Lord Byron (1788-1824) prided himself on being a strong swimmer. In 1810 he swam the Hellespont, the channel that separates Europe from Asia, and took pride in the achievement for the rest of his life. He was also a skilled rider and, most importantly, an outstanding poet. Yet Byron achieved these successes despite the fact—perhaps even due to the fact—that he was lame. “His deformity was always uppermost in his thoughts,” said his friend Edward John Trelawny, “and influenced every act of his life, spurred him on to poetry, as that was one of the few paths to fame open to him.”
Noted for his striking good-looks, Byron grew so self-conscious about his lameness that he took extraordinary measures to hide it. His closest associates, out of a sense of good breeding, avoided inquiring into the matter. “It was generally thought his halting gait originated in some defect of his right foot or ankle,” wrote Trelawny in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858). “He entered a room with a sort of run, as if he could not stop, then planted his best leg well forward, throwing back his body to keep his balance.”
He wore special shoes with high heels, the soles thick on the inside and shaved thin on the outside, for only the outside of the right foot touched the ground. He stuffed the toes of his shoes with cotton, and he wore trousers flared at the bottom and strapped under the shoes to hide his feet. In the slimness of youth, he could walk a mile or two with the aid of a stick, but as he put on weight with the passing years, he could walk only a few hundred yards before having to lean against something to rest.
Byron died of a fever at age 36 in the town Missolonghi in western Greece on April 19, 1824. Trelawny viewed his friend’s embalmed body five or six days later and learned for the first time the exact nature of his lameness. “The great mystery was solved,” wrote Trelawny. “Both his feet were clubbed,” the right much more deformed than the left, with the right leg shorter than the other. The right foot twisted inwards, “and his legs [were] withered to the knee—the form and features of an Apollo, with the feet and legs of a sylvan satyr.”
One of Byron’s favorite poets was Alexander Pope (1688-1744). This may at first seem odd until we consider that the romantic poet and the neoclassic poet were perhaps the two greatest talkers in English verse. As poets, therefore, they had much in common. Another thing they shared was the need to surmount a physical disability. In Pope’s case it was Pott’s disease, a type of tuberculosis that affects the bones, often resulting in curvature of the spine. Pope probably contracted the bacterial disease as an infant from his wet nurse’s milk. The infection stunted his growth and left him hunchbacked. In adulthood he stood only four feet, six inches tall.
Pope in his youth described himself as “a lively little creature with long arms and legs,” somewhat resembling a spider, or being “taken at a distance for a small windmill.” Although he later wrote to a friend that his whole life had been but one long disease, he often tried to laugh off his size and deformity, for like Byron, he possessed a keen sense of humor and a sharp wit. To an attractive young woman who once teased him about his small stature, he wrote the following rondeau:
You know where you did despise
(Tother day) my little Eyes,
Little Legs, and little Thighs,
And some things, of little Size,
You know where.
You, tis true, have fine black eyes,
Taper Legs, and tempting Thighs,
Yet what more than all we prize
Is a Thing of little Size,
You know where.
Samuel Johnson tells us that in later life Pope became so weak that he required constant attendance. He was so sensitive to the cold “that he wore a kind of fur doublet under a shirt of very coarse warm linen with fine sleeves. When he rose he was invested in boddice made of stiff canvass, being scarce able to hold himself erect till they were laced…. His legs were so slender that he enlarged their bulk with three pair of stockings; which were drawn on and off by the maid, for he was not able to dress or undress himself.”
Ironically, a number of eminent authors have had to overcome the disability of blindness or at least weak vision. The ancient Greek epic poet Homer (c. 9th century B.C.), for instance, was reportedly blind. Another blind epic poet was John Milton (1608-1674). In 1644, when he was 36, “I noticed my sight becoming weak and growing dim,” Milton wrote years later. If he began to read in the morning, as was his usual practice, “I noticed that my eyes felt immediate pain deep within.” Whenever he looked at a lamp, “a sort of rainbow seemed to obscure it. Soon a mist appearing in the left part of the left eye (for that eye became clouded some years before the other) removed from my sight everything on that side.”
