John William Polidori Essay - Critical Essays

Polidori, John William

Introduction

John William Polidori 1795-1821

English novelist, dramatist, poet, and diarist.

Author of The Vampyre (1819), the first published vampire novel in English, Polidori is best remembered for his association with more famous literary figures, including Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The Vampyre was initially misattributed to Byron; although Polidori borrowed some plot elements from an abandoned narrative fragment by Byron, his novel is an original composition, establishing many of the literary conventions of the vampire theme that were followed by subsequent nineteenth-century authors, including Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker.

Biographical Information

Polidori was the oldest son of an English mother and an Italian father who had served as secretary to the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri before emigrating to England. When he was nineteen Polidori became the youngest student to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. Too young to practice medicine in England, he offered his services as a private physician and was engaged in 1816 by Byron. Scandal surrounded Byron's recent separation from his wife; the poet was socially ostracized but still the focus of considerable critical and popular attention, and Byron's publisher offered to pay Polidori for a written account of the poet's activities. The pair traveled through France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, where they encountered the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had abandoned his wife and eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), ccompanied by her half-sister Claire Claremont, a former lover of Byron. Byron and Polidori leased the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva; Shelley, Godwin, and Claremont took lodgings nearby and were frequent visitors. Although scholars dispute the account of a rainy night and "ghost-story-writing competition" giving rise to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Polidori's Vampyre, most concur that both works were conceived and started at the Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816. Polidori also began a second novel, later published as Ernestus Berchtold; or, the Modern Oedipus (1819). Byron's and Polidori's letters and diaries, as well as those of acquaintances and intimates of both, record minor disagreements and serious quarrels between them. In September Byron dismissed Polidori, who subsequently traveled to Italy, returning to England in 1817. For the next four years, he occasionally worked as a doctor and published his two novels as well as two volumes of poetry. Many commentators, including Polidori's nephew William Michael Rossetti, assume that Polidori's death at age twenty-five was a suicide, but this remains unproven.

Major Works

The Vampyre may owe its existence in part to Byron: Polidori based some characteristics of his cultured, urbane supernatural antagonist on his employer, and some commentators speculate that the novel was first accepted for publication because Byron was thought to be the author. Nevertheless, Polidori's novel contains wholly original elements that significantly influenced subsequent genre fiction. In particular, Polidori shifted focus from a passive, suffering protagonist to the compelling, dynamic figure of the vampire himself. Further, Polidori may have been the first author in any language to cast the bestial vampire of legend into the form most familiar to modern readers: a sophisticated nobleman who exerts a sexual fascination over both male and female victims.

Critical Reception

Polidori remains a marginal literary figure, overshadowed by his renowned associates. Nevertheless, recent scholarship discerns much of merit and originality in The Vampyre. Genre enthusiasts still study this novel and identify it as a pivotal work of supernatural fiction.

Principal Works

An Essay upon the Source of Positive Pleasure (essay) 1818

The Vampyre (novel) 1819

Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus (novel) 1819

Ximenes, the Wreath, and Other Poems (poetry) 1819

The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem (poetry) 1821

The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori (diary) 1911

Criticism

George Gordon, Lord Byron (letter date 1817)

SOURCE: An extract from a letter to John Murray on August 21, 1817, in "So Late Into the Night": Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol. 51816-1817, edited by Leslie A. Marchand, John Murray, 1976, pp. 257-61.

[Byron kept closely in touch with his publisher John Murray during his travels. In 1817nearly a year after Byron and Polidori had parted companyMurray wrote to Byron that "Polidori has sent me his tragedy! Do me the kindness to send by return of post a delicate declension of it, which I engage faithfully to copy. " Byron responded with the humorous verse excerpted below, which is written in character as Murray, declining the drama on the grounds that play publication was proving unsuccessful financially.]

