14 August 1995
Tom Scott's earliest poems were in English and he returned to that language in some of his later work - he wrote memorably in both forms of language. He had begun as a singer. He had a beautiful tenor voice and it is the music of his poetry that will make it endure. As he often said, "Poetry is verse that sings with its own unique music." This quality was present in one of his earliest poems, "Sea Dirge: A Mither's Keenin" (published by Tambimutto, in Poetry London, in the early 1940s):
I found him dround on the rock that nicht
and the wind high. Munelicht it wes,
and the hungry suckin of the sea at
streikin awa in front o me.
The first version of that poem was in English, but Scott later realised that the rhythm of it was that of Scots and he altered the spelling accordingly.
Scott found his voice in Scots by visiting Europe, in particular Sicily. He then realised that he belonged to the great tradition of Scottish poets (Dunbar, Henryson, Gavin Douglas) which was more European and less insular than much of English poetry. This led him to produce his great translations of the 15th-century French poet Villon:
Tell me whaur, in whit countrie
Bides Flora nou, yon Roman belle?
Whaur Thais, Alcibiades be,
Thon sibbit cousins. Can ye tell
Whaur cleteran echo draws pell-mell
Abuin some burn owrehung wi bine
Her beautie's mair nor human spell -
Ay, whaur's the snaws o langsyne?
Many have attempted to translate that great ballade, but no one has captured the music of the original so memorably. The wonderful qualities of these versions were recognised by both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
As well as recreating great European poems in Scots (his versions of Dante, Anglo- Saxon and St John of the Cross come to mind), Scott wrote some of the most moving and tender lyrics of any era. "The Annunciation" is short enough to quote entire:
You'll lig your waddin-nicht yourlane
Your legs aspar ti nocht but air,
And it will get in ye a son
Yet never pairt your maiden hair.
Ye'll hain yersel baith nicht and morne
And letna your guidman steir ye, will ye,
Afore the ferlie bairn is born
And broached your virgin nipples til ye.
Tak tent nou, I maun gang my road:
Ilka word I've said is true.
And aa I've ever envied God
Is the bairnin o a lass like you.
But Tom Scott's work did not stay still. He was not, like so many talented poets, content to go on writing the same poem in a variety of forms throughout his life. He turned to making ambitious longer poems. The finest of these is The Ship - a passionate denunciation of the flaw which is at the core of Western civilisation. Published in 1963, this poem has not dated - it is even more living now than at the time it was written. As he said of it himself "The Ship was criticising our whole world which is dedicated to the profit motive. The creation of wealth not for need, but for its own sake, and for profit, and profit must go on making more and more profit. This is one of the key things in The Ship . . . The spoilation of the earth, of the sea, the constant pollution that's going on, the constant attack on the animals . . . These didn't exist, in the way that they have come to exist, when I wrote The Ship."
Yeats wrote, "Poetry is truth seen with passion." Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tom Scott had the courage to tackle big subjects. He was a lifelong socialist (his father was a shipyard boilermaker on Clydeside) and a Scottish patriot, but he was too great a writer to be labelled as belonging to any political party. He was a life- giving poet whose work stemmed from awe at the beauty and mystery of the universe.
He was also a prose writer. His important study of Dunbar appeared in 1966 and he completed a history of Scottish literature which never found a publisher. He edited The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (1970) and wrote children's books with his wife, Heather.
Like Basil Bunting, his reputation as a poet came late. As Harold Pinter said, on the publication of his Collected Shorter Poems (1993), "It's astonish- ing that such a powerful and original poetic voice should have been so neglected. Tom Scott is a poet of the highest order."
I believe his work will endure as long as there are lovers of poetry and there are few poets of any era about whom this can be said.
Tom Scott, poet: born Glasgow 6 June 1918; married 1963 Heather Fretwell (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 7 August 1995.
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