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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 May 2022

In the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, Malcolm Guite encounters a special pipe

SOME years ago, in these pages, I celebrated Robert Louis Stevenson’s magnificent and subversive essay “An Apology For Idlers” (21 September 2018), and reflected on how ironic it was that Virginibus Puerisque, the book from which it comes, was so often a set text in schools, since its chief essay is really an encomium of truantry. As Stevenson wrote, “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.”

I recall the essay now as, in a little mild truantry of my own, I strayed into the Makar’s Court, the Poet’s Corner of Edinburgh, on my way to give a lecture at New College. As I had a little time to spare, I dipped into the Writers’ Museum there, a fine old house full of the memorabilia of three great Scottish writers: Burns, Scott, and Stevenson.

And there, in the Stevenson rooms, I came face to face with all the accoutrements of Stevenson’s own ideal of truantry: his fishing rod and creel, and, best of all, his beautiful meerschaum pipe. Immediately, I could picture Stevenson, as he himself pictured his ideal truant: “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.”

No truant schoolboy, though, was likely to have a pipe as beautiful as the one in the museum display case. The delicate meerschaum of the bowl has worn as smooth as porcelain, and is tinged and patterned with darker blushes of the warmth of the fragrant tobaccos it once burned; for meerschaum takes on something of their character. It has a silver band on the diamond-shaped shaft, and a beautiful amber mouthpiece.

RLS knew how to live lightly, and could make do with almost nothing — and often did, in his wanderings — but he also knew how to celebrate his little pleasures. Next to the pipe in the display case is part of an adulatory poem to that very pipe:

To My Pipe

A golden service, most loveworthy yoke.
Thou O my pipe imposest when thy bowl
Alternate dusks and quickens like a coal
At every inhalation of sweet smoke. . .
This service I do pay thee, thus adore
The healing power in thy soft office shed
To dull old griefs and ease harassing thought.

It’s a little florid, a little over the top for modern tastes; but I love the description of how the bowl “alternate dusks and quickens like a coal” with each draw of smoke, and I can imagine Stevenson smoking that very pipe even as he composed its poem.

I sat afterwards to smoke an idle pipe on a bench in the Makar’s Court, whose stones are all inscribed with golden phrases from Scottish writers, past and present, and fell into such “a vein of kindly thought”, as Stevenson says, that I almost missed my own lecture.

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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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