If the strong cane support thy walking hand
Chairmen no longer shall thy wall command
Ev’n sturdy carmen shall thy nod obey,
And rattling coaches stop to make thee way;
This shall direct thy cautious tread aright,
Though not one glaring lamp enliven night.
Let beaux their canes with amber tipt produce;
Be theirs for empty show, but thine for use.
Thus wrote John Gay in his “Trivia,” Gay, the friend of Voltaire of Addison and Swift. The London of Queen Anne is made real by his descriptions of his walking trips on which he always carried his cane. Not only he and his contemporaries—can you imagine Dr. Johnson without his stick?—but from the very dawn of history until the present time, men have used their walking sticks, in one form or another. It is man’s oldest friend and support. Its use is universal.
[On his staff man has leaned from time immemorial. It is the implement of his first cultural advance, the symbol of his superiority to the brute and an accoutrement of his sartorial adventures. It appears in the riddle of the Sphinx is the companion of man’s pilgrimage through the centuries and the emblem of self-imposed controls in government. It preceded the sword as man’s most primitive weapon, modified in a rod or scepter; a symbol of authority.]
Satan strides across the awful abyss with his great pine-tree staff, and the latest Literary Guild selection makes its heroine Madam Comyn vigorous and impressive by her cane. From man’s lost paradise it must have come—one of the angels of Genesis appears with his staff, and it will be in vogue after Pageant is forgotten. Both Milton and Miss Lancaster are true to life, for both men and gods, alike, need the support of staves.
The Greek Gods had their sticks: Hephastios because he was lame; Hermes because he was swift; Juno because she was powerful and fecund. To no type is the staff inappropriate. Indeed, Pallas Athene in her wisdom leans upon the staff of her spear. Homer’s heroes, chief of whom is Agamemnon, carry staves as a badge of office and the patriarch Jacob worships, “leaning upon the top of his staff,” and so blesses his grandchildren.
Can you picture Elijah, even as he flees the wrath of Jezebel, without his staff? Elisha sends his staff by Gehezhi, as a projection of himself to lay upon the face of the dead boy. Could Samuel adequately judge Israel without his staff? Or the New England parson of our boyhood makes his pastoral rounds without his gold headed cane? Chaucer sends his “poor parson of the towne” into the country through the storm on an errand of mercy’ “and in his hand a staff . . . this noble ensample to his sheep he gaff that first he wroughte and afterward he taughte.”
Matthew and Luke say that Jesus sent out his Twelve Disciples on their first missionary tour without money or scrip or bread or staves, but John Mark, who was the travelling companion of St. Peter, records that the Master “commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey save a staff only.” This is a truer picture one must conclude; Jesus would surely allow them the comfort of their staves, for He who in the carpenter’s shop had fabricated such easing implements as yokes would know the value of a walking stick.
St. Peter, the legends say, sent his staff to Eucherius, the first bishop of Treves. After that Peter walked without a stick; so, since the time of Gregory VII—the same was Hildebrand—the Bishop of Rome has never carried a crosier. Having surrendered the pastoral stick, he takes, however, as his emblem, two swords!
On an old crosier preserved in Amiens these words are engraved: “Onus non honor.” But all had not so modest an inscription. The old abbots were invested with authority in these words: “Receive the stick of the pastoral ministry” and therewith received the crosier. They had great power and unlike the Bishops could also wield the sword. A twelfth century bishop, one Christian of Mayence who could not for conscience’s sake use a sword, had no scruples, however, about fighting with other weapons and with immense crosier killed nine men in one battle! A militant Christian this.
When a bishop walked in procession, his crosier’s crook faced outward, but the abbot must face in his when he left the borders of his monastic lands. In spite of all abuses of their power in Feudal times, ecclesiastics represented justice and protection for the poor; thus in the Middle Age a common saying among the people was, “It is better to live under the crosier than under the Feudal stick.”
In the East, the pastoral stick is straight, instead of bent. The Greek Patriarchs have crosiers crowned with T-shaped crosses. Sometimes in the West, serpents, emblematic of pastoral sagacity, surmounted the stick! Usually, however, the crosier is shaped after the fashion of the pontifical stick of the Roman augurs which they held in their hands while they gave their oracles. The dean of the cardinals carries a golden stick called the ferula apolistica, as a mark of dignity. In event of the death of the Holy Father this official becomes Pope ad interim.
Kings, too, have their sticks in the form of scepters. “For the stick is king of the world,” says an ancient proverb. The shepherd’s crook, his rod and staff, became the badge of office of the tribal chief. Later, armed with an iron point it became the primitive scepter. The office of king in those days fell to some mighty man of valour, head and shoulders taller than others in his army; his scepter was shod with iron and wielded by a mighty hand. Goliath and his brothers carried spears of this sort— “like a weaver’s beam,” as the saying goes.
The king’s scepter, that is to say his lance, never left his side. David, the outlaw, quietly glides into the camp of King Saul at night and steals the scepter—lance and with the sunrise sends his taunts echoing across the valley toward Abner and the recreant bodyguard. At length, gold, silver, and other embellishments replaced the iron of the spear just as moral force replaced physical force in government. The lofty name of scepter was first used in Rome by Cicero. Long before had “it ceased to be an arm, it had become an emblem.”
The Roman consuls carried scepters under the name of Scipio. The scepters were wands of ivory. The senators also carried one of a similar form. A legate had reached Egypt; his life was threatened by a mob. Wrapping his toga close, with his stick he described a circle in the sand around his person, “This is Roman soil,” and there he stood unharmed, much as others since have invoked the protection of the flag.
When the Gauls under Brennus entered Rome they found the senators and consuls seated in the curule chairs, each one holding his wand in his hand. At the sight the barbarians paused. One dared to touch the beard of the senator Papirus, who struck him with his wand and wounded him. It was the signal for a general massacre. “Never was the scepter so majestic as then,” says the French historian. Scepters of Kings have become unfashionable, but still Mussolini has his lictors go before him and in Italy today one sees the sticks—the faces—everywhere. And what of Hitler? What shall be his symbol?
“The husbandman, with a scepter in his hands, sits among the furrows without speaking,” says Homer, and Millet in his “Angelus” has the sunlight fall upon the implements of tillage on which his peasants lean as praying at eventide.
[Handwritten note on manuscript to JH from writing instructor: "A wealth of material, but paradoxically that is its fault! The piece is too much of a catalogue, with little or no comment to hold it together and give it unity. I should say that it contains the material for a good essay. Notice Lamb’s essay on ears and see how he lists too—but with different emphasis."]