Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Of what may be done in swimming

My dear friend Wendy had a particularly charming post this morning that touched on various fitness- and cat-related activities before plunging into the depths, as it were, of the romantic notion (inspired by this article) that one might actually in real life swim across the Hellespont.

She quoted the poem Byron wrote after completing this swim, reminding me of my old obsession with Byron's wonderful letters and sending me in turn to the library to retrieve the relevant volumes of Leslie Marchand's edition of the letters and journals.

Byron is an incredibly endearing letter-writer, not least because of his vanity--though of course it is not fair to hold someone accountable for having provided multiple correspondents with accounts of the same feat, this is just an unfortunate effect of reading the collected letters posthumously but in the age of e-mail we all understand quite well that one may provide different correspondents with accounts of the same exploit without actually being a monster of egotism! That said, the effect is rather amusing, especially because he is concerned to downplay the whole thing in a patently absurd attempt to seem modest and low-key about his own accomplishments...

Here is Byron to Francis Hodgson, on 5 May 1810:
We have undergone some inconveniences and incurred partial perils, but no events worthy of commemoration unless you will deem it one that two days ago I swam from Sestos to Abydos.--This with a few alarms from robbers, and some danger of shipwretck in a Turkish Galliot six months ago, a visit to a Pacha, a passion for a married woman at Malta, a challenge to an officer, an attachment to three Greek Girls at Athens, with a great deal of buffoonery and fine prospects, form all that has distinguished my progress since my departure from Spain.--Hobhouse rhymes and journalizes. I stare and do nothing, unless smoking can be deemed an active amusement.

Here he is writing to his mother, on 18 May 1810:
Dear Madam,--I arrived here in an English frigate from Smyrna a few days ago without any events worth mentioning except landing to view the plains of Troy, and afterwards when we were at anchor in the Dardanelles, swimming from Sestos to Abydos, in imitation of Monsieur Leander whose story you no doubt know too well for me to add any thing on the subject except that I crossed the Hellespont without so good a motive for the undertaking.--As I am just going to visit the Capitan Pacha you will excuse the brevity of my letter, when Mr. Adair takes leave I am to see the Sultan & the Mosques &c.

Again, to John Hanson on 23 May:
I believe I mentioned in my last that I had visited the plains of Troy, and swam from Sestos to Abydos in the Dardanelles, any of your classical men (Hargreaves or Charles) will explain the meaning of the last performance and the old story connected with it.

And again to his mother, on 24 May:
I believe I mentioned to you in my last that my only notable exploit lately, has been swimming from Sestos to Abydos on the 3d of this month, in humble imitation of Leander of amorous memory, (though I had no Hero to receive me on the other shore of the Hellespont).

(And so forth: believe it or not, he is still alluding, in a letter to Henry Drury on 17 June, to having "swam from Sestos to Abydos (as I trumpeted in my last)"--I like the way he keeps on writing even to the same correspondents about this swim! I will not continue, but there are a number of additional references...)

The really priceless letter, though, is written on 21 February 1821, to his publisher, in response to the diplomat William Turner's charge, in his published journal of his tour in the Levant, that "Lord Byron--when he expressed such confidence of it's practicability seems to have forgotten that Leander swam both ways with and against the tide, whereas he (Ld. B.) only performed the easiest part of the task by swimming with it from Europe to Asia." I have scanned the pages, because it's too long an extract to type up--do read it, though! (Aside from everything else he reveals that the swim was done "in the presence of hundreds of English Witnesses"! What a scene it must have been...)

(Bonus link: George Chesterton explains why Byron would not have used the front crawl.)


  1. I laughed out loud at this line:
    "Though I had on a pair of trowsers—an accoutrement which by no means assists the performance."

  2. Jenny,
    Do you know of a good one-volume selection of Byron's letters? I've really enjoyed these excerpts, but I know I'm unlikely to hie myself to the library or buy all XIII hardcover volumes to read more.

  3. Yep--Leslie Marchand did a one-volume selection that's excellent, you should be able to pick up a copy used though new it might be rather expensive (see "more buying choices"):


  4. So much fun. Thanks, Jenny! Last summer I read the few hundred pages of B's letters & journals that are in the old Nonesuch Byron---I probably would have read the Marchand one-volume if I'd known about it or happened on it first---but as it is, the Nonesuch selection was tremendous fun, and rather moving, and I wouldn't disrecommend it, though my non-disrecommendation is that of an unprofessional, in terms of my Byronic knowledge. Someday I'm going to read all twelve volumes of the Marchand, I have promised myself.