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Читать книгу: «The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori»

"Mi fur mostrati gli spiriti magni
Che del vederli in me stesso n'esalto.


A person whose name finds mention in the books about Byron, and to some extent in those about Shelley, was John William Polidori, M.D.; he was Lord Byron's travelling physician in 1816, when his Lordship quitted England soon after the separation from his wife. I, who now act as Editor of his Diary, am a nephew of his, born after his death. Dr. Polidori figures not very advantageously in the books concerning Byron and Shelley. He is exhibited as overweening and petulant, too fond of putting himself forward face to face with those two heroes of our poetical literature, and too touchy when either of them declined to take him at his own estimation. I will allow that this judgment of Polidori is, so far as it goes, substantially just; and that some of the recorded anecdotes of him prove him deficient in self-knowledge, lacking prudence and reserve, and ignoring the distinction between a dignified and a quarrelsome attitude of mind. He was, in fact, extremely young when he went abroad in April 1816 with Byron, to whom he had been recommended by Sir Henry Halford; he was then only twenty years of age (born on September 7, 1795), Byron being twenty-eight, and Shelley twenty-three. The recommendation given to so very young a man is a little surprising. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Polidori was without some solid attainments, and some considerable share of talent. He was the son of Gaetano Polidori, a Tuscan man of letters who, after being secretary to the celebrated dramatist Alfieri, had settled in London as a teacher of Italian, and of his English wife, a Miss Pierce; the parents (my maternal grand-parents) survived to a great age, only dying in 1853. John Polidori, after receiving his education in the Roman Catholic College of Ampleforth (Yorkshire), studied medicine in Edinburgh, and took his doctor's degree at a singularly early age—I believe almost unexampled—the age of nineteen. His ambition was fully as much for literary as for professional distinction; and he published, besides The Vampyre to which I shall have to recur, a prose tale named Ernestus Berchtold, a volume of verse containing a drama entitled Ximenes, and some other writings.

One of these writings is the text to a volume, published in 1821, entitled Sketches Illustrative of the Manners and Costumes of France, Switzerland, and Italy, by R. Bridgens. The name of Polidori is not indeed recorded in this book, but I know as a certainty that he was the writer. One of the designs in the volume shows the costume of women at Lerici just about the time when Shelley was staying there, in the closing months of his life, and a noticeable costume it was. Polidori himself—though I am not aware that he ever received any instruction in drawing worth speaking of—had some considerable native gift in sketching faces and figures with lifelike expression; I possess a few examples to prove as much. The Diary shows that he took some serious and intelligent interest in works of art, as well as in literature; and he was clearly a rapid and somewhat caustic judge of character—perhaps a correct one. He was a fine, rather romantic-looking young man, as evidenced by his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, accepted from me by that Institution in 1895.

Dr. Polidori's life was a short one. Not long after quitting Lord Byron in 1816 he returned to London, and in Norwich continued his medical career, but eventually relinquished this, and began studying for the Bar. It is said that Miss Harriett Martineau was rather in love with him in Norwich. In August 1821 he committed suicide with poison—having, through losses in gambling, incurred a debt of honour which he had no present means of clearing off. That he did take poison, prussic acid, was a fact perfectly well known in his family; but it is curious to note that the easy-going and good-naturedly disposed coroner's jury were content to return a verdict without eliciting any distinct evidence as to the cause of death, and they simply pronounced that he had "died by the visitation of God."

The matter was reported in two papers, The Traveller and The New Times. I possess a copy, made by my mother at the time, of the reports; and it may perhaps be as well inserted here.

Copied from The Traveller
Monday Evening [August 27th, 1821].

Melancholy Event.—Mr. Polidori, residing in Great Pulteney Street, retired to rest about his usual time on Thursday night; the servant, not finding him rise at the usual hour yesterday, went to his room between eleven and twelve o'clock, and found him groaning, and apparently in the last agonies of death. An alarm was given and medical aid was immediately called, but before the arrival of Surgeons Copeland and Davies, he was no more. His father was at the time on his journey to London to see his son, and arrived about three hours after the event. We understand the deceased was about twenty-six years of age, and had for some time accompanied Lord Byron in Italy. A Coroner's Inquest will sit this day to ascertain the cause of his death.

Copied from The New Times
Tuesday [September 11th, 1821].

Coroner's Inquest on John Polidori, Esquire.—An Inquisition has been taken before T. Higgs, Esquire, Deputy Coroner, at the residence of the father of the above unfortunate gentleman, in Great Pulteney Street, Golden Square, who was discovered lying on his bed in a state nearly approaching to death, and soon afterwards expired.

