Vampyre' and Other Writings, p.1
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Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side
JOHN WILLIAM POLIDORI
and other writings
Edited with an introduction by
FRANKLIN CHARLES BISHOP
The Vampyre: A Tale
from A Medical Inaugural Dissertation which deals with the disease called Oneirodynia, for the degree of Medical Doctor, Edinburgh 1815
from On the Punishment of Death
from An Essay Upon the Source of Positive Pleasure
Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus. A Tale
from Ximenes, The Wreath and Other Poems
from The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem
from The Diary of Dr John William Polidori
from Letters of John Polidori
Appendix: Four Letters about Polidori
About the Author
There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: – upon her neck and breast were blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein –
from ‘The Vampyre: A Tale’ by John William Polidori, published 1819
On 1 April 1819 the New Monthly Magazine featured a short story entitled ‘The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron’, which started a literary sensation. The public had seen nothing like it before and rushed to buy copies: thus it inaugurated a whole new genre of popular vampire fiction that continues to fascinate generation after generation of readers.
The proprietor and editor of the magazine, Henry Colburn, was delighted with his literary coup and even more pleased with the huge increase in sales it brought to his ailing literary magazine, which was to become the leading publication of macabre stories during the 1820s and 1830s. Almost immediately he issued The Vampyre in book form as a novella to cash in further on its popularity, followed later by other publishers eager to satisfy the enormous public demand. Five English editions of The Vampyre appeared during 1819. On the continent it proved even more popular and was rapidly translated into three editions in French. 1820 saw a bastardised version expanded into a two-volume novel by French author Cyprien Bérard, entitled Ruthwen ou les vampires. In 1824 a critical essay by A. Pichot insisted The Vampyre had more to do with Byron’s popularity in France than all of his poetry. Even the celebrated German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) declared the work to be Byron’s masterpiece. By 1830 editions were available in German, Spanish, Italian and Swedish translations. Further editions even appeared in America. Stage productions of The Vampyre quickly followed in the early 1820s with theatres in Paris showing several dramatic adaptations by the notable playwrights Charles Nodier (1780–1844) and Eugène Scribe (1791–1861). James Robinson Planché translated Nodier’s Le Vampire into English and in 1820 successfully performed it at the English Opera House in London. William August Wohlbruck and Heinrich August Marschner produced an opera based upon Polidori’s tale entitled Der Vampyr in 1828 to much acclaim. Channel Four television produced a stunning version of Der Vampyr in 1993 in a contemporary London setting.
The publication of The Vampyre was, however, a literary deception and succès de scandale on a grand scale entirely perpetrated by Henry Colburn’s unprincipled business acumen. He acquired the original manuscript from an unnamed correspondent and then falsely attributed the work to the most famous living poet of the time, Lord Byron, which he shrewdly and correctly judged would guarantee great public interest and huge sales; but even Colburn could not have foreseen the extent to which it would create a publishing phenomenon. In 1819 readers were profoundly shocked and titillated by a story in which the vampire was believed to be an accurate self-portrait of Lord Byron.
Byron, when informed of his name being falsely assigned to The Vampyre, irately declared he was not the author of the work; he had, however, written an unfinished vampire story entitled A Fragment, which his publisher later printed as an appendix at the end of his poem Mazeppa (published in 1819). Byron’s vampire tale is a doleful piece of prose completely lacking the power of Polidori’s work. The public still continued to believe that The Vampyre was indeed a self-portrait of Byron, a sensational if illogical extension and projection of the tortured Romantic hero evident in poems such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18) and Manfred (1817). To add further weight to this popular misconception Byron recently had been sharply caricatured by one of his spurned and angry ex-lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, in her novel Glenarvon (1816) as Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon. In The Vampyre it is the villainous Lord Ruthven who is the vampire – understood by astonished readers as a clear reference to Lord Byron.
The real author of The Vampyre was John William Polidori, an Anglo-Italian physician. Polidori was effectively cheated by his devious publisher Henry Colburn; immediately upon seeing his own work in print under Byron’s name, he wrote to Colburn, demanding that his name appear as the rightful author of The Vampyre. The publisher prevaricated, protesting that it was he who had been compromised over the affair. He knew it was to his advantage to sustain the illusion of Byron as the author as long as possible, thereby maintaining its appeal, instead of admitting that it was the work of an unknown literary figure: consequently, he had done little to redress the matter, despite strong protestations from Polidori. The New Monthly Magazine’s sub-editor, Alaric Watts, resigned in protest at Colburn’s deception thereby confirming that Polidori was indeed the real author. Despite this, the name of Polidori only appears in Colburn’s second edition of the novella, described as The Vampyre; a tale related by Lord Byron to Dr Polidori. All other editions attribute it to Byron or simply omit an author’s name altogether. By this time it mattered little to readers, who preferred to believe that Byron was the author. Polidori lost out financially through fear of losing a threatened court case over the dispute: he accepted the paltry sum of £30 from Colburn in full settlement, when he should have received enough from the huge sales to have made him a rich man.
