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Byron Swims the Hellespont

On May 9, 1810, Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont
from Sestos to Abydos to duplicate the legendary
back-and-forth trips made by the mythical Leander on
visits to his lover Hero. This was a distance of about one
nautical mile, in very cold water with a dangerously
strong current. Despite warnings not to try it, both from
local residents and from the British consul, Byron
completed the hazardous swim in about an hour. Talk
about a poet with a real pair of balls!

What else to do but try it? Just a whim
To be a new Leander, and like him
Brave the cold strait that kept two loves apart,
And show, through daring, how a young man’s heart
Is equal in real life to mythic story.
Could I not garner for myself the glory
A long-dead swimmer earned by being drowned?
Lust drove his limbs, and yet Leander’s crowned
With honor, just as if he fell in battle.
Shall I not also win a prize: the prattle
Of ladies back in England who will squeal
To hear of this adventure? And they’ll feel
The pangs of dreamy passion for a chap
Who’s handsome, lithe, and saucy. And mayhap
They’ll swoon when greeted by my rakish smile.
I’ll tell them how I swam the stormy mile
Twixt Europe’s shore and Asia’s rock-strewn strand
Not resting for a moment, till the land
Came into view, and how the breakers’ roar
Told me that I was coming close to shore.

I hardly think I’d try the thing again—
It took one hour but it felt like ten.
The water was as cold as German hock
Poured over chipped ice, and the fleshly shock
Set me a-shiver. I paid that no mind,
For if I had, I should have been resigned
To death within ten minutes. I just stroked
The waves in endless motion, as I stoked
My brain with thoughts of Forward! Move ahead!
If you so much as hesitate, you’re dead!
And like a soldier, marching to face guns,
Who knows that if he loses heart and runs
Disgrace and death are bound to be his fate,
I clenched my teeth and kept my body straight.
All I did was swim and keep my aim
In one direction, holding to the same
With dogged perseverance. That was all
I had to cling to. Otherwise I’d fall
Into a lethal stupor and sink under.
Such weakness would have been a costly blunder.

And so I did it, and it brought me fame.
The name of Byron blazes with a flame
Unheard of since the days when poets fought
In combat, or took journeys where they sought
Adventure, fortune, plunder, or romance,
And faced men with the gallant, hardy stance
Of independent, true virility—
The kind that does not bend a servile knee
To beg small favors from a fopling master,
Or falls to pieces at some trite disaster.
Masculine, muscled poets are the types
That women love, for such men have the tripes
To seize the moment, make a sudden lurch,
And not be cowed by ministers in church
Who plead for caution and “all due decorum.”
I loathe those geldings. May the devil store ’em
Deep in some dungeon in the pit of hell.
We don’t need poets with the flouncy smell
Of nancy-boys tricked out like eunuch slaves—
Such worms won’t swim the Hellespontine waves.

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Poet’s Note:

The story of Hero and Leander appears in three classical sources: Ovid’s Heroides, Vergil’s Georgics, and in a late Greek epyllion of Musaeus Grammaticus. Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated English version is in iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, but it was unfinished at his death in 1593. A continuation of the text was attempted by George Chapman (1559-1634).

My dramatic monologue is in the feigned voice of Lord Byron, whose swim from Sestos to Abydos in 1810 was prompted by sheer youthful energy and daring, and a poet’s fascination with the story of Leander’s nightly swim to keep a rendezvous with his beloved Hero. I have tried to maintain the voice of Byron by keeping close to the verbal style of his poetry, but I am more interested in showing that the manly forcefulness and drive that many idiots today call “toxic masculinity” is in fact just a normal and healthy manifestation of manhood, and that hatred of it is from diseased and perverted elements of our sick society that lack the stamina and pith to be male.

I have also put in a few historical Byronic touches: his love for German hock, his phenomenal success as a ladies’ man, his contempt for the clergy, and his personal courage as a fighter.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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43 Responses

  1. Jack “Michael” Dashiell

    Inspiration of Byron in both poetry and swimming, the daring to believe in yourself and thus attempt to try something dangerous. You can’t succeed in life without taking a chance and sometimes risk it all. One of Byron’s episodes standing with his flamboyant need to impress. I post one of his quotes or extracts every Saturday in the Lord Byron group on Facebook.

    Reply
  2. Yael

    Nice! I love the combination of classical-style poetry, story telling and a lesson in history and Greek mythology, all rolled into one. It’s entertaining and educational at once, thank you.

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you both for your comments.

    Dear Mike Bryant —

    Could you make two fixes? In the second stanza there shouldn’t be a space between lines 8 and 9. The same is true for the middle paragraph of the Poet’s Note, where the two sections should be joined.

    Reply
  4. sally cook

    Dear Joseph,
    Your poem, like Byron’s swim, is remarkable, and spot on in its message. A true act of faith.
    How could masculinity ever be toxic? What a loaded piece of propaganda !
    As you very well know, words have meaning. We are presently being pressed into a verbal meat grinder which is trying to make us unable to have strength of purpose.
    I like men, but know there is nothing worse or more hurtful to a woman than a prissy, weak man.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, I hope that the SCP will remain the place where words still have definite meaning, and where both real masculinity and femininity are cherished as gifts, not demonized.

