trip it as ye go / On the light fantastick toe.”
That’s Milton in “L’Allegro” (1645), and a modern reader will be reminded of “trip the light fantastic,” a sporty invitation to dance. Milton’s title means “the happy man,” in contrast to its darker twin, “Il Penseroso” (“the melancholy man”). It’s the toe that interests me. Here an emblem of happiness and grace, in real life our toes are exiled, unsightly and out of sight. It’s hard to believe toes are part of us. There’s little you can do with them decently in public. Babies and junkies play with their toes. Seeing them again is like meeting a long-absent relative, and only then remembering why we’ve been avoiding them for so long.
My little toe is vestigial, an evolutionary cul-de-sac, fated to fade in coming generations, a small-nailed albino. More assertive is the big toe, dignified with the Latin hallux, ennobled with a muscle of its own, the equally Latin flexor hallucis longus. Also more vulnerable. A colleague has been hobbled by a bunion, both pre- and post-surgery. She resorted to slitting the side of her shoe for relief. “And these were expensive shoes,” she assured me. In September 1997, I woke with a throbbing and deliciously painful big toe on my left foot: gout. Part of me was pleased. Gout is of royal lineage – Dr. Johnson, Henry James and Joseph Conrad all manfully suffered. My doctor gave me pills and a list of proscribed food and drink – no red wine or canned figs. In a day or two the pain abated. Let’s return to a happier theme with the assistance of Eric Ormsby and the concluding lines of his “Big Toe” (Time’s Covenant, 2007):
“I scrutinize my toes in their antipodes.They seem so stodgy and yet, these
Ambassadors to asphalt from the rest of me
Dream all night, in serried socks, of prancing footlessly.”
[A reader wagered I couldn’t write a post about my big toe.]