You want a "civil and delicate declension" for the medical tragedy? Take it—

Dear Doctor—I have read your play
Which is a good one in it's way
Purges the eyes & moves the bowels
And drenches handkerchiefs like towels
With tears that in a flux of Grief
Afford hysterical relief
To shatter'd nerves & quickened pulses
Which your catastrophe convulses.
I like your moral & machinery
Your plot too has such scope for Scenery!
Your dialogue is apt & smart
The play's concoction full of art—
Your hero...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

The New Monthly Magazine (essay date 1819)

SOURCE: "Original Communications: Extract of a Letter from Geneva, with Anecdotes of Lord Byron, &c.," in The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. XI, No. LXIII, April 1, 1819, pp. 193-206.

[The following excerpt is from an anonymous article mistakenly attributing the authorship of The Vampyre to Byron.]

It appears that one evening Lord B., Mr. P. B. Shelly, the two ladies and the gentleman before alluded to [Polidori], after after having perused a German work, which was entitled Phantasmagoriana; began relating ghost stories; when his lordship having recited the beginning of Christabel, then unpublished, the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly's mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantlepiece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighbourhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression. It was afterwards proposed, in the course of conversation, that each of the company present should write a tale depending upon some supernatural agency, which was undertaken by Lord B., the physician, and Miss M. W. Godwin.

John W. Polidori (essay date 1819)

SOURCE: "Letter from Dr. Polidori," in The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. XI, No. LXIII, May 1, 1819, p. 332.

[In the following letter, Polidori acknowledges Byron's influence but asserts his own authorship of The Vampyre.]

MR. EDITOR,

As the person referred to in the Letter from Geneva, prefixed to the Tale of the Vampyre, in your last Number, I beg leave to state, that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale, in its present form, to Lord Byron. The fact is, that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron's, its developement is mine, produced at the request of a lady, who denied the possibility of any...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

European Magazine (essay date 1819)

SOURCE: A review of Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus, in European Magazine, Vol. 76, December, 1819, pp. 534-37.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic briefly describes the plot and subject matter of Ernestus Berchtold.]

If it be one of the highest faculties of invention to combine the natural with the marvellous, and to develope the human character with the consistency of truth, in a sphere of action beyond the range of possibility, this extraordinary tale [Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus] may claim no obscure place in the department of literature to which it belongs. In regard to the nature of its subject, it may be...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Edinburgh Monthly (essay date 1820)

SOURCE:A review of Ernestus Berchtold; or, the Modern Oedipus, in Edinburgh Monthly, Vol. 4, No. XXIV, December, 1820, pp. 727-35.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Ernestus Berchtold, the critic blames Polidori for the attribution of The Vampyre to Byron, describing that novel as a "vile abortion. " The reviewer also excoriates writers of supernatural horror fiction, charging that Polidori inadequately developed the supernatural element of Ernestus Berchtold and marveling that such an untalented writer continues to publish. In a concluding offhand accusation of unoriginality against Polidori, the anonymous critic misattributes Frankenstein; or, the...

(The entire section is 1314 words.)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (essay date 1831)

SOURCE: An introduction to Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in The Essential Frankenstein, edited by Leonard Wolf, Plume, 1993, pp. 296-300.

[Shelley's Frankenstein, one of the best-known horror novels of all time, was conceived and begun during the summer of 1816 , during the same sojourn during which Byron wrote the fragment from which Polidori developed The Vampyre. In the following excerpt from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley outlines the genesis of the two works, dismissing Polidori's initial literary effort. Subsequent scholarship has shown Shelley's account to be largely erroneous.]...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Montague Summers (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "The Vampire in Literature," in The Vampire-His Kith and Kin, 1928. Reprint by University Books, 1960, pp. 271-340.

[A leading authority on Restoration drama and the supernatural, Summers wrote numerous studies of witchcraft, lycanthropy, and vampirism, and the literature thereof. In the following excerpt, he outlines the plot of The Vampyre.]

(The entire section is 4319 words.)

E. F. Bleiler (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "John Polidori and The Vampyre," in Three Gothic Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Dover Publications, 1966, pp. xxxi-xl.

