In 1928, the New Zealand forensic scientist Sydney (later Sir) Alfred Smith took up the post of professor of forensic medicine at the University of Edinburgh, bringing with him his wife and their son Sydney. The boy’s subsequent domicile in Scotland provided the background for his development into a writer in Scots and a prominent figure in the second wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.
Sydney Goodsir Smith was born on 26 October 1915 in Wellington, New Zealand; his mother, Catherine Goodsir Gelenick, was of Scottish origin. He was educated in England and began studying medicine at Edinburgh University, but left to read history at Oriel College, Oxford, where he gained a third-class degree in 1937. Due to chronic asthma he was turned down for active service in the Second World War, so worked instead with the War Office, and taught English to Polish troops. He was at one time employed by the British Council, and was Art Critic for The Scotsman, as well as a freelance journalist and broadcaster. In 1938 Smith married Marion Elise Welsh, a doctor, with whom he had a family of two children. After her death in 1966, he married schoolteacher Hazel Williamson.
Although at school in England, during the holidays Smith absorbed the language and Scottishness of rural Scotland when he stayed with his prep school teacher in Heriot, and his sister’s nanny in Moniaive. It was a gradual absorption which intensified in adulthood, as Tom Hubbard summarises in his entry on Smith in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Although he was not a native speaker of Scots, Smith succeeded in developing a convincing idiom based on the speech which he heard in the pubs and in the streets, enriched by his absorption of the great medieval Scots makars (makers, poets). The consequent range of registers, from the vernacular to the highly ornamented and stylized, was an invaluable resource for a poet concerned with sudden and contrasting changes of mood and feeling.
While studying in Edinburgh he had begun writing poetry, in English, but according to Norman MacCaig in For Sydney Goodsir Smith:
With the suddenness of a conversion he seceded from English, adopted Scots, and never wrote a poem in English again …. An extraordinary fact which is worth recording only because in that at first almost foreign tongue he went on to write poetry in Scots of a quality hardly equalled in this century …
In Language, Poetry and Nationhood (2000), J. Derrick McClure traces the development of Smith’s sureness in handling Scots: ‘It is in The Deevil’s Waltz (1946), however, that Smith emerges as both a poet of unchallengeable stature and one of the great synthesisers of Scots.’
Though there were some who thought Smith merely substituted Scots words for English, the skill of his use of the language is surely borne out by the fact that in 1951 he was one of the prizewinners in the Scots section of the Festival of Britain poetry competition, alongside native Scots Olive Fraser and Alexander Scott.
The sequence Under the Eildon Tree (1948) is generally agreed to be Smith’s masterpiece, making full use of his lyrical talents and exuberant energy. It comprises twenty-five poems on great lovers of history and legend, interspersed with reflections on the poet’s own love life; the poet/lover veers between the highs of passion and the lows of disappointment, and the sublime and the ridiculous are interwoven.
Smith’s love of language meant he looked furth of Scotland and delighted in taking inspiration from Europe, like so many Scottish poets, as Tom Hubbard has pointed out:
He translated poems by Tristan Corbière and Aleksandr Blok into Scots, and his celebrated ‘The Grace of God and the Meth-Drinker’ is the Edinburgh Grassmarket's equivalent of the tatterdemalion grotesqueries of a Villon or a Baudelaire:
There ye gang, ye daft
And doitit 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 …
The 1950s was a prodigious decade for Smith; he published six books of poetry, followed shortly after in 1960 by his most successful play, The Wallace. It was performed in the Assembly Hall at the Edinburgh Festival that year and inspired some in the audience to rise to their feet and sing ‘Scots Wha Hae’ as the curtain went down.
Known as ‘the kilted kiwi’ or ‘The Auk’, Smith earned his place in the thriving Scottish literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s, centred as it was in Edinburgh. In 1959 Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig were installed as the ‘club bards’ of the newly founded 200 Burns Club.
Smith found his true home in Edinburgh, and became a poet of his adopted city in all its different moods. His long poem 'Kynd Kittock’s Land', commissioned by the BBC and televised in 1964, celebrates the two sides of the city, ‘The hauf o’t smug, complacent … the tither wild and rouch as ever …’. He was most at home in the Old Town, as it was then, a place more of pubs and real life than of tourist shops: ‘A queerlike canyon is the Canongate, / That murmurs yet wi the names / O’ lang deid bards …’.
He died suddenly on 15 January 1975 at the age of 59. In the Scotsman obituary, George Bruce wrote ‘The name Sydney Goodsir Smith, especially at this moment, invokes such affection as to make evaluation of the poet’s brilliant talent difficult.’ Many others have attested to his ‘kindly, good-humoured, witty and charitable nature’, and his passing was widely mourned. He is buried in the Dean Cemetery, and a bronze plaque, bearing his likeness in profile, is affixed to the wall of his former residence, 25 Drummond Place, Edinburgh.