Extract from one of the Kava Poetry Lectures...
Polidori, either through a feeling of rejection or an idiosyncratic approach to medicine, exhibits (to Byron) the macabre. Byron writing that 'when he was my physician he was always talking of prussic acid, oil of amber, blowing into veins, suffocating by charcoal and compounding poison'. Ironically, Polidori shows signs of hypochondria on the journey to Geneva, frequent headaches, nausea, fainting fits, and so on. On a few occasions, Byron has to play the role of doctor and administer to him, albeit unenthusiastically. Polidori, sensitive to environmental conditions whether it be perfumed tea or a freshly painted room.
'I have a pain in my loins and languor in my bones' is one example of many medical self-diagnoses in Polidori's diary. Polidori, nevertheless, is the doctor to Byron and Byron's guests at the Villa Diodati, administering ether to Shelley at one point, treating Byron with magnesium and opiates; he is also (initially) a participant in the daily social engagements, visiting soirees, attending balls, boating. With letters of introduction, Byron plays the role of friend and facilitator, therefore enabling the doctor's acceptance into Geneva society.
The doctor is present on that infamous night when the gathered party are challenged by Byron to write a ghost story. Byron has the pamphlets given to him by Coleridge. Byron gives a copy for Shelley to read in the August of that cloudy summer. Could it have been the ghostly moats and the ghostly oaks and the ghostly castles, the mastiffs and the serpent eyes and the jagged shadows that give Christabel its eerie atmosphere that tipped the balance of sanity that night? Shelley, as Polidori would have it, running from the room in a fit of nausea at the images of Geraldine's deformed breast and snake-like torso. The curse of Christabel affecting the party in Geneva while Coleridge finds relative peace as the 'Sage of Highgate'? Between July and August, Polidori has both angered Byron and Shelley and become ostracised, parting company with Byron in September. The diary entries cease, which is indicative of a troubled time for Polidori and question marks about his behaviour. Polidori writes retrospectively in September:
'Had a long explanation with Shelley and Byron about my conduct to Lord Byron. I threatened to shoot Shelley one day on the water'
We learn from Byron and Shelley that Polidori had challenged Shelley to a duel on another occasion, that he quarrelled with Byron and Genevan doctors (about inferior magnesia given by an apothecary to Byron), Byron having to vacate the Villa Diodati during one of Polidori's moods, and he was dismissed from his position in September, Byron writing to John Murray years later that
'I never was much more disgusted with any human production than with the eternal nonsense and tracusseries and vanity of that young person'
But in another letter he concedes Polidori had manners, honour and talent, perhaps a frustrated talent. He had mixed feelings about Polidori. At one point he is a friend and companion and then he can treat the Doctor demeaningly and disparagingly.
'He is clever and accomplished but his faults are the faults of a pardonable vanity and youth' and then 'his remaining with me is out of the question. I have enough to do to manage my own scrapes'
It seems for all of Byron's guests at the Villa Diodati, that nothing was the same for any of them after the night of ghost stories, and Byron's reciting of Coleridge's Christabel, including Polidori, who had already been relegated in Byron's affections with the arrival of Shelley's circle and who, perhaps, through writing was able to establish an identity strong enough to withstand the strong characters in the group, and also, tired of the demeaning jokes at his expense, begins to fight back, passionately forgetting his responsibilities as a doctor and his presence as an employee.
Polidori attempts a kind of slave revolt through literature. Humiliated repeatedly by Byrons penchant for sadistic put downs, he tries to write through conflict and achieve an equable status through literature. Feeling inferior in the brilliant company he constantly seeks approval, showing Shelley his plays (Shelley feels they are not good), participating in the literary competition to write a ghost story on a par with the french-translated German fantasmagoriana and Coleridge's Christabel recited to such powerful effect by Byron.
Polidori wants to be the artist (Byron) but, in this case, wants to simultaneously overthrow him. In a boating incident recounted by Mary Godwin, Polidori accidentlally strikes Byron with an oar. Byron, in deep pain, and grimacing retorts:
'Be so kind Polidori, on another time, to take some care for you hurt me very much
To which the doctor replies
'I am glad of it. I am glad to see you suffer pain
Hardly the words one expects from a doctor to a patient! The medical profession is ethically based on the Hippocratic oath, but Polidori's moral position is undermined and clouded by his role as a commissioned diarist, employed by Byron's publisher, John Murray, to observe and write about his employer and patient.
In being with, and tending to, and writing about Byron, his own sense of self is in danger of being eclipsed. So he writes The Vampyre; the main character like Byron, indeed a version of a character, Augustus Darvell, that Byron had created for his abandoned ghost tale and published by John Murray as Mappeza: Fragments of a Novel. The main character bearing some resemblance to a character in Lady Caroline Lamb's Glenarvon, a roman a clef with its Byronesque anti-hero, Lord Ruthven. In writing The Vampyre Polidori can gain control of a fictionalised Byron and achieve literary fame. Fiction is therapy for Polidori, because only a week or so earlier he had felt anguished and vulnerable enough to attempt suicide...
I am a writer, editor and translator living in West Yorkshire. I have a degree and masters in Literature and Philosophy from London Universities. I obtained a PGCE in English and History and taught for two years in a secondary school in England. My writing credits can be viewed here. I have had two poetry books published and am a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016). I work as an editor and associate publisher at The High Window Press.