On this day, George Gordon, Lord Byron, swims across the Hellespont, a tumultuous strait in Turkey now called the Dardanelles. Legendary Greek hero Leander supposedly swam the same four-mile stretch. Byron’s visits to Greece later made him a passionate supporter of Greek independence from Turkey.
The 22-year-old Byron was taking an extended tour of the European continent when he decided to take his famous swim. His travels inspired his first widely read poetic work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. After the publication of the poem’s first canto in 1809, Byron became a major British celebrity. The world-weary tone of the poems, describing the travels of a young noble waiting to be knighted, caught the imagination of the public and established the cynical Byronic hero.
Byron, who was born with a clubfoot, had been raised in near-poverty in Scotland. At age 10, he inherited his title and wealth from a great uncle. He attended top schools, including Trinity College, Cambridge, where he racked up enormous debt and began to publish poetry. When his first volume, Hours of Idleness, was received unkindly by critics, he savaged the literary establishment in his second book, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809).
Byron married Annabella Milbanke in 1815, after several passionate affairs with other women. The couple had a child but separated in 1816. Byron’s reputation was shattered by rumors of an incestuous affair with his half-sister, August Leigh. Forced to flee England, he settled in Geneva near Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. He had an affair with Mary Shelley’s half-sister, who later bore his child. He traveled throughout Italy, engaged in countless amorous liaisons, and published the first two cantos of Don Juan in 1819. In Don Juan, he boasts of his swim across the Hellespont nine years earlier. In 1823, having lost close friends and family, Byron left Italy for Greece, where he trained revolutionary troops until he caught a fever and died in 1824. He became a national hero in Greece.