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Southern Methodist University English professor and long-time editor-in-chief of The Southwest Review, Willard Spiegelman has a wonderfully reflective essay in the new issue of American Scholar on swimming — part personal memoir, part literary history and part of a new book by him, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, due from Farrar Straus & Giroux next year:
Swimming is an imaginative adventure: “The experience of swimming is both sexual and spiritual. The sensation of water flowing over the body is dynamic, erotic, enlivening, and yet it awakens, at every moment, our consciousness of the fragility of our breath.” So said the great Australian swimmer and early film star Annette Kellerman. Water supports and resists, and there’s no one lonelier, even a runner of the longest distances, than a swimmer. Sensory diminishment, or the transformation of the senses under water, forces you in upon what inner resources you have. The imagination complements the body as you work through the water. John Nabor, a 1976 Olympic medalist, has remarked upon the relative gregariousness of competitive divers, who preen, strut, and sit around between dives in hot tubs and Jacuzzis to keep their muscles loose. Swimmers, on the other hand, are by definition loners: “Swimmers don’t have anyone to commune with except themselves. . . . Nothing but the rush of water in their ears, hour after hour in practice. Many of them sing to themselves, to pass the time.” I must have been on to something—not knowing that I had placed myself in the company of my betters—because I too was singing. (Large swatches of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have passed through my mind during a 90-minute swim.)
One quibble: Spiegelman writes that with Lord Byron’s famous crossing of the Hellespont (as drily recounted in his poem, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos”), “swimming really enters English literature.” A defensible observation, given what followed — the 19th century’s health-craze for manly swimming.
But swimming entered English literature — when English literature entered the scene. There is, in fact, a famous swimming contest in the Old English poem, Beowulf, between the title hero and his friend, Breca. Beowulf lost the race, but then, as he boastfully recounts in his version, that was only because the Olympic judges didn’t give him credit for having to stop to kill several sea monsters along the way.