Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975)
As a poet, dramatist, and experimental novelist, Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975) played a major role in the twentieth-century Scottish Literary Renaissance and was a vital presence on Edinburgh’s post-war literary scene.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Sydney Goodsir Smith arrived in Scotland in 1928, when his father Sir Sydney Alfred Smith (1883-1969) became professor of Forensic Medicine at Edinburgh University. Smith was schooled in England at Malvern College and began a medical degree at Edinburgh University, but abandoned it to read Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford, graduating in 1937. Due to chronic asthma, he was turned down for active service in the Second World War. He worked instead for the War Office, teaching English to Polish troops.
Smith began writing poetry in English in the 1930s but, under the influence of Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), turned to Scots during the Second World War. Although not a native speaker, Smith forged a versatile poetical idiom which merged the language of the medieval makars with contemporary Edinburgh vernacular. His early collections Skail Wind (1941), The Wanderer and Other Poems (1943), and The Deevil's Waltz (1946) established him as the leading poet in the second wave of the Scottish Renaissance Movement.
In 1948, Smith published his masterpiece Under the Eildon Tree, a twenty-four part celebration of romantic love, which showed his ability to evoke dramatically contrasting moods and feelings via sudden shifts of register (from tragic to self-mocking, from tender to bawdy). Smith’s reputation continued to grow in the 1950s, a prolific (and perhaps over-productive) decade which saw him publish the collections The Aipple and the Hazel (1951), So Late into the Night (1952), Cokkils (1953), Omens (1955), Orpheus and Eurydice (1955), and Figs and Thistles (1959). By the turn of the decade, Smith’s work was assuming a more overtly political and nationalistic character. He turned increasingly to drama and to writing for broadcast, including two radio poems commissioned by the BBC: The Vision of the Prodigal Son (1959) on Robert Burns’s bicentenary and The Twa Brigs (1964) on the opening of the Forth Road Bridge. A further BBC commission resulted in Kynd Kittock’s Land, a poetic portrait of Edinburgh televised by the BBC in 1964 with still photographs by Alan Daiches. Smith’s shorter poems of this period were collected in Fifteen Poems and a Play (1969), the final collection published in his lifetime.
The Novelist and Dramatist
Although best-known as a poet, Sydney Goodsir Smith is also celebrated as the author of the experimental novel Carotid Cornucopius (1947), one of the few prose works in Scots published during the Renaissance period. Its exuberant linguistic wordplay has drawn comparison with both Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 17th-century translation of Rabelais. Characters from Carotid Cornucopius reappear in Smith’s play The Rout of Spring (or Colickie Meg) (1950). From the late 1950s onwards, Smith increasingly turned to drama. His best-known theatrical work is the verse drama The Wallace, a celebration of the life of Scotland’s national hero, performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1960. Later plays include The Stick-Up (1961), a radio play which Scottish composer Robin Orr turned into an opera (1968). (Further works by Smith were set by the composers William Wordsworth and Ronald Stevenson.)
The Critic and Editor
Smith was also active as a literary critic and editor. He published A Short Introduction to Scottish Literature (1951) and edited Robert Fergusson, 1750-1774: Essays by Various Hands (1952), Gavin Douglas: A Selection from his Poetry (1959) and Hugh MacDiarmid: A Festschrift (1962). His most significant editorial project is perhaps Robert Burns’s The Merry Muses of Caledonia (with James Barke) for the Burns Bicentenary of 1959. Smith’s lifelong love of Burns is also attested by his A Choice of Burns's Poems and Songs (1966). An accomplished painter and caricaturist, Smith was long the art critic of The Scotsman.
Known as the ‘The Auk’, Smith was a familiar convivial presence on the Edinburgh literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. He was one of the circle of poets associated with Milne’s Bar including Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig (1910-1996), and Tom Scott (1918-1995). In 1959 Smith, MacDiarmid, and MacCaig were installed as ‘club bards’ of the newly founded 200 Burns Club.
Smith was the recipient of a Rockefeller Atlantic Award in 1946, a Festival of Britain Scots Poetry Prize in 1951, and the Sir Thomas Urquhart Award in 1962 (presented by Edinburgh University Scottish Renaissance Society for his contribution to Scottish literature). His achievements were also celebrated in special numbers of Lines (Summer 1953) and Akros (May 1969). At the time of Smith’s sudden death on 15 January 1975, his Collected Poems were in production. Tom Scott assumed editorship of the volume, and it appeared later that year with an introduction by Hugh MacDiarmid. Smith's life was commemorated in a special number of Scotia Review (April 1975) and in the celebratory volume For Sydney Goodsir Smith, with contributions from Robert Garioch (1909-1981), George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean (1911-1996), and other writers. Smith's work was translated into German, Italian, Slovak, and Esperanto. A plaque bearing Smith’s likeness is affixed to the wall of his former home at 25 Drummond Place, Edinburgh.
Smith and Edinburgh University
Smith unsuccessfully stood in the Edinburgh University Rectorial Election of 1948. the successful candidate Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) was succeed by Smith's father Sir Sydney Alfred Smith in 1951.
Edinburgh University Archives hold an extensive collections of manuscripts by Sydney Goodsir Smith:
- For Sydney Goodsir Smith (Loanhead: M. Macdonald, 1975)
- Tom Hubbard, 'Smith, Sydney Goodsir (1915-1975)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [accessed 6 Nov 2012]
- Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith (Edinburgh: Colin H. Hamilton, 1963)
- Sydney Goodsir Smith, 1915-1975, Memorial issue of Scotia Review, 9 (April 1975)