George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron, was born 22 January 1788 at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square in London. He was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possibly both feet, were contracted by infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother (he later attributed the deformity to her tight corsets) sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797, to a farmhouse of Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired by the grandeur of the scenery. The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general hospital at Nottingham, who ineffectually tried to cure his deformity by screwing his malformed foot into a wooden machine. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured him to no purpose. George was later placed under a proper doctor in London with more fortunate results. He was a "record" swimmer, and, in spite of his lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord's.
Later on his life, a prominent person took Byron to a boot maker in
London, who made him a boot that afforded some relief, but did not
cure the limp. This of course made Byron feel stigmatised.
Byron is, in Lyotard's sense, an artist of the inhuman. His poetry
confronts an otherness that inhabits the human body - or better, the
otherness of the body to its social evaluations. Byron's politics arise in
large part from his allegiance to this difference, and I will argue that they
have their beginnings in his boots. Byron was born with a club foot--a
fact usually dismissed as little more than an occasion for overcoming
adversity. But it put him in close proximity to both the body's materiality
and its social appropriations. In 1799, upon returning to London for the
first time since birth, the young Byron had his foot examined by a who's
who of modern medicine: John Hunter, author of Observations on
Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy (1786), Matthew Baillie, author
of The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the
Human Body (1797), and Thomas Sheldrake, author of A Practical
Essay on the Club Foot, and Other Distortions in the Legs and Feet of
Children (1798). These famous doctors all conceded that little could be
done to correct a deformity that might have been cured by the use of
special braces throughout childhood. Dr. Baillie records the upshot: "Mr.
Sheldrake . . . attended Lord B. and made him some instruments for his
foot which were continued in use for a short Time but were afterwards
given up for a Boot which he constructed for him" (Marchand, Byron, i,
54). Byron's new boot, I will argue, puts his body on a different footing
from most people's. His prosthesis, in other words, alters his stance, his
sense of human embodiment. Drawing upon Foucault's cartography of
"discipline" in post-revolutionary European culture, I will suggest that
Byron's prosthetic embodiment challenges both the consensus of
contemporary medicine that the body is developing organic whole and
the characteristically romantic humanism grounded therein. Such ideals
are for Byron disciplinary fictions. His boot produces another kind of
body, a prosthetic body irreducible to organism and inhabited by the
inhuman. It materializes a monstrous flesh, subject to deformity but
susceptible to change.
republicanism arises out of this new, prosthetic body. The odd logic of
the prosthesis reveals seeming unities to be artificially produced; the
human body is not a natural organism but a prosthetic effect. Little wonder,
then, that Byron mocks the conservative politics of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Their ostensible humanism occludes such effects in the name Nature, Mind,
and Imagination. Byron's poetry counters these
ideals and the imperialism they serve in several ways. It participates in a
cultural economy of prosthetics that challenges the ideal of an organic
body by insisting upon the primacy of warfare in contemporary British
society. It advances a politics of monstrosity grounded in material
embodiment by celebrating the deeds of Napoleon, "the monster of
Corsica." It exposes the ideals of medicine and literature as disciplinary
fictions by dramatizing their effects upon the material body. I shall
briefly address each of these moves, the first by discussing the medical
treatment of war wounds, the second by examining the Napoleon's
representation in nationalist broadsides, and the third by interpreting
Byron's late play, The Deformed Transformed (1824), as an allegory of
political dis-embodiment. In each instance Byron includes the prosthetic
in his measure of humankind, raising the possibility of a new body for
humankind, a prosthetic body inhabited by the inhuman.
Boot: Poetry, Politics and the Prosthetic Body
Paul Youngquist, Penn State
Daddy, I have had to kill
You died before I had time---
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue,
in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol,
the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been sacred
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You----
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face,
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out
of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack
and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.
If I've killed one man,
I've killed two---
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There's a stake in your
fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
Shoes and feet are a recurrent image in this poem, they take on different nuances of meaning as the poem proceeds. In 1.2, the speaker compares herself to a foot (simile), that "lives" in a shoe, the shoe is her father. Analyzing this image on an abstract level is much less helpful than visualizing it. Then the image evokes various helpful associations: Commonly, a shoe protects the foot and keeps it warm, in this poem, however, the shoe is a trap, smothering the foot. The adjective "black" suggests the idea of death, and since the shoe is fitting tightly around the foot, one might think of a corpse in a coffin. The speaker thus feels at the same time protected and smothered by her father.
In 1. 22-24, the foot image gets a new dimension --
So I never could tell where
Put your foot, your root,
I could never talk to you.
The foot becomes a symbol of one's origin. The father's origin is mysterious and soiled, there are so many towns called Grabow that his roots cannot be traced back. An image in the second stanza makes sense now, namely that of the gray toe on the statue (that is the father). Like the father's background has the blemish of nazi Germany, the gray toe ridicules and ruins the majestic appearance of the statue. The black shoe reappears as a (military) boot in 1. 49, when the father is being called a nazi.
From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were- I have not seen
As others saw- I could not bring
My passions from a common spring-
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow- I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone-
And all I lov'd- I lov'd alone-
Then- in my childhood- in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still-
From the torrent, or the fountain-
From the red cliff of the mountain-
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold-
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by-
From the thunder, and the storm-
And the cloud that took the form
(When all the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
Based on Alone (1829) by Edgar Allan Poe, describing his feelings of
uniqueness and aloneness.