John William Polidori, M.D. (1795–1821) was the oldest son of a distinguished Italian scholar and translator.1 He had a classical education at the Catholic college of Ampleforth, near York, and later qualified as a Medical Doctor at the University of Edinburgh at the exceptionally young age of nineteen. Thomas Medwin,2 a contemporary, described Polidori as ‘a tall, handsome man, with a marked Italian cast of countenance, which bore the impress of profound melancholy; a good address and manners, more retiring than forward in society’. Polidori was a keen academic with interests in art, literature, architecture and history, who owned a collection of books in Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French and Spanish. His sister Frances married Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti in 1826, thus linking two highly cultured Anglo-Italian families. Frances became the mother of the celebrated Rossetti children; Gabriel3 who, along with his sister Christina,4 made substantial literary and artistic contribu
In the April of 1816 Polidori (aged twenty) was appointed as Lord Byron’s private physician and travelling companion. The famous poet was about to leave England, a self-imposed European exile to escape debtors. His wife thought him mentally unbalanced, and society was rife with rumours of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron’s publisher commissioned Polidori to write a journal of his travels with the poet. Polidori travelled with Byron to Geneva where he met Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley)5 and her step-sister Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont6 (Byron’s eighteen-year-old besotted lover). It was in the Villa Diodati by Lake Léman (Geneva) that the famous ghost story sessions took place, resulting in the genesis of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Byron’s A Fragment (1819) and Polidori’s only published novel, Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus (1819). Polidori also produced his seminal The Vampyre: A Tale (1819) based upon Byron’s abandoned and unfinished piece.
Polidori was ill at ease with Byron and Shelley: after several petty rows and disagreements, they parted company late in the summer of 1816. He continued to travel through Italy, meeting Byron again in Milan and finally in Venice, before returning to England in the spring of 1817; he attempted to settle in Norwich, where he opened a dispensary treating the poor. He knew William Taylor (1765–1836), a well-known and philanthropic literary figure living in Norwich who was a close friend of the poet Robert Southey7 (1774–1843) and correspondent of Walter Scott (1771–1832). Taylor introduced Polidori into the literary and social circles of Norwich, where he met the physician Thomas Martineau and his family, including his niece, the young (then aged thirteen) and future famous author, Harriet Martineau (1802–76). He continued to pursue his literary career, but after he sustained cerebral damage in an accident at Costessey Hall near Norwich, his mental and physical health deteriorated over the next four years with increasing rapidity. By 1821 he had abandoned both his medical and his literary careers. An attempt to study at Lincoln’s Inn Fields for a career in Law was also discarded. He died in the family home in London in the August of 1821 after accidentally overdosing himself with a self-prescribed pharmacopoeia concoction. The Coroner memorably recorded ‘Death by the Visitation of God’.
The Vampyre is a pivotal and extraordinary influential work combining elements of both Gothic and Romantic sensibilities, in which Polidori radically transformed the vampire of Eastern European mythology from an animated, rotting corpse that periodically rose from the grave to feed restrictedly on living relatives in the locale, into a travelling, handsome, amoral, aristocratic lethal seducer perfectly at home in high society and the London salons. The work broke with the explained supernatural school of Gothic8 literature promulgated by Ann Radcliffe,9 littered with hysterical anti-Catholicism,10 and took it into the unexplained supernatural where the vampire exists intrinsically, without banal apology or theatrical illusion. Polidori secured for himself (though he was never to know it during his lifetime) a unique place in literary history with a tale he had originally written in 1816 whilst with Byron in Switzerland and dismissed as ‘a mere trifle’, never intending it for publication and indeed leaving his original manuscript with a lady friend near Geneva.
For an English readership generally lacking in knowledge about vampire mythology, Colburn had cleverly prefixed The Vampyre with a clarifying introduction and a fictitious ‘Letter from Geneva’. Interest in vampire literature was embedded in Northern Europe, particularly Germany, with Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth (1797) and Bürger’s Lenore (1774). The first brief and speculative attempts to introduce vampiric elements into English appeared in poetry – Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), John Herman Merivale’s The Dead Men of Pest (1802) and later in John Stagg’s The Vampire (1810), Byron’s poem The Giour (1813) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel (1816). Although these pre-date Polidori’s The Vampyre, they did not deviate from the standard vampire folklore of Arabia and Eastern Europe. Metaphorical vampiric aristocrats are found in Gothic fiction of the eighteenth century as family usurpers, usually taking the inheritances from the rightful owners rather than their blood. Vampirism was also utilised in a political context to define economic exploitation of the working class by politicians sucking the life out of them via punitive taxes and debts even after death by burdening their surviving relatives with their financial demands.
