Comfort in Distress

This poem offers comfort in distress – but not the ‘easy’ sort which doesn’t really want to understand or share. The poet was someone with a deep understanding of, and compassion for, human unhappiness and pain. He spent the last decade of his short life confined to his bed, with a debilitating and painful illness.

In his poem there are two ‘opposite movements’ – an upward movement of the eyes and also of a star which comes up over a hill, and an answering downward movement of light from that star. Other ‘opposites’ are movement and stillness, and darkness and light.

The lifting up of the eyes is suggestive of William Soutar’s religious upbringing. He would have known the opening words of Psalm 121 in the King James version – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.“ The poem is not, however, ‘religious’ in the conventional sense.

That it’s not about ‘easy and instant’ comfort is suggested by what initially meets the upward looking eyes. They have to climb a “brae” (suggesting effort and weariness) which is in darkness, with the black shapes of trees at the top, but there is just a hint of comfort in that the trees, rather than being agitated by the breeze, like a sufferer in distress, are still and at peace.

The eyes also meet the darkness of the “mirkl’d” air but again, there is hint of comfort in the star coming up over the hill. Its “lichtsomeness” suggests not only brightness, but lightness as opposed to heaviness. This tiny point of light invites us to share its gladness.

The more we contemplate this star, the more it has to say. It’s as lonely as any sufferer, and yet it glimmers and is glad. Its light is “cauld” – it has a degree of detachment which enables it to see, without itself becoming distressed, a world of suffering. This is not, however, the coldness of indifference or cruelty, for its light “comes kindly doun On earth and a’ her misery”. It is full of clear sighted compassion and empathy.

There is, then, no quick and easy release from pain and distress, but there is the hope of, and a way to, a changed perspective which can begin to bring back some lightness and brightness. The ill and disabled poet, William Soutar, was himself a supreme example of this. It is he who is the real “star” of the poem.

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