[In the following essay, Bleiler discusses the writing and publication of The Vampyre and assesses its influence.]

By the beginning of 1816 it was inevitable that the great poet Lord George Gordon Byron and his wife Anne were to separate, and Byron announced his decision to leave England. As T. L. Peacock, Shelley's friend and correspondent, phrased it in Nightmare Abbey, "Sir, I have quarrelled with my wife; and a man who has quarrelled with his wife is absolved from all duty to his country. I have written an ode to tell...

(The entire section is 3418 words.)

Christopher Frayling (essay date 1978)

SOURCE:An introduction to The Vampyre: Lord Ruthven to Count Dracula, edited by Christopher Frayling, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1978, pp. 9-82.

[Frayling is an English educator and critic who has written extensively on modern popular culture. In the following excerpt, he discusses Polidori's Vampyre in relation to several types of literary vampire in modern European fiction.]

A Red Sea

The vampire is as old as the world. Blood tastes of the sea—where we all come from. Although we normally associate the myth with Eastern Europe or Greece, probably because of epidemics which emanated from those regions in the eighteenth century, traces of...

(The entire section is 5895 words.)

James B. Twitchell (excerpt date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Vampire in Prose," in The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, Duke University Press, 1981, pp. 103-41.

[Twitchell is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on supernatural and horror literature and film. In the following excerpt, Twitchell praises The Vampyre, exonerates Polidori from the charge of plagiarism, and proposes possible biographical bases for some characters and incidents from the novel.]

Whether or not The Vampyre would have survived on its own, had it not appeared to be Byron's work, is of course a moot point. It surely would not have gained such a wide readership, both in...

(The entire section is 4400 words.)

Patricia L. Skarda (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Vampirism and Plagiarism: Byron's Influence and Polidori's Practice," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 249-69.

[In the following essay, Skarda contends that the plot of The Vampyre and the personal histories of Byron and Polidori "demonstrate the essential vampirism inherent in the powerful influence of a strong talent on a weak one. "]

In our culture the most popular version of the vampire, which has spawned a multi-million-dollar movie industry, is the Romanian nosferatu, a blood-crazed living corpse that turns its victims into new vampires and can be combated with an odd, elaborate mixture...

(The entire section is 6695 words.)

Judith Barbour (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Dr. John William Polidori, Author of The Vampyre," in Imagining Romanticism: Essays on English and Australian Romanticisms, edited by Deirdre Coleman and Peter Otto, Locust Hill Press, 1992, pp. 85-110.

[In the following essay, Barbour uses Polidori's The Vampyre to explore the figure of the vampire in the Romantic literary imagination.]

I want to generalize an idea of the Romantic Imagination, in a period example, and as a crisis in authorial self-representation. The dominant trope in John William Polidori's The Vampyre; a Tale (1819) is the agon between evenly-matched male protagonist and male antagonist. This turning plot has...

(The entire section is 9404 words.)

D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus," in Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of "The Vampyre," University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 204-23.

[In the first full-length critical biography of Polidori, Macdonald acknowledges Polidori's marginal status as a literary figure, but suggests that Polidori's life and works, as well as his relationships with more renowned contemporaries, are worthy of scholarly study. In the following excerpt from that work, Macdonald examines the novel Ernestus Berchtold.]

(The entire section is 8834 words.)

Vijay Mishra (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Gothic Fragments and Fragmented Gothics," in The Gothic Sublime, State University of New York Press, 1994, pp. 83-116.

[In the following excerpt, Mishra discusses Polidori's The Vampyre and Ernestus Berchtold as exemplary of a particular type of Gothic fiction: a deliberately inconclusive work intended to arouse fear, astonishment, or delight that appears fragmentary because it is not resolved.]

There is a class of Gothic texts that I would want to refer to as symptoms of the form insofar as it raises problems hidden "by the completeness of works that have attained the status of 'texts'." If in literary terms transcendence always implies a way of...

(The entire section is 5023 words.)