Charlotte Reed, the servant to Mr. Gaetano Polidori, the father of the deceased, said her master's son lived in the house, and for some time had been indisposed. On Monday the 20th of August last he returned from Brighton, since which his conduct manifested strong symptoms of incoherence, and he gave his order for dinner in a very strange manner. On the Thursday following the deceased dined with a gentleman residing in the same house, and on that occasion he appeared very much depressed in his spirits. About nine o'clock the same evening he ordered witness to leave a glass (tumbler) in his room; this was unusual, but one was placed as he desired. Deceased told her he was unwell; if therefore he did not get up by twelve o'clock the next day, not to disturb him. Witness, however, a few minutes before twelve, went into his room to open the shutters, and on her return saw the deceased lying in bed; he was not in any unusual position, but seemed extremely ill. Witness immediately left the room, went upstairs, and communicated what she had observed to a gentleman, who instantly came down. Witness then went for medical assistance. The deceased was about twenty-six years of age.—Mr. John Deagostini, the gentleman alluded to by the last witness, corroborated her statement on his giving him the invitation to dine, which he accepted in a way quite different from his usual conduct. Witness also observed that, some time since, the deceased had met with an accident—was thrown out of his gig, and seriously hurt in the head. On Thursday at dinner he spoke in half sentences; the conversation was on politics and a future state. The deceased observed rather harshly that witness would see more than him; he appeared to be deranged in his mind, and his countenance was haggard. At dinner he ate very little: soon after left the room, but joined again at tea; hardly spoke a word, and retired at nine o'clock. After breakfast next morning, witness inquired of the servant whether Mr. Polidori had gone out. She replied no, and that he had desired her not to disturb him. About twelve o'clock the servant came to him very much alarmed. Witness went immediately to the apartment of the deceased, and observed a tumbler on the chair, which contained nothing but water, and did not perceive any deleterious substance that the deceased might have taken; he was senseless, and apparently in a dying state.—Mr. Thomas Copeland, a surgeon residing in Golden Square, was sent for suddenly to attend the deceased, and attempted to discharge the contents of the stomach without effect. He lingered for about ten minutes, and expired. Another medical gentleman soon after arrived, but his assistance was also unavailing.—There being no further evidence adduced to prove how the deceased came to his death, the jury, under these circumstances, returned a verdict of—Died by the visitation of God.

Medwin, in his Conversations with Lord Byron, gives the following account of how the poet received the news of Dr. Polidori's death. "I was convinced" (said Byron) "something very unpleasant hung over me last night: I expected to hear that somebody I knew was dead. So it turns out—poor Polidori is gone. When he was my physician he was always talking of prussic acid, oil of amber, blowing into veins, suffocating by charcoal, and compounding poisons; but for a different purpose to what the Pontic monarch did, for he has prescribed a dose for himself that would have killed fifty Mithridates—a dose whose effect, Murray says, was so instantaneous that he went off without a spasm or struggle. It seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act."—The evidence of the servant at the inquest shows that death did not come so very suddenly; and in my own family I always heard the poison spoken of as simply prussic acid.

This is all that I need say at present to explain who Dr. Polidori was; but I must add a few words regarding his Diary.

The day when the young doctor obtained the post of travelling physician to the famous poet and man of fashion, Lord Byron, about to leave England for the Continent, must, no doubt, have been regarded by him and by some of his family as a supremely auspicious one, although in fact it turned out the reverse. The article on Polidori written in The Dictionary of National Biography by my valued friend, the late Dr. Garnett, speaks of him as "physician and secretary to Lord Byron"; but I never heard that he undertook or performed any secretarial work worth speaking of, and I decidedly believe that he did not. The same statement occurs in the inscription on his likeness in the National Portrait Gallery. Polidori's father had foreseen, in the Byronic scheme, disappointment as only too likely, and he opposed the project, but without success. To be the daily companion and intimate of so great a man as Byron, to visit foreign scenes in his society, to travel into his own father's native land, which he regarded with a feeling of enthusiasm, and with whose language he was naturally well acquainted, to be thus launched upon a career promising the utmost development and satisfaction to his literary as well as professional enterprise—all this may have seemed like the realization of a dream almost too good to be true. To crown all, Mr. Murray, Byron's publisher, had offered Polidori no less a sum than £500 (or 500 guineas) for an account of his forthcoming tour. Polidori therefore began to keep a Diary, heading it Journal of a Journey through Flanders etc., from April 24, 1816, to______; and the blank was eventually filled in with the date "December 28, 1816"; it should rather stand "December 30." Portions of the Diary are written with some detail, and a perceptible aim at literary effect—Murray's £500 being manifestly in view; in other instances the jottings are slight, and merely enough for guiding the memory. On this footing the Journal goes on up to June 30, 1816. It was then dropped, as Polidori notes "through neglect and dissipation," for he saw a great deal of company. On September 5 he wrote up some summarized reminiscences; and from September 16, the day when he parted company with Byron at Cologny, near Geneva, and proceeded to journey through Italy on his own account, he continued with some regularity up to December 30, when he was sojourning in Pisa. That is the latest day of which any record remains; but it is known from other evidence that Dr. Polidori continued in Italy up to April 14, 1817: he then left Venice in company with the new Earl of Guilford and his mother—being their travelling physician. Whether the Journal is in any fair degree interesting or brightly written is a question which the reader will settle for himself; as a document relevant to the life of two illustrious poets, it certainly merits some degree of attention.

