The most famous swimmer among the English poets, Lord Byron, wrote a jaunty poem on the activity—one of the many activities—that made him legendary throughout Europe in his lifetime. “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” reverses and updates the old myth of Leander, who braved the Hellespont every evening to visit Hero on the other side. Whereas the lissome Greek swam for love, Byron allows that he, “degenerate modern wretch,” aimed for fame and glory on the one-mile swim in strong currents he took on May 3, 1810. And where Leander perished in his pursuit—a pursuit treated with fervor and high camp by Christopher Marlowe in his luscious mini-epic Elizabethan poem “Hero and Leander”—Byron comes out of his adventure with nothing nobler than “the ague,” a cold.
The man who swam, after a night of revelry on the Lido, across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal in Venice in three and three-quarters hours, took to the water for the same reason that he took so easily to horseback: he could do anything but walk normally. Swimming hid a congenital deformity and allowed him to forget it temporarily.
more from The American Scholar here.