John William Polidori

John William Polidori
by Gulmaram

Dedicated to Terence DuQuesne, who inspired me to finally get something written, and sent me one of his own articles. Thanks to Ms Ludeman, for helping me edit this and make it presentable, and of course thanks to Peter Wingfield, for first introducing me to Polidori in the Highlander episode "The Modern Prometheus".

John William Polidori is one of the most tragic figures in the literary world. He was in the position to become one of the most influential writers of the Romantic period, and his writing could have launched him into eternal fame and immortality. Instead, through the malice of Lord Byron and his followers, his name has been all but obliterated.

John William Polidori was born in London, England on 7 September 1795. He was the son of Gaetano Polidori, an Italian ex-patriot who taught Italian in London and had translated the works of famous English poets into Italian. His work in this area instilled in Polidori a great love for literature (Macdonald, 1991).

Polidori went to school, first at Somerstown, then the Roman Catholic Ampleforth College. Finally in 1811, when he was only sixteen years old, he entered Edinburgh University. He began writing the next year. In December 1813, Polidori wanted to go to Italy and help fight against the invading Austrians. His father would not allow him (Macdonald, 1991).

In 1815, Polidori received his Medical Degree from Edinburgh, the youngest man ever to do this (Macdonald, 1991). He wrote his thesis on sleepwalking, "Oneirodynia as he called it, and had many ideas similar to what later psychologists would explore (DuQuesne, 1992).

After graduation, he began working on his essay "On the Punishment of Death". In March 1816 he was hired as the personal physician to Lord Byron when the poet went into exile in the mainland of Europe (Macdonald, 1991). Both Polidori and Byron were advised against this. Polidori idolised the poet and hoped Byron could help him start his own literary career (Macdonald, 1991). Lord Byron didn't really want a physician. Instead, Polidori became his servant and fulfill his sexual desires. Polidori was young and nave, easily seduced by Byron, and very easily hurt. When Polidori shared his writing with Byron, the poet made fun of it, and said he could never make it as a writer (Macdonald, 1991).

In Byron's company were also Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont. None of them were kind to Polidori (Macdonald, 1991; Polidori, 1911). During their stay in Geneva, Byron struck the challenge that gave birth to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Polidori wrote two stories for the challenge. The first one, "The Vampyre", he wrote for a lady friend, never intending for it to be published (Polidori, 1911). Around the same time, he also began writing Ernestus Berchtold, or The Modern Oedipus.

After Byron's friends left Switzerland in September he decided to dismiss Polidori (Grosskurth, 1997; Macdonald, 1991; Byron, 1950, 1973). When Polidori learned of it, he became upset and tried to kill himself, but Byron stopped him. Heartbroken, but having no choice, Polidori set out for Italy. He went to Milan, Florence, and Venice, working in a hospital or as a personal physician (Macdonald, 1991; Polidori, 1911; Byron, 1950, 1973).

When Polidori returned to England, John Mitford had published "The Vampyre" in New Monthly Magazine, attributing it to Lord Byron. Polidori wrote a letter to the editor, but he was branded a plagiarist and never even received the copyright to the story (Macdonald, 1991).

Still too young to practise medicine in London, he joined the staff of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, opened a dispensary, and treated the poor. He joined the Norwich Philosophical Society and the local Masonic Lodge. In October 1817, he had a driving accident. He hit his head and was unconscious for two to five days. This may have been another suicide attempt (Macdonald, 1991). In 1819 he returned to London and wrote romances under a pseudonym. He also wrote book reviews for Robert Gooch's "Eclectic Review", and published Ximenes, the Wreath, and Other Poems. But nothing was successful, due to his reputation earned from the "Vampyre" scandal.

In 1821, he gave up writing, with Byron's words ringing in his ears. He enrolled in Lincoln's Inn, and was apprenticed to the London lawyer Mr Charles Butler (Macdonald, 1991).

Polidori had earlier written and published anonymously a poem entitled "The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem". It was published with his name after his death. His last publication was Sketches Illustrative of the Manners and Costumes of France, Switzerland, and Italy that he ghostwrote for R Bridgens. Polidori had always been a very talented artist.

On Friday, August 24, 1821, Polidori drank Prussic acid. The coroner declared he had died of natural causes to preserve the family's reputation (Macdonald, 1991).

"The Vampyre" was the first English prose about vampyres. It changed the face of the vampyre in Gothic literature, making him mobile, human, erotic and seductive, of noble birth, and having pale skin and cold eyes. More than half a century later, Polidori's story influenced Bram Stoker to write Dracula (Senf, 1988).

John Polidori held three professions over six years, was the physician to the most popular poet of his time, and wrote the most influential piece of Gothic literature. He published many works in a variety of subjects. He was the youngest man ever to receive an MD from Edinburgh University. And he was a brilliant young soul struggling to survive in the face of rejection and tragedy.


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Copyright Gulmaram, 1998.


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