THE VAMPYRE (1819)
JOHN POLIDORI (17951821)
Dr John Polidori served as the physician and companion to George Gordon, Lord Byron, during the latter’s travels on the Continent in 181617. His short novella The Vampyre is one of the stories that resulted from the telling of ghost stories at the Villa Diodati in 1816 (see introduction to Tales of the Dead); Byron himself composed a brief fragment of a vampire tale, but never developed it. Partly because it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, The Vampyre was very successful and gave rise to many imitations, and dramatic and operatic adaptations. Polidori named his vampire Lord Ruthven, the same name that Byron’s rejected lover Lady Caroline Lamb gave to the Byron figure in her novel Glenarvon. The central relationship in Polidori’s novel is the narrator Aubrey’s fascination with Lord Ruthven, a possible reflection of the troubled homosexual relationship between Byron and Polidori, who was dismissed by Byron for being vain and ill-tempered. Polidori’s brief attempt at a literary career failed, and he killed himself at the age of 26. Vampire literature was popular in Germany (e.g. Bürger’s Lenore, 1774, and Goethe’s Die Braut von Korinth, 1797), and some British vampires predated Polidori’s (e.g. Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer, 1801; John Stagg’s ‘The Vampyre’, 1810; Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, 1816). In much vampire literature, the folklore of vampirism can be as fascinating as the fictional (or poetic) narratives themselves, and historical accounts of vampires, werewolves and other revenants who fed on the living were popular in Northern Europe in the mid-1700s. In the excerpt, Polidori reviews the origins of his tale.
(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)
Extract of a Letter to the Editor
There is a society three or four miles from Geneva, the centre of which is the Countess of Breuss, a Russian lady, well acquainted with the agrémens de la Société, and who has collected them round herself at her mansion. It was chiefly here, I find, that the gentleman who travelled with Lord Byron, as physician, sought for society. He used almost every day to cross the lake by himself, in one of their flat-bottomed boats, and return after passing the evening with his friends about eleven or twelve at night, often whilst the storms were raging in the circling summits of the mountains around. As he became intimate, from long acquaintance, with several of the families in this neighbourhood, I have gathered from their accounts some excellent traits of his lordship’s character, which I will relate to you at some future opportunity. I must, however, free him from one imputation attached to him of having in his house two sisters as the partakers of his revels. This is, like many other charges which have been brought against his lordship, entirely destitute of truth. His only companion was the physician I have already mentioned. The report originated from the following circumstance: Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelly [sic], a gentleman well known for extravagance of doctrine, and for his daring in their profession, even to sign himself with the title of Αθεος [atheist] in the Album at Chamouny, having taken a house below, in which he resided with Miss M. W. Godwin [i.e. the future Mrs Mary Shelley] and Miss Clermont, (the daughters of the celebrated Mr. Godwin) they were frequently visitors at Diodati, and were often seen upon the lake with his Lordship, which gave rise to the report, the truth of which is here positively denied.
The superstition upon which this tale is founded is very general in the East. Among the Arabians it appears to be common: it did not, however, extend itself to the Greeks until after the establishment of Christianity; and it has only assumed its present form since the division of the Latin and Greek churches; at which time, the idea becoming prevalent, that a Latin body could not corrupt if buried in their territory, it gradually increased, and formed the subject of many wonderful stories, still extant, of the dead rising from their graves, and feeding upon the blood of the young and beautiful. In the West it spread, with some slight variation, all over Hungary, Poland, Austria, and Lorraine, where the belief existed, that vampyres nightly imbibed a certain portion of the blood of their victims, who became emaciated, lost their strength, and speedily died of consumptions; whilst these human blood-suckers fattened – and their veins became distended to such a state of repletion, as to cause the blood to flow from all the passages of their bodies, and even from the very pores of their skins.
But first on earth, as Vampyre sent,
Mr. Southey has also introduced in his wild but beautiful poem of Thalaba, the vampyre corse of the Arabian maid Oneiza, who is represented as having returned from the grave for the purposes of tormenting him she best loved whilst in existence. But this cannot be supposed to have resulted from the sinfulness of her life, she being pourtrayed throughout the whole of the tale as a complete type of purity and innocence. The veracious Tournefort gives a long account in his travels [Relation d’un Voyage du Levant, 1717] of several astonishing cases of vampyrism, to which he pretends to have been an eye-witness; and Calmet, in his great work upon this subject [Traité sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires, 1751], besides a variety of anecdotes, and traditionary narratives illustrative of its effects, has put forth some learned dissertations, tending to prove it to be a classical, as well as barbarian error.
[SOURCE: ‘The Vampire: a Tale by Lord Byron’, New Monthly Magazine, 11 (April 1819), pp. 1945]
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