My own first acquaintance with the Diary of Dr. Polidori dates back to 1869, when I was preparing the Memoir of Shelley which preludes my edition of his poems, published in 1870; I then availed myself of the Shelleian information contained in the Diary, and even gave two or three verbatim extracts from it. The MS. book was at that time the property of a sister of his, Miss Charlotte Lydia Polidori, a lady of advanced age. I regret to say that my aunt, on receiving the MS. back from me, took it into her head to read it through—a thing which I fancy she had never before done, or certainly had not done for very many years, and that she found in it some few passages which she held to be "improper," and, with the severe virtue so characteristic of an English maiden aunt, she determined that those passages should no longer exist. I can remember one about Byron and a chambermaid at Ostend, and another, later on, about Polidori himself. My aunt therefore took the trouble of copying out the whole Diary, minus the peccant passages, and she then ruthlessly destroyed the original MS. After her death—which occurred in January 1890, when she had attained the age of eighty-seven years—her transcript came into my possession. Its authority is only a shade less safe than that of the original, and it is from the transcript that I have had to work in compiling my present volume.

I will now refer in some detail to the matter of Dr. Polidori's romantic tale, The Vampyre; not only because this matter is of some literary interest in itself, but more especially because the account of it given in The Dictionary of National Biography treats Polidori, in this regard, with no indulgence, and I believe (however unintentionally on the part of the late Dr. Garnett) with less than justice. He says: "In April 1819 he [Polidori] published in The New Monthly Magazine, and also in pamphlet-form, the celebrated story of The Vampyre, which he attributed to Byron. The ascription was fictitious. Byron had in fact, in June 1816, begun to write at Geneva a story with this title, in emulation of Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein; but dropped it before reaching the superstition which it was to have illustrated. He sent the fragment to Murray upon the appearance of Polidori's fabrication, and it is inserted in his works. He further protested in a carelessly good-natured disclaimer addressed to Galignani's Messenger."

The facts of the case appear to be as follows. As we shall see in the Diary, Polidori began, near Geneva, a tale which (according to Mrs. Shelley) was about a "skull-headed lady," and he was clearly aware that Byron had commenced a story about a vampyre. After quitting Byron, Polidori, in conversation with the Countess of Breuss, mentioned in his Journal, spoke (unless we are to discredit his own account) of the subject of the great poet's tale; the Countess questioned whether anything could be made of such a theme, and Polidori then tried his hand at carrying it out. He left the MS. with the Countess, and thought little or no more about it. After his departure from that neighbourhood some person who was travelling there (one might perhaps infer a lady) obtained the MS. either from the Countess of Breuss or from some person acquainted with the Countess: this would, I suppose, be the Madame Gatelier who is named in the Journal along with the Countess. The traveller then forwarded the tale to the Publisher, Colburn, telling him—and this statement was printed by Colburn as an Extract of a Letter from Geneva—that certain tales were "undertaken by Lord B[yron], the physician [Polidori], and Miss M. W. Godwin," and that the writer received from her female friend "the outline of each of these stories." She did not say that the completed Vampyre was the production of Byron; but Colburn inferred this, and in the magazine he attributed it to Byron, printing his name as author.

