Contributor: Catriona Seth
Description: The name ‘Dardanelles’ might make you think of a busy shipping canal or of the site of a deadly First World War campaign. The ‘Hellespont’, which refers to the same body of water, might lead you to Hero and Leander’s sad story, recounted in classical sources, but also revived by Christopher Marlowe in 1598)or by Leigh Hunt in 1819. Both terms refer to a single strait. At its narrowest—where its currents are extremely strong—it is 1.2 kilometres across. Whilst it was made famous in myth and in history for tragic deaths, the site is also important for having offered Byron an occasion to accomplish a seemingly heroic act—swimming safely across—and to use this as an occasion for self-publicity which tells us something about how he viewed himself as an individual and as an author.
The successful swim took place on May 3rd 1810. The event is celebrated in Byron’s poem ‘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 loth,
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 to-day.
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.
Byron presents Leander’s feat and heroic failure before giving a mock-epic account of his own valour—the ‘degenerate modern wretch’ triumphed where the legendary lover failed. The myth acts as a foil to and an intensifier of his own action. Byron is writing himself into literature not only by retelling a legend—the starting point for many a modern poem—but also by putting himself on the same plane as the traditional characters. The jesting tone conceals some of the complications of the feat accomplished in cold waters, which had made an earlier attempt impossible. In a letter to his Mother, Byron evokes those who had made the crossing before him, at a time when swimming was a skill few people possessed even if they lived by the seaside: ‘[Le] Chevalier says that a young Jew swam the same distance for his mistress; and Olivier mentions its having been done by a Neapolitan; but our consul, Tarragona, remembered neither of these circumstances, and tried to dissuade us from the attempt. A number of the Salsette’s crew were known to have accomplished a greater distance; and the only thing that surprised me was that, as doubts had been entertained of the truth of Leander’s story, no traveller had ever endeavoured to ascertain its practicability.’ Byron, who doubtless was at ease in the water partly because it relieved him of the symptoms of his deformed foot, is inscribing himself in a landscape made famous through words written and retold, tracing a form of community not with his forgotten contemporaries, the unnamed Jew and Neapolitan, but with the characters whose adventures form the fabric of European literary imagination.
He would do it again in Don Juan (II.cv) in cockier tones, the parallel turning him into the stuff of myth in quasi-doggerel which allows him to blow his own trumpet in an apparently self-deprecating manner:
A better swimmer you could scarce see ever,
He could perhaps have passed the Hellespont,
As once (a feat on which ourselves we prided)
Leander, Mr. Ekenhead, and I did.
In geographical terms, the Dardanelles or Hellespont marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. By connecting the one to the other during his swim, Byron was underlining the vitality of classical heritage, a short distance from the site of Troy. He was also reasserting the importance of Ancient Greece (over Turkey seen as the modern occupier) and its links to the cultural tradition which was his, something for which he would, of course, fight some years later.
Setting himself up as important by his life as well as his works, or by his actions as well as his poems, Byron was building up what was to be unparalleled celebrity status—the only writer to rival him in this respect at the time was Germaine de Staël. Her fame was due in large measure to her political presence and long exile, although like Byron her colourful love life was the stuff of many a conversation among the chattering classes. Whilst Staël was a cosmopolitan by birth and upbringing, the very British Byron was setting out to make his career European. Travelling like many a young aristocrat on the grand tour, he was not only buying vedute of Vesuvius or models of the Sybil’s Temple at Tivoli, he was not even just penning a few weary lines of verse to mark his visit: he was inventing himself, inscribing himself in the landscape, not simply by chiselling at stone to write his name, as he may have done at Chillon or at Sounion, but by staking a claim to being an essential part of its history. Despite being name-checked in Don Juan, Lieutenant Ekenhead, who swam alongside him—and indeed outpaced him—is not remembered for the feat. Byron is. But then Byron, authoring his life as well as his poem, was, as he candidly states in search of glory.
Subject: George Gordon, Lord Byron
Media rights: copyright C. Seth
Object type: landscape
Related posts: Byron’s Autograph at Chillon; A Lock of Byron’s Hair