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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

30 October 2020

A walking stick possesses a rich lineage, Malcolm Guite finds

THERE’s an olden wooden umbrella stand by our front door with a fine selection of walking sticks and staves which Maggie and I have acquired over the years, each associated with the place where we acquired it, and further garnished and enriched with memories of all the walks, long and short, on which that particular stick has assisted and accompanied us.

There are a couple of taller sticks from Northumberland, their horn handles curved over like shepherds’ crooks, one of which is carved beautifully into the head of a bird, bending down to preen its own neck. There are shorter, stouter, more work-a-day sticks, each springing down from fine round firm balls of wood, polished now like conkers or the smooth round bowls of one of my brier pipes, but once the densely knotted boles of wood from which the sticks originally sprung and grew.

I selected one such yesterday, a fine old cherry stick, worn by the years, to accompany me as a familiar friend, up over the brow of Rivey Hill and into the woods, taking it back, as it were, to its source, back to see its living cousins, still rooted in the earth and growing.

Pausing in the woods, and leaning on my stick, I found myself remembering Leigh Hunt’s wonderful, quirky encomium of sticks, in one of his finest familiar essays from The Indicator: A miscellany for the fields and the fireside. His description of his own cherry stick might well be a description of mine:

We protest against this injustice done to sticks, those useful and once flourishing sons of a good old stock. Take, for instance, a common cherry stick, which is one of the favourite sort. In the first place, it is a very pleasant substance to look at, the grain running round it in glossy and shadowy rings. Then it is of primæval antiquity, handed down from scion to scion through the most flourishing of genealogical trees.

I love the way he gives his stick a lineage, going back not just to the tree from which it sprang, but deep into the long history of sticks and stick-carrying.

As I wandered on through the woods, employing my stick every so often to clear the nettles in front of my path or assist me up and down the steep banks and over the little rivulets that run through that wood, I reflected on another lineage, another tradition, another kind of genealogical tree, and that is the tradition of the English Familiar Essay itself.

It has its roots in the first translations of the essays of Montaigne, that personal, friendly, unbuttoned, and familiar fireside tone, which was then taken up in The Spectator by Steele and Addison, refined and polished by Johnson in The Rambler and then given fresh life and vigour, and occasionally a little passionate swagger, by the great generation of the Romantic essayists: Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincy, and Leigh Hunt himself.

It was Lamb who said that friendship was a sheltering tree; and a sense of personal friendship with the author is what characterises the familiar essay. Perhaps each individual essay is like a companionable walking stick plucked from the great sheltering tree of the tradition; for the tradition is still alive and growing. It developed on from those Romantics and flourished in the hands of Chesterton, Belloc, Orwell, and so many others. Even this little column, in its own small way, is a slender scion of that mighty, sheltering tree.

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