      Reply
  5. Allegra Silberstein

    You have embodied byron’s spirit beautifully in your poem. Thanks for the story your poem tells us.

    Reply
  6. Roy E. Peterson

    Joseph, your classical knowledge matched with classical poetic skills and great story telling ability are an unmatchable trifecta. Like others I not only learned a lot but greatly enjoyed your contribution.

    Reply
  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind comments. Evan, it was A. B. Brown’s essay on the martial ethos in much traditional poetry that got me thinking about Byron and how his swim might be a subject for verse.

    Reply
  8. Jeff Eardley

    Joseph, I enjoyed this immensely. He really was,”Mad, bad and dangerous to know” We are fortunate to have visited his ancestral home of Newstead Abbey where we learned of the pet bear and “Boatswain,” his beloved dog.
    Namby-Pamby he certainly wasn’t. Thank you for a memorable piece of writing

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      You can’t teach Byron anymore in a college English class. He pushes all the wrong buttons on both faculty members and feminist coeds.

      Reply
  9. Brian Yapko

    Joseph, this is a fascinating and skilled glimpse into Byron’s mind and the birth of the Byronic hero. I especially like the second stanza with its hindsight reflection on the mindset of someone who has undergone a life-threatening challenge and who yet found the ability to push himself ever forward.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Brian. I tried to capture Byron’s impetuous personality and cavalier bravery. He was a true aristocrat.

      Reply
  10. D.G. Rowe

    Cor! A bloody cracking piece of work. I read it out loud, and the enjambments are mighty good.

    The Cultured Thug. The sentimets expressed in this poem have lineage and heritage going back fiercely to Egil Skallagrimson and the poems he would produce in praise to his victories and sagas, his feats of bravery and strength.
    An other great man of adventure whom wrote poetry was Richard Francis Burton, a quintessential Cultured Thug, Victorian England’s greatest in my estimation.

    Men like this epitomise the inexorable western spirit. George Mallory’s ” because it’s there”.

    Cheers, Mr Salemi. My favourite of yours by far.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, D.G. Lord Byron does indeed represent that daring, Faustian side of Western culture: impetuous, unafraid, and aristocratic. I have loved Sir Richard Burton ever since I read his translation of Cheikh Nefzaoui’s “The Perfumed Garden.” Translating that text in Victorian times also took a real pair of balls.

      Reply
  11. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is a great piece, Joseph. You’ve captured the voice and psychology of an individual and subject which could easily drift into parody. As you suggest in your poet’s note, Byron’s masculinity was of a kind viewed with extreme suspicion these days and his brand of romanticism is a tough sell in our effeminate and oh-so-ironic culture.

    Personally, I love the man not only for his poetry but also for his defense of the Luddites as my thrice-great grandfather was transported to Australia for “machine breaking.” Byron’s maiden parliamentary speech was against a bill which would’ve made it a capital offence, so perhaps I owe him my life!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Shaun. Byron’s brave defense of the Luddites was a sign of a true aristocrat’s contempt for the money-grubbing selfishness of bourgeois capitalism and the smug pieties of Manchester liberalism. One thing hasn’t changed about liberals since the 19th century — they’re still fixated on making money, no matter what the cost to other people’s livelihoods. Deep down, that’s their idea of “progress.”

      Reply
  12. Margaret Coats

    Open water swimming is still attractive as a feat of strength with an element of danger. In the poem, I like the middle section where Byron describes how he did the swim. It well describes the need for confidence as mental stamina. Otherwise, it contradicts today’s open water training, in which swimmers are advised to take breaks (slowing down or floating) in order to avoid exhaustion. But I, who take no risks in lake or ocean, certainly do not understand how the stronger swimmer can re-start with power after a break, and thus I sympathize with the urge to keep going out of sheer fear of drowning. Byron’s swim against the current, taking no account of limits of strength, and with no companion–all put it in the category of “extreme sports.” And so do the touches of showmanship in the thoughts of the first and last sections of the poem!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Margaret, it sounds like you’re a strong swimmer yourself. I understand that open-water swimmers today, if they traverse long distances, are accompanied by a boat with medical staff and others to intervene if any emergency arises. I read somewhere that this was also true in those cases when 19th-century swimmers crossed the English Channel (a much longer and more dangerous task). The swimmer would stop every few miles to drink a large mug of warm brandy (unthinkable today), handed to him by those in the boat.

      Yes, Byron was a showman. The first great rock-star celebrity, complete with endless groupies.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I am no strong swimmer, but I enjoy the tonic effect of wild water. That makes my motivation entirely different from Byron’s. More like Swinburne’s in “My mother sea.” You are right that long distance swimmers today are accompanied by boats that not only intervene if necessary, but feed them every half-hour. No more warm brandy, or even red wine to prevent cramps, but nutritionist-designed snacks and supplements for each stage of the swim. I would never do this if I could; the swimmer becomes a machine in goggles, day-glow cap, and wetsuit. Nearly everything of manly or womanly aspiration disappears from the project. And the swimmer has to raise money for it all from corporate sponsorships. I suppose Byron simply hired a local boat ahead of time, to look out for him on the opposite shore, and take him back to where he had left his baggage

      Reply
  13. AB Brown

    This is a great poem. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    May Byron always serve as an inspiring counterpoint against the wimps of our time.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Andrew. Your essay on manliness and martial valor in poetry was what prompted me to think about celebrating Byron’s swim.

