Leander was a youth of Abydos, a town of the Asian side of the strait which separates Asia and Europe. On the opposite shore, in the town of Sestos, lived the maiden Hero, a priestess of Venus. Leander loved her, and used to swim the strait nightly to enjoy the company of his mistress, guided by a torch which she reared upon the tower for the purpose. But one night a tempest arose and the sea was rough; his strength failed, and he was drowned. The waves bore his body to the European shore, where Hero became aware of his death, and in her despair cast herself down from the tower into the sea and perished.
The following sonnet is by Keats:
“On A picture of Leander
“Come hither all sweet
Down looking aye, and with a chasten’d light
Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white,
And meekly let your fair hands joined be
As if so gentle that ye could not see,
Untouch’d, a victim of your beauty bright,
Sinking away to his young spirit’s night,
Sinking bewilder’d’mid the dreary sea.
’Tis young Leander toiling to his death
Nigh swooning he doth purse his weary lips
For Hero’s cheek, and smiles against her smile
O horrid dream! see how his body dips
Dead-heavy; arms and shoulders gleam awhile;
He’s gone; up bubbles all his amorous breath!”
The story of Leander’s swimming the Hellespont was looked upon as fabulous, and the feat considered impossible, till Lord Byron proved its possibility by performing it himself. In the “Bride of Abydos” he says,
“These limbs that buoyant wave hath borne.”
The distance in the narrowest part is almost a mile, and there is a constant current setting out from the Sea of Marmora into the Archipelago. Since Byron’s time the feat has been achieved by others; but it yet remains a test of strength and skill in the art of swimming sufficient to give a wide and lasting celebrity to any one of our readers who may dare to make the attempt and succeed in accomplishing it.
In the beginning of the second canto of the same poem, Byron thus alludes to this story:
“The winds are high
on Helle’s wave,
As on that night of stormiest water,
When Love, who sent, forgot to save
The young, the beautiful, the brave,
The lonely hope of Sestos’ daughter.
O, when alone along the sky
The turret-torch was blazing high,
Though rising gale and breaking foam,
And shrieking sea-birds warned him home;
And clouds aloft and tides below,
With signs and sounds forbade to go,
He could not see, he would not hear
Or sound or sight foreboding fear.
His eye but saw that light of love,
The only star it hailed above;
His ear but rang with Hero’s song,
‘Ye waves, divide not lovers long.’
That tale is old, but love anew
May nerve young hearts to prove as true.”