Not a Leg to Stand On

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Not a Leg to Stand On


Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion


When as a boy I read Our Mutual Friend, I was much struck by the character of Silas Wegg, "a literary man," as Nicodemus Boffin, his proud employer, put it, "with a wooden leg." It seemed to me then that all of Dickens's genius was in the italicization of the word "with," for by that simple expedient he exposed the joyous absurdity of supposing an incompatibility between the practice of literature and a prosthetic lower limb: the kind of absurdity to which Mankind is much given. A literary man with a wooden leg is completely different from a literary man with a wooden leg. The wooden leg in the latter case is an additional accomplishment.

I don't know why, but the character of Silas Wegg suddenly came into my mind recently in the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, which claims to be, and I'm sure actually is, the largest second-hand bookshop devoted to poetry in the British Isles (I know of no other). I regard the owners of such specialist bookshops as the unsung heroes of our culture, for surely neither wealth nor fame can have been their aim in life; they are self-consciously the guardians and conservators of our heritage.

There were two poets known to me with wooden legs, and their lives overlapped in time though as far as I know they never met: W. E. Henley and W. H. Davies. Both were men of strong, though very different, character; each is probably known by a single poem today, "Invictus" in the case of Henley and "Leisure" in the case of Davies. It seems a hard fate to write a lot and be remembered by only a few lines, until one remembers that most of us will be remembered by not as much as even that.

I picked out a couple of slender volumes by Henley and Davies, and then asked the owner whether he knew of any other poets with wooden legs whose work I could buy. Not altogether surprisingly he said that he had never been asked that before; he might even have been a little nervous of me at first. There exist, after all, sexual deviations, acrotomophilia and apotemnophilia, which are, respectively, sexual attraction to amputees and sexual arousal at the thought of being an amputee. Most people are repelled by these, though no doubt with a little social engineering that censorious attitude can be changed. I soothed the bookseller's anxieties a little by pointing out that, if literature can be classified as black or white, heterosexual or homosexual, colonial or post-colonial, why could it not also be classified by the number of its author's legs? After searching his mind for a few moments, however, he could come up with no other names to help me. The one-legged poetry section would be small, albeit that W. H. Davies alone published some sixty volumes.

The two wooden-legged poets lost their limbs in very different ways. William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) had tuberculosis of the bones in his legs; his left leg was amputated in 1865 when he was sixteen years old. William Henry Davies (1871-1940), by contrast, lost his leg in an accident at the age of twenty-eight when, as a tramp, he tried to jump on a train in Ontario--he was making for the Klondike gold fields--and his leg was so badly crushed that it had to be amputated. It is hardly surprising that bodi men's subsequent wooden-leggedness had a profound effect on their subsequent careers: though an effect not wholly negative.

I should not be surprised if the majority who either knew Henley's "Invictus" or heard it for the first time thought it a typical piece of Victorian moral uplift, a pull-yourself-together sort of poem, the kind of thing you recite when you are in deep trouble and are trying to persuade yourself that you will overcome your difficulties nonetheless. It is whistling into the wind of circumstances, which we in a wiser and more compassionate age than Henley's know really to be the determinant of our fate. We recite the lines, if we recite them at all, not because of any truth or lesson they might contain, but as cognitive behavioral therapy that makes us feel better even if nothing else in the world changes as a result. …

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