Lord Byron

Lord Byron

On this day in 1810 Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, in emulation of Leander’s legendary swims to visit his beloved Hero. Byron was twenty-two, and ten months into his two-year tour of the Mediterranean. He was not yet famous for his poetry or his profligacy, although he had just finished the first draft of Childe Harold, and had just ended, while in Malta, his first serious affair. This was with Constance Spencer Smith, a twenty-six-year-old married woman who was no Hero, but who had dazzled Byron with her beauty, mystery and unattainability. She had once been arrested on orders of Napoleon (for unclear reasons), and had escaped from prison by way of another enflamed twenty-two-year-old nobleman (plus a rope ladder, a boy’s costume, a carriage and a boat). Byron at one point attempted to defend her honor in a sunrise duel.

Notwithstanding, the poem Byron wrote after the Hellespont swim shows him capable of poking fun at not only Romanticism but himself:

Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos

If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

If, when the wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing I loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat today.

But since he crossed the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo and Lord knows what beside,
And swam for Love, as I for Glory;

‘Twere hard to say who fared the best;
Sad mortals thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drowned, and I’ve the ague.
The swim took Byron two tries, but he bested the one mile, the cold waters and the strong current – he reckoned that he traveled over three miles downstream during the crossing – in an hour and ten minutes. "Did it with little difficulty," he said in his journal entry; "I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical, or rhetorical," he wrote in one letter home.

– SK


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