The Vampyre remains, along with Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, of all the prose of the Romantic period the most republished and enjoyed by successive generations. Polidori created a new anti-Romantic icon; his drastic redefinition and introduction of the vampire as a lethal aristocratic seducer into English literature has had a continuing influence upon writers since 1819. He originated the powerful consciousness of the vampire as a mobile, evil force, undetected and cunning, unscrupulous, a dangerous predator yet seductively attractive. It has through successive imitations and development established an iconic literary motif that continues to fascinate and horrify. The mobility of Polidori’s vampire added to its potency for exciting terror since, prior to his Lord Ruthven creation, the vampire of folklore had been a static monster trapped in its own foreign locale. Before the appearance of The Vampyre even English nineteenth-century readers would still have been in agreement with Voltaire’s earlier sentiments: ‘What? Vampires in an eighteenth century? Yes… in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria and Lorraine – there was no talk of vampires in London…’11
Polidori’s archaic spelling of ‘vampyre’ alludes to the works of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) and Dom Augustin Calmet (1672–1757). It was Calmet, a leading authority on vampires in the eighteenth century, who published in 1746 a treatise detailing more than 500 cases of documented vampirism. French botanist Tournefort wrote an eyewitness account of the dissection of a Greek vrykolakas (vampire). Vampire mythology originated from the East, especially Arabia and Greece after the establishment of Christianity and the later division of the Latin and Greek churches. The idea that a Latin body would not corrupt if buried in their territory gained credence with lurid tales of the dead rising from their graves and feeding upon the blood of the young and beautiful (Polidori utilises this aspect in his tale by having the vampire seduce Aubrey’s sister). In parts of Greece (Polidori’s tale significantly also has scenes located in Greece), vampirism was considered as punishment after death for heinous crimes committed whilst alive: the vampire was condemned to prey upon those he had loved most in life. Vampire folklore spread with variations to Hungary, Poland, Austria and Lorraine. Lurid accounts of Arnold Paul – the most famous ‘vampire’ of the eighteenth century – appeared in the London Journal of March 1732, relating how he had been turned into a ‘vampire’ whilst in Turkish Servia. Sporadic forays into vampire folklore appeared in English literature with Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), which introduced the vampire to English readers in the female form of Oneiza, an Arabian maid, and Byron’s poem The Giaour was steeped in Oriental mythology but none of the authors broke with the conventional vampire folklore.
Many writers of the Romantic Movement12 in the early nineteenth century indulged in the rejuvenation of folklore and crude traditions by attempting imaginatively to reinvent and permeate them with perceptive and intellectual emotional responses. Other prominent literary works appearing in 1819 when Polidori’s The Vampyre was published included Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Byron’s Mazeppa and Don Juan Cantos I–II and, interestingly, a three-volume set entitled Anastasius; or, Memoirs of a Greek by Thomas Hope, which like Polidori’s The Vampyre was widely attributed to Byron on publication. Percy Shelley’s The Cenci: A Tragedy and William Wordsworth’s Peter Bell: A Tale in Verse were other notable publications.
Published in 1819, Polidori’s only full-length novel, Ernestus Berchtold; or, the Modern Oedipus – like Byron’s Manfred, Percy Shelley’s Laon and Cythna and M.G. Lewis’s
Polidori’s collection of poetry and his only published dramatic tragedy were contained in a volume entitled Ximenes, The Wreath and Other Poetry, also in 1819; the sonnets were especially well received. Ximenes: the Modern Abraham is his only published dramatic tragedy.
The philosophical essay ‘Upon the Source of Positive Pleasure’, published in 1818, was the result of a near-death-experience, when Polidori was in extremis after suffering concussion from his accident at Costessey Hall. An essay entitled ‘Upon the Punishment of Death’ arguing forcibly and eloquently against the judicial use of the death penalty for petty offences was published in 1816 in The Pamphleteer, the editor commending it as ‘a very ingenious and valuable little tract’. In King George III’s reign there were over two hundred capital offences, many for petty crimes, although in practice the courts were often reluctant to implement the death penalty in most minor cases. Cesare Bonesana, Marchese Beccaria’s most famous work On Crimes and Punishment, published in 1764, which advocated penal reform in Europe, was a clear influence on Polidori’s treatise.
Polidori, in collaboration with the artist Richard Bridgens, wrote the text for Sketches Illustrative of the Manners and Costumes of France, Switzerland and Italy, published in 1821. An epic Miltonesque style poem entitled The Fall of The Angels; A Sacred Poem was Polidori’s final work; it appeared posthumously, also in 1821.