Sprawson makes a splash

John Bayley

  • Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson
    Cape, 307 pp, £15.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 224 02730 1

Housman liked athletic records of all sorts and seeing them ‘cut’, or broken, although he does not himself seem to have been much of a swimming man. In the verses on Hero and Leander he develops a contrast, as often in his poetry: in this case, between a classic place and story and a decidedly northern atmosphere – the sputtering torch sounds Scottish and the ‘nighted firth’ freezing cold, like the Forth or Tay. After a night of love Leander will have a hard job on hand, as demanding as all the other human duties in Housman. But the verse is oddly tender too: perhaps because ‘heart’, the right word as well as, for him, a more decorous word than ‘breast’, gives the relation more depth than if it were just a marathon competition in sex and swimming.

The highly competitive Byron saw it in that light. After he had swum the Hellespont (‘Leander, Mr Ekenhead, and I did’), he noted that Leander’s ‘conjugal powers’ must have been a trifle exhausted, because the tide was so rapid and strong. He found it easier to swim all the way from the Lido to Venice and up the Grand Canal to his palazzo; and took pride in the fact that he was then still quite hale enough to eat a ‘piece’ and retire to bed with Boccacio and ‘a black-eyed Venetian girl’. On that occasion he had been competing in the swim with a bachelor friend, Alexander Scott, and the Cavalier Angelo Mengaldo, a former officer in Napoleon’s Army who claimed to have swum the Berezina under Russian gunfire. Mengaldo took to a gondola long before Venice was reached, and Scott gave up at the Rialto bridge.

If Byron’s lameness and sturdy seal-like physique both helped to make him a compulsive swimmer, endlessly competing with the powerful Trelawney, he does not seem to have shared the mystical feeling for water and immersion of other Romantic poets, notably the non-swimmer Shelley. Byron promised to teach him but never got around to it. It is an odd fact that many sailors in those days deliberately refused to learn (Trelawney, who had been in the Navy, was an exception), maintaining that the hazards of their calling made a prolonged death after shipwreck unacceptable, a point which Byron noted in Don Juan (‘And ever and anon the bubbling cry/Of some strong swimmer in his agony’). In this enchanting book Charles Sprawson comments on the romantic tendency to regard a watery plunge as the ideal therapy for romantic ills, for Sénancour’s ‘inexhaustible discontent, languor and homesickness’. Those words of Matthew Arnold, half yearning and half disapproving, imply the curious relation between romantic swimming as balm and symbol of the death-wish, and public school swimming as it might be called – a bracing and brutal baptism to banish mollycoddling and drive morbid fancies out of youthful heads.

Swinburne managed to combine both attitudes, getting a masochistic pleasure out of being flogged by rough rocks and waves – off the Cumberland coast he came out streaming with blood from cuts inflicted by barnacles – but also regarding the sea as the mother whose caresses would calm his frenetic disposition. Together with Watts Dunton and George Borrow – then over seventy – he would bathe in the Putney ponds ‘with a north-east wind cutting across the icy waters like a razor’. No towels of course: Borrow would run about the grass like an elderly dog, shaking himself to get dry. For Coleridge and De Quincy, immersion was a more metaphorical matter: ‘silent, with swimming sense’ Coleridge stands in his lime tree bower, but for Swinburne the great pool to plunge into was opium itself. He speaks of drowning in it, as Leopardi loved the idea of a haven in the sweet sea of melancholy contemplation.

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