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Background

Consider the Lilies

Iain Crichton Smith, 1928 - 1998

Iain Crichton Smith.

Though often described as a native of Lewis, Crichton Smith was in fact born in Glasgow. His family moved to Lewis when he was two; his father died shortly afterwards and Iain was brought up by his mother.

As a child he was conscious of his natural surroundings and of the struggle against poverty. He reacted against the influence of the Free Church which he saw as restrictive and joyless.

After attending secondary school in Stornoway he studied at Aberdeen University and became a teacher of English. Drawing on the culture of his island background, he was a prolific writer of prose and poetry in both English and Gaelic and in 1977 retired early in order to devote himself to his writings. In an interview he once said that his obsessive fear was ‘to stop writing altogether – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. That would be the most devastating thing that could happen.’

Public recognition for his work included the award of honorary degrees and an OBE in 1980. He died of cancer in 1998. In his obituary in The Independent, Angus Calder described Crichton Smith as “a witty companion, completely unassuming, muttering briskly in the drily enigmatic accent of his native isle of Lewis, suspended somewhere between censure and send-up, kirk and comedy.”

He wrote quickly and Consider the Lilies, his first novel published in 1968, was completed in ten days. The novel is not, however, his only exploration of the ‘old woman’ theme, which can be found in several poems. For example, the poem which follows portrays an old woman who shares many of the characteristics of Mrs Scott: life has been a hard struggle; she has found it difficult to love and forgive; she is left isolated and embittered.

 

Old Woman

 

Your thorned back

heavily under the creel

you steadily stamped the rising daffodil.

 

Your set mouth

forgives no-one, not even God’s justice

perpetually drowning law with grace.

 

Your cold eyes

watched your drunken husband come

unsteadily from Sodom home.

 

Your grained hands

dandled full and sinful cradles.

You built for your children stone walls.

 

Your yellow hair

burned slowly in a scarf of grey

wildly falling like mountain spray.

 

Finally you’re alone

among the unforgiving brass,

the slow silences, the sinful glass.

 

Who never learned,

not even ageing, to forgive

our poor journey and our common grave,

 

while the free daffodils

wave in the valleys and on the hills

the deer look down with their instinctive skills,

 

and the huge sea

in which your brothers drowned sings slow

over the headland and the peevish crow.

 

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