We gather the world into the compass of our speculation

William Soutar

Scottish poet William Soutar was 45 when he died. For two decades he had battled with a form of arthritis named ankylosing spondylitis, and the last thirteen of those years had seen him bedridden after an unsuccessful operation to counteract the muscular contraction that was affecting his right leg. It was then, suddenly immobile, that Soutar’s diary entries evolved from the briefest of notes to become much longer and richer accounts of his life as he searched for solace and meaning—introspective writings that would later form the basis of his posthumously published memoir, Diaries of a Dying Man. This entry came in 1939, four years before the end of his life, as he reflected on the desires that had endured.

The Diary Entry

Wednesday 19

Though the desire for women troubles the body and the mind, I am yet glad that desire is still so alive in me, for its death would be ominous of creative moribundity. The lesser desires of sense rarely disturb me now – as if the loveliness of earth had become quintessential in women; as if in them were now summated those other sensations which quicken the whole being as one enters a wood, or lies upon a hillside, or stares across the sea. We gather the world into the compass of our speculation; and when our sensuous scope is small, we can keep contact with the world only by quintessential symbol – so, in large measure unconsciously, the urge to retain living contact has intensified for me the significance of the commonplace. And since our contact with life has a trinal quality – natural, human, and metaphysical – there are for me three dominant images which are as doors into fuller life; and these are woman, tree and the unicorn.

Further Reading

Soutar’s diaries were first published in 1954 by W. &. E. Chambers. In 1991, the book was reissued by Canongate. But there is another edition, which I am yet to see, titled The Diary of a Dying Man, and it covers just the last four months of his life.

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