Plung­ing in like the po­ets

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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