Passings: Professor Emeritus Ian Sowton

A candle
A memorial candle

The following is a memorial tribute for Professor Emeritus Ian Sowton, a long-serving faculty member at York University, poet and prolific author. The tribute was written by Sowton’s colleague, Professor Emeritus Ray Ellenwood:

Ian Sowton. Image: Holy Trinity, 2003
Ian Sowton. Image: Holy Trinity Church, 2003

A message from a friend recently informed me of the death of Ian Sowton (Feb. 23, 1929 to Jan. 23, 2021), after a fall and head injury. It came with a recollection of Ian and Fran housing a student couple with a newborn child when the Sowtons themselves were a young couple with their own children at the University of Alberta in the 1960s. John Unrau, another U. of A. graduate who ended up at York, had his own story of Sowton generosity. (See also the website of Holy Trinity Church near the Eaton Centre.) I would attribute Ian’s world view to that fact that he was one of those “missionary brats” who spent their early years with their parents in places like China. There were several at York in the early years, including Stephen Endicott.

A graduate of the University of Toronto, Ian taught for a number of years in Edmonton before being hired to Chair the nascent English department at Atkinson College circa 1970. I had enjoyed auditing his course on renaissance poetry at U. of A. and was happy to be his colleague for almost 30 years after I came to York. While publishing a book and articles on Spencer and 16th-century poetics, Ian was particularly active in the life of the College and the University: Chair of his department, director of the Graduate Program in English, master of a college, participant on an endless list of committees and task forces – always ready to help, even after his retirement, when he was on the executive of the Association of Retired Faculty and Librarians of York (ARFL).

Toward the end of his academic career, Ian became interested in feminist writers and literary theory, making them an important part of his courses. One result was that, again post-retirement, he was willing to help prepare a festschrift for an eminent feminist scholar at York: Transacting Memory: Essays in Honour of Barbara Godard (2013).

Always publishing his poetry here and there, over the years, Ian got serious after retirement, bringing out five books: Intricate Armada (2005), Imagining Sisyphus Happy (2006), Affordable Wonders (2011), which includes a number of commemorations of deceased York colleagues, The Stink of Experience (2013), and Waking in Harbour One Day (2020), a collection published a few months before his death. Most of the books were blatantly and proudly self-published and many of the poems were celebrations of the woman he had loved for so many years (in complete defiance, I would point out, of the ancient Courtly Love tradition). But for one of the last poems in Waking in Harbour, I accused him of getting close to the bone. Here is the first stanza of “Song of Passage”:

As it rejoins the primal surge

of forever dancing elements

my body shall learn the steps

for meadow grass and flowers

under sun and gracious showers.

Let’s leave it there.

Ray Ellenwood