Milton probably suffered from glaucoma. He gradually went completely blind in the left eye, followed several years later by total blindness in the other. In 1652 he composed the sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” In this fourteen-line poem he poses the question, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” and concludes that God does not need man’s work. They serve Him best who bear their afflictions patiently. The poem concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Yet Milton did not simply stand and wait after going blind. He used the time to write some of his greatest works, including Paradise Lost. In writing his great literary epic, he would compose lines in his head during the night and in the morning demand “to be milked” as he phrased it—that is, call for one of his amanuenses to take down his dictation. He even believed that a divine spirit visited him in the night and dictated the lines to him.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) also experienced problems seeing. He had defective eyesight from birth. Some who knew him, however, wondered how much Johnson’s eye problems had to do with weak vision and how much to abstraction of mind, for Johnson was a great ruminator. He could be at a play or in the midst of a social gathering and be completely oblivious to what went on around him, totally absorbed in his own world of thought.
Fanny Burney wrote in her journal, “I believe his blindness is as much the effect of absence [of mind] as of infirmity, for he sees wonderfully at Times.” Although he claimed to be unable to recognize a face from across the room or make out the eye color of a person standing before him, “I am sure,” wrote Burney, “he can see the Colour of a lady’s Topknot, for he very often finds fault with it.” A topknot was a colorful band for a woman’s hair.
James Boswell states in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1786) and his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) that Johnson was completely blind in one eye and short-sighted in the other, “yet, so much does mind govern, and even supply the deficiency of organs, that his perceptions were uncommonly quick and accurate.”
Johnson said that he once thought of going on a maritime expedition with the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks but soon laid the plan aside. “I see but at a small distance,” he explained. “So it was not worth my while to go to see birds fly, which I should not have seen fly; and fishes swim, which I should not have seen swim.”
James Thurber (1894-1961) delighted readers for thirty years with his cartoons, witty books, humorous stories, and amusing essays. For many years he worked on the staff of The New Yorker magazine, which published much of his work. Thurber turned out an impressive amount of writing considering that for much of his life he could barely see. Like Johnson, he was completely blind in one eye with poor vision in the other.
His vision problems began at age six when an older brother accidentally shot an arrow into his left eye. The destroyed eye did not receive timely medical attention, and this led to inflammation of the other eye and its permanent impairment. From that time on, Thurber never had more than two-fifths normal vision in his “good” eye and in later life was almost completely blind. He eventually took to using a Zeiss loop, a powerful magnifying lens, in order to see well enough to draw and write.
Truman Capote as a teenager worked in the art department of The New Yorker, and one of his jobs was to take Thurber to the apartment of his mistress, a secretary at the magazine. “I would have to wait for him at the apartment till he had finished,” said Capote, “and then I’d dress him. He could undress by himself but he couldn’t dress by himself, couldn’t even cross the street by himself. Now since [Thurber’s wife] Helen Thurber would dress him in the morning, she knew how he looked. Well, one time I put his socks on the wrong side out, and when he got home, I gather Helen asked him a lot of questions. The next day, Thurber was furious with me—he said I did it on purpose.”
James Joyce (1882-1941) was nearsighted as a child, and his vision slowly deteriorated over the years. As with Thurber, he did not go completely blind, but he always wore thick glasses and underwent at least eleven eye operations. In conversation once with Ernest Hemingway, Joyce lamented that his work was too suburban and that he should probably get out more and see the world. Joyce’s wife, Nora, suggested that he might profit from some lion hunting like Hemingway engaged in. “The thing we must face,” objected Joyce, “is that I couldn’t see the lion.” Nora replied, “Hemingway’d describe him to you and afterwards you could go up and touch him and smell of him. That’s all you’d need.”
The Argentine poet, essayist, and short story writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) had poor vision since early childhood. He later spoke of the “slow nightfall” that “began when I began to see,” in other words, at birth. At age twenty-nine he underwent the first of eight cataract operations, but his vision continued to deteriorate until finally he could discern only a few colors, but not objects. “In 1955,” he said, “the pathetic moment came when I knew I had lost my sight, the reader’s and writer’s sight,” he being the reader and writer. But, like Milton, he continued to write by dictation. “I feel in the crack of night,” he wrote, “the verses that are to come.”