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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 September 2018

Malcolm Guite offers an apology for idlers

MANY years ago. I picked up a scruffy edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, from the bargain bin outside a secondhand bookshop. Its worn covers and the dogged ears of its pages, festooned with finger smudges and the occasional proprietorial red stamp, all proclaimed that it was an old schoolbook; and that set me wondering.

How ever did anyone come to think of setting Virginibus Puerisque as a school textbook? Perhaps they were misled by the title which, after all, proclaims that the book is written “for girls and boys”; perhaps the fact that the title is in Latin led someone to think that it was a solemn, learned, classical tome designed to inculcate into children all the prudent maxims of the old school: sobriety and industry, conformity, decency, and decorum.

If so, then they had clearly never read the text itself, for almost all the wonderful essays in this book are written with a gleeful energy whose entire purpose is to subvert the copybook maxims, the dictates of convention, and the sage advice of our elders and betters. The great central essay is of course “An Apology For Idlers”. Imagine a schoolchild, confined to class on a fine summer’s day, being set to work to précis this essay! Here, under the very nose of the teacher, a child’s own inner thoughts are given clear expression:

It is surely beyond doubt that people should be a good deal idle in youth. . . If you look back on your own education, I m sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you will regret; you would rather cancel some lacklustre periods between sleep and waking in the class

And then there is the description of the pleasures of truantry itself, one of which I indulged in as a truant, and remains a pleasure to me now:

He may pitch on some tuft of lilacs over a burn and smoke innumerable pipes to the tune of the water in the stones. A bird will sing in the thicket. And there he may fall into a vein of kindly thought, and see things in a new perspective.

Stevenson goes on to imagine an encounter between the idler and some bustling Mr Worldly Wiseman, who demands what lesson they are learning. The idler replies:

I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.

Of course the whole essay is a piece of fun, but Stevenson had a serious purpose too. A little later on he says:

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality. . . As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play. . .

Now there, with the mention of the danger of “extreme busyness” in the kirk, he touches us all to the quick, as witnessed by Mark Vernon’s recent suggestion that we, who are meant to offer the world those gateways and portals into Otium Sacrum, and spiritual largesse, sometimes show symptoms of “anxiety and manic overwork” (Comment, 22 June).

Idly turning the pages of this defence of idling, I find myself hoping that some of the schoolchildren through whose hands it passed, took Stevenson’s advice. I certainly feel inclined to take it myself.

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