Melbourne University has recently replaced its solid Latin motto* with the ridiculous slogan “Dream large”. But students, here’s a cautionary tale:
Captain Matthew Webb has the credit for swimming the English Channel for the first time in 1875, Iris Murdoch tells us in an article recently reprinted in the NYRB:
Technically, in fact, Webb was not the first man to swim the channel: he was preceded by an enterprising American, a coast guard named Boynton, who performed the feat in a rubber suit and assisted by a paddle. He became totally committed to the deeps, and resigning command of his ship performed feat after feat of endurance swimming, always in need of money, of which he only earned modest amounts. He married and had children but continued to swim. Like Peleus, the father of Achilles, who begat his famous son on Thetis the sea goddess, he became totally committed to the new style of heroism. Such epic marine immersions aged his once magnificent body, but like all classic heroes he could not stop. He knew where his fate must lie; he arranged to swim through the whirlpool below Niagara Falls, a feat never previously attempted. Like a warrior in the Iliad putting on his armor, [Boynton] wore the red silk costume made famous by his Channel swim. He dived from the boat and swam through “the savage green boiling water that seemed piled up in the centre like some glacier.” He was never seen alive again.
* Posterea crescam laude, which as any fule no, translates as “my posterior will grow in praise”.
Wikimedia Commons image of Niagara whirlpool.