Plunging in like the poets
VENETIANS call it l’appassionata de l’acqua , an obsession with water in all its forms, from the ocean to mountain streams, from freshwater lakes to public baths, from lilycovered ponds and lagoons to the backyard pool. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, Algernon Swinburne, Rupert Brooke, Charles Kingsley and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the literary luminaries who embraced this passion.
In the middle of winter Russian poet Alexander Pushkin would rise early, run down to the river, break the ice with his fist and plunge into the freezing water’’, writes Charles Sprawson in Haunts of the Black Masseur , his study of swimming from classical times to the 1960s.
Smitten by night bathing, Brooke swam naked with Woolf in the dark water, smelling of mint and mud’’, in the river below his lodgings.
German poet Johann von Goethe believed a bracing swim transformed bourgeois sensual exhaustion into a fresh and vigorous existence’’; Gustave Flaubert bathed twice daily in the Seine and yearned to be metamorphosed into water, Greek myth style; Charlotte Bronte was so overcome by her first encounter with the ocean that she fainted.
Jane Austen also loved sea bathing. In a letter from Lyme in 1804, she wrote that the bathing was so delightful this morning . . . I believe I staid in rather too long’’.
Growing up in northern Sydney meant it was easy for me to indulge my own affair with water: once in the waves at Freshwater or Bilgola beach I wouldn’t come out. My long fair hair was pale green, stained by daily swims in chlorinated pools. A trout- fishing trip to the full- strength Snowy River in the 60s introduced me to the hypnotic nature of fast- flowing water, an attraction T. S. Eliot described in The Waste Land : If there were the sound of water only Not the cicada And dry grass singing But sound of water over a rock
Learning to dive added a new dimension. I would dive off anything, from the high board at my school pool, rock ledges on coastal headlands, boulders at waterholes. I dreamed of being one of the dark gold- skinned island girls featured in a movie set in Samoa, careering down a waterfall before splashing into the rockpool below.
I’ve swum in many countries, and while my first loves are salt water, waves and bodysurfing, certain freshwater lakes and a pool below a Balinese water temple nestled in steep paddy fields also stand out in my memory. In the annals of my swimming life, only beaches lapped by the Atlantic have truly disappointed. Now I swim year round at either of two public pools poised on the edge of Sydney Harbour and never tire of plunging in ( or of the passing cargo ships, their rust- stained hulls a legend of ocean crossings).
Sprawson explores acqua felice in detail in his remarkable book, subtitled The Swimmer as Hero and published 15 years ago. I’m indebted to a colleague who lent it to me recently for my first reading. The enthusiasm for water and bathing in the Latin world was such, he writes, that the emperor Caligula’s inability to swim was cause for comment. At one point there were more than 800 baths available to Rome’s citizens, some of them designed to accommodate 1000 people and many surrounded by colonnades, libraries, marble statuary and gymnasiums. Describing an ignorant man, a Roman would commonly say: He knows neither how to read nor swim.’’ Bathing lost its allure after Rome’s fall, according to Sprawson, and was relegated to the lonely realm of eccentricity and even ungodliness under the thumb of a censorious Christian church. A renewed English romance with the classical world in the 19th century, this classical impulse’’, as Matthew Arnold described it, inspired a return to the water.
Swimming galas in coastal bays and races along English rivers became regular events,
people leapt off the tops of bridges for wagers’’, frogs were kept in tubs by the sides of pools as a means of instruction’’ in breaststroke and tanks were set up in music halls for underwater ballets. This activity reached its apogee in 1875 when Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel.
A half century earlier, Shelley, 29, had drowned in a storm off Viareggio, a volume of Sophocles clutched in one hand’’. Shelley never learned to swim. Instead, throughout his life, he would plunge his head several times a day into a basinful of cold water’’; at Eton he sculled for kilometres down the Thames; and he never lost his passion for launching flotillas of paper boats’’. On one occasion he rowed down a river in a washtub, until the bottom fell out’’.
Living in Italy, he became intoxicated by the sea’’ and submarine images flowed into his poetry. He shocked his wife Mary by entering the dining room in the middle of lunch, naked as a needle, glistening with salt water, bits of seaweed tangled in his hair’ According to his friend E. J. Trelawney, he behaved as if he were a merman or a fish’’.
While Rome’s fabulous Baths of Caracella apparently moved Shelley to pen Prometheus Unbound , Byron found his muse in the Greek myth of Leander and his nightly swim across the Hellespont to make love to Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower in Sestos. According to the myth, which inspired poets from Ovid to Shakespeare, Leander drowned when Hero’s guiding lamp was blown out in a storm. His grief- stricken lover then threw herself from the tower.
Following Leander’s lead, Byron swam the Hellespont in May 1810, commemorating the feat in his poem Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos . According to Sprawson, the point at which Byron made his crossing is little more than 2km wide, but the current makes it so arduous that ( Byron) doubted whether Leander’s conjugal powers must not have been exhausted in his passage to Paradise’ ’’.
Attempting to re- enact the poet’s ‘‘ far more hazardous’’ swim, across Lisbon’s Tagus estuary, Sprawson, looking across the water to a shore fringed with oil refineries rather than the orange groves Byron described, had to contend with commercial shipping and was ultimately picked up by a police patrol boat and interrogated.
In his celebrated story The Swimmer ( 1964), later made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster, American writer John Cheever imagines a mythical crossing of a different kind. Middleaged Neddy Merrill sets out from a cocktail party to swim home through the backyard pools of affluent Westchester County. His watery marathon takes on a mystical flavour as the seasons and years flash by unexplained.
As the seasons of my own life pass, the appeal of water likewise rushes on.