The Painful Pleasures of Romantic Feet

In early July 1797, Sara Coleridge spilled hot milk on her husband’s foot, prompting one of the finest romantic poems, “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison.”  The preface to the poem reads: “some long-expected Friends paid a visit to the Author’s cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole time of their stay.”[i]  As Coleridge’s preface and the rest of the poem demonstrate, feet and walking were an important aspect of the romantic experience given the exceptional tendency to stroll, pace, and hike.  Thomas De Quincey calculated that Wordsworth had walked an estimated 180,000 English miles.  Coleridge’s great decade of walking culminated with him being the first to scale Scafell Peak in 1804.  And despite—or in spite of—a clubfoot, Byron swam four miles to cross the Hellespont on 3 May 1810.  It is difficult to imagine British romanticism without feet.

But it is precisely the romantic imagination that displaces the foot.  Following Coleridge’s accident, he laments not joining his party of friends.  He finds relief in imagining their journey, substituting the mental representation for the actual, physical experience of walking.  Was it merely a coincidence then that romantic poets frequently walked and on occasion mentioned their feet?  For Robin Jarvis, the wounded foot provides an opportunity for the poet to “[trace] the path of his friends” with his imagination, providing a view of an “uneven progress through a landscape which…offers locomotive as well as visual obstructions.”[ii]  These obstructions are then imitated in the poem’s uneven rhythms.  So the imagination might elide the physical, but the mind relies on the information the feet have gathered about the rhythm of walking in order to construct its elision.

For romantics, walking supplemented writing, but also they required supplementation for their walking.  In the tradition of Romans adding shoes to the Olympics (called “krepis”),[iii] the romantics had special clothes made to accommodate walks, and De Quincey was “first to go on a walking tour with a tent.”  According to Solnit, the introduction of these tools marks the beginnings of the “outdoor equipment industry.”[iv]  Some of us might not think of them as equipment, but animals also mediate the walking experience.  Wordsworth walked compulsively in order to compose, and sure enough, he brought along his dog.  The boyhood companion would warn Wordsworth of oncoming pedestrians so that the poet might cease his compositional “murmuring” before being mistaken for a madman.[v]

If romantic poets were such innovators and advocates in the world of walking, why would they ever pass over these things in favor of a different focus?  From a phenomenological perspective, passing up the foot for another issue (actual or imagined) might be inevitable.  It is typical to identify a thing when it breaks, or in Coleridge’s case, when it is scalded.  The foot suddenly becomes conspicuously present because it ceases to be what it normally is—a functional foot.  Only when noticed does a foot become the starting point of a poem.  But the poem quickly moves past the foot and onto the image of the poet’s friends.  In this example, Coleridge’s recognition of the thing (his foot) is negative: the foot’s conspicuousness never allows the observer to know the foot itself, only a deferral of the foot.

But it makes good sense that if a thing can attract attention when it breaks, it will attract attention when it works, as well.  The phenomenological response a la Heidegger would say that because the thing works we take it for granted and so the thing goes unnoticed.[vi]  For instance, I don’t think about my feet so long as they get me to work in the morning, just as the cabinetmaker doesn’t think about his hammer so long as it still drives nails.  However, if something suddenly works differently it might also attract attention.  This difference may signal that the thing was, in fact, not working beforehand.  We may have only grown accustomed to what has been broken for as long as we can remember.  So in the case that the thing is repaired, would I actually be experiencing a deferral of the thing, or would I finally gain access to the thing itself?  Probably not the latter, but the fact that the closest thing to one’s person could suddenly attract attention while working without flaw is exactly the realization I had one morning while running barefoot.