      Reply
  14. James Sale

    Ha ha ha!!! Love it Joe – some very strong lines in this and truly Swiftian indignation. Some of it made me laugh out loud. Glad to see you paying attention to Andrew Benson Brown’s epic work – he has been a huge fan of Byron since I’ve known him, and his Legends of Liberty is totally infused with the spirit of Byron.

    Reply
  15. Julian D. Woodruff

    Joseph,
    First, congratulations on the great rhyme decorum / store ‘em! Beyond that, your poem brings to mind several things. Leander, being legendary, was able to pursue his thing with Hero every time he crossed the Hellespont. I suppose there must be pages on the connection between Byron’s deformity and his desire to test himself physically. This incident may be the most memorable of all. But Byron may simply have been pleased with himself to swim it once, and then thought, as Cole Porter put it, “Pillow, you be my baby tonight!” You adduce Leander’s lust: as a motivator, that makes an interesting contrast with Byron, who was presumably just out to satisfy his vanity. (Pace, D.G. Rowe: I think Mallory’s “Because it’s there” is usually part of the problem, rather than of the solution.) I also like that you address what in a man pleases a woman, or ought to (assuming we know what either is), even though you don’t pretend to supply a complete answer. Lastly, thanks for the little literary trail you supply. I’ve never given any attention to Marlowe; it’s time I did.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Julian, if Kit Marlowe had not been killed in a tavern brawl at an early age, he would have rivaled Shakespeare as a luminary of the English renaissance. His talent was immense.

      Yes, Byron’s feat was performed out of sheer bravado and daring, since there was no lady on the other side waiting to welcome him into her bed. But there’s also the fact that Byron was already a good swimmer before this escapade — it would have been sheer madness for anyone without that solid skill to attempt it. His deformity (a clubfoot) seems to have had no detrimental effect on his swimming skills, just as it seems to never have been an impediment to Byron’s ability to seduce women by the handful wherever he went.

      Reply
  16. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This tour de force of a narrative poem romps along in heroic couplets chock full of the gung-ho spirit of a poet who has a pet bear. The poem taps into a swashbuckling era that really did have English ladies prattling and squealing over such daredevil deeds by a suave Don Juan with nerves of steel and a wicked way with words. I love this poem! Decorum /store ’em is a ray of rhyming sunshine.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’m glad you like it, Susan. One thing can be said about Lord Byron’s life — it was never boring!

      Reply
  17. Norma Pain

    Though I know little about Byron or the subject matter, I enjoyed your poem Joseph and I thank you for enlightening me on his amazingly daring adventure.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Norma. Byron’s last daring adventure cost him his life, when he went to join the Greeks in their war of independence against the Turks.

      Reply
  18. C.B. Anderson

    Knock me over with a feather. But this was no feather — it was beak & talon against the obedient inhabitants of Wuss World. The resources at your disposal can only be a result of a good upbringing and a hell of a lot of hard work. This is why you can come up with ideas that no one else has had.

    Reply
  19. Joseph S. Salemi

    Attention everyone: What I have typed below has nothing at all to do with my poem about Byron’s swim. It’s just a historical marker, which I hope will travel around the world, and be preserved for posterity. Here goes:

    As of Monday, August 8, 2022, the United States of America has become a FULL-FLEDGED TOTALITARIAN STATE, with a dead-letter Constitution and an inoperative Bill of Rights.

    Police-state tyranny, as practiced by the Attorney General (Merrick Garland) and the head of the FBI (Christopher Wray) is now the law of the land. The utterly illegal raid on the home of Donald Trump, in the dead of night, has all the earmarks of a Gestapo or KGB operation against a political opponent.

    Garland is a longtime Deep State functionary who is still enraged that he never got a seat on the Supreme Court due to Republican opposition. Wray is a bootlicking careerist who will do anything that his governmental superiors order. People like this are no different in their approach to government than Himmler or Goebbels. And they both work for an illegitimate President who was seated in a rigged and dishonest election.

    Have a nice day, folks, in the New World Order.

    Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      Yesterday a bill was passed that funds 87,000 new IRS agents with EIGHTY BILLION DOLLARS… 70,000 of the agents will be armed. It looks like the New World Order has a new IRS Army. The bill, idiotically called the Inflation Reduction Act, authorizes SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS for an authoritarian wish list that includes at least fifty radical new programs. The CCP is our model for effective government now.

      https://www.wnd.com/2022/08/50-radical-policies-democrats-inflation-reduction-act/

      Reply
  20. David Watt

    What a great narrative poem! You have captured the youthful, gutsy, manly Byron, and the motivation for his daring swim.

    Reply

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