Rather than adding more equipment to my running, recently I decided I would try it with less.  It was about five thirty in the morning when I made the somewhat uncharacteristic decision (romantic mornings tend to follow romantic evenings, I find).  My usual place to run is the Olympic Sculpture Park.  The park faces Puget Sound, a large body of water punctuated with sailboats and ferries, framed by the Olympic Mountains.  I would like to say the scene was sublime or awe inspiring.  But my attention was on the ground.  I attempted to jog lightly at first, but beginning on a gravel path, there was much more pain than pleasure.  Approaching the grass I thought the softness would mitigate the discomfort but the grass was wet and cold.  At one point in my youth, it was common to run through the yard or the nearby woods without shoes.  Half my life has passed since my feet braved the earth.  It was shocking to have limbs so near and so unacquainted with exposure suddenly stung by what otherwise felt like a perfectly temperate morning.  The grass and my feet had become alien.

Our feet have become restricted to a heavily mediated form of touching.  If I could ask my feet what the world feels like they would describe a hot and itchy place: moist, confining, argyle.  The fact is, due to socks, rubber, and plastic I hardly ever touch the ground beneath me, to say nothing of unconstructed ground.  But that first morning I ran unshod, my dainty jog eventually became a full run, my feet enjoying the various textures of the ground.  Skin rubbed against concrete and woodchips, mud and grass, gravel and puddles.  At one point I stepped into mixture of grainy rocks and water covering the footpath.  I felt tiny air-filled cells densely packed together burst.  The sensation was not unfamiliar.  It reminded me of roe I had recently tasted at a sushi restaurant.  Finally, my mouth and feet had something to talk about.

Having abandoned the daily prosthetics designed for feet, I felt elated.  The experience was painful, but also it changed the way I relate to the park I routinely visit.  The landscape did not suddenly become sublime but more various and diverse, characteristics Wordsworth constantly praises in his Guide to the Lakes.  But where he praises visual diversity, my feet explored a tactile dimension of textures and temperatures.  Where the eye looks for contrasting colors, my feet were contrasting the hardness and softness of things.  These differences cancelled out most of the pain in the end; instead, it felt good to be feeling.  Running unshod reminded me of how little I actually know about this familiar place, and equally important, about my own body.

While Coleridge might not remove his shoes in order sharpen his focus on feet, the scalded foot still manages to open new points of access to the body and its surroundings.  Recall, Coleridge sits in a lime-tree bower.  He could have depicted himself lying in bed or sitting by a fire, but he chooses to situate himself on the ground in the garden.  Such a position is important because, although Coleridge seems to displace the physical for the imaginary, consider the fact that he immerses himself in the ground by eschewing a chair.  Tim Ingold has recently pointed out the modern belief that stationary rest was a prerequisite for thinking.[vii]  One must cease to move or walk in order to think and enhancing such thinking requires its own prosthetic: the armchair.  In this particular case, Coleridge does not celebrate the relationship between walking, the feeling of walking, and its correlation with thinking; rather, with other regions of the body spread across a plane of dirt, grass, roots, and rocks, the poet espouses a less regulated form of sitting which might provide the conditions for a different way of thinking altogether.  Given the variety of furniture, shoes, and constructed ground surfaces, it seems as though the body has access to unlimited experience.  However, if the body is forever wrapped, comforted, and secured, then how little of the world we actually know.

[i] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Poetical Works. Vol 1. Ed. J.C.C. Mays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.  Print.

[ii] Jarvis, Robin.  Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.  Print.  149.

[iii] Tenner, Edward.  Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.  New York: Knopf, 2003.  Print.  78-79.

[iv] Solnit, Rebecca.  Wanderlust: A History of Walking.  New York: Viking, 2000.  Print.  115-116.

[v] Wordsworth, William.  The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850.  Eds. Jonathan Wordsworth and M.H. Abrams.  New York: Norton, 1979.  Print.  130-1.

[vi] Heidegger, Martin.  Being and Time.  Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  Albany: SUNY P, 1996.  Print.  67-71.

[vii] Ingold, Tim.  “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.”  Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description.  New York: Routledge, 2011.  Print.  33-50.