Among the papers which were left by Dr. Polidori at the time of his death, and which have come into my possession, are the drafts of two letters of his—one addressed to Mr. Henry Colburn, and the other to the Editor of The Morning Chronicle. These letters were actually dispatched, and (having no sort of reason to suspect the contrary) I assume that they contain a truthful account of the facts. If so, they exonerate Polidori from the imputation of having planned or connived at a literary imposture. In his letter to Mr. Colburn he affirms (as will be seen) that the following incidents in his tale were borrowed from Byron's project: the departure of two friends from England, one of them dying in Greece [but it is in fact near Ephesus] after exacting from his companion an oath not to mention his death; the revival of the dead man, and his then making love to the sister of his late companion. The story begun by Byron and published along with Mazeppa contains the incidents above named, except only the important incident of the dead man's revival and his subsequent love-making. Byron's extant writing, which is a mere fragment, affords no trace of that upshot; but Polidori must have known that such was the intended sequel. It may be added that the resemblance between these productions of Byron and of Polidori extends only to incidents: the form of narrative is different.

I proceed to give the letter of Dr. Polidori to Mr. Colburn, followed by the letter to the Editor of The Morning Chronicle. This latter goes over a good deal of the same ground as the letter to Colburn, so I shorten it very considerably.

John Polidori to Henry Colburn
[London], April 2 (1819).


I received a copy of the magazine of last April (the present month), and am sorry to find that your Genevan correspondent has led you into a mistake with regard to the tale of The Vampyre—which is not Lord Byron's, but was written entirely by me at the request of a lady, who (upon my mentioning that his Lordship had said that it was his intention of writing a ghost story, depending for interest upon the circumstances of two friends leaving England, and one dying in Greece, the other finding him alive, upon his return, and making love to his sister) saying that she thought it impossible to work up such materials, desired I would write it for her, which I did in two idle mornings by her side. These circumstances above mentioned, and the one of the dying man having obtained an oath that the survivor should not in any way disclose his decease, are the only parts of the tale belonging to his Lordship. I desire, therefore, that you will positively contradict your statement in the next number, by the insertion of this note.

With regard to my own tale, it is imperfect and unfinished. I had rather therefore it should not appear in the magazine; and, if the Editor had sent his communication, as he mentions, he would have been spared this mistake.

But, sir, there is one circumstance of which I must request a further explanation. I observe upon the back of your publication the announcement of a separate edition. Now, upon buying this, I find that it states in the title-page that it was entered into Stationers' Hall upon March 27, consequently before your magazine was published. I wish therefore to ask for information how this tale passed from the hands of your Editor into those of a publisher.

As it is a mere trifle, I should have had no objection to its appearing in your magazine, as I could, in common with any other, have extracted it thence, and republished it. But I shall not sit patiently by and see it taken without my consent, and appropriated by any person. As therefore it must have passed through your hands (as stated in the magazine) from a correspondent, I shall expect that you will account to me for the publishers, Messrs. Sherwood and Neely, having possession of it and appropriating it to themselves; and demand either that a compensation be made me, or that its separate publication be instantly suppressed.

Hoping for an immediate answer, which will save me the trouble of obtaining an injunction, I remain,

Your obedient servant,
John Polidori.
To the Editor of The Morning Chronicle


As you were the first person to whom I wrote to state that the tale of The Vampyre was not Lord Byron's, I beg you to insert the following statement in your paper.... The tale, as I stated to you in my letter, was written upon the foundation of a purposed and begun story of Lord Byron's.... Lord Byron, in a letter dated Venice, stated that he knew nothing of the Vampyre story, and hated vampyres; but, while this letter was busily circulating in all the London and provincial papers, the fragment at the end of Mazeppa was in the hands of his publishers in Albemarle Street, with the date of June 17, 1816, attached to it, being the beginning of his tale upon this very foundation. My development was written on the Continent, and left with a lady at whose request it was undertaken; in the course of three mornings by her side it was produced, and left with her. From her hands, by means of a correspondent, without my knowledge, it came into those of the Editor of The New Monthly, with a letter stating it to be an ébauche of Lord Byron's. Mr. Watts, as Editor of that magazine, stated in his notice that the tale which accompanies the letters "we also present to our readers without pledging ourselves for its authenticity as the production of Lord Byron"; and he continues, "We should suppose it to have been committed to paper rather from the recital of a third person." This, however, after the publication of 700 copies, was cancelled by the publisher, and another notice inserted stating it to be decidedly his Lordship's, in direct opposition (as I am informed) to the Editor's will—who has since retired from the conduct of the magazine.

Immediately it was published I procured a copy; and, upon finding that it was an almost forgotten trifle of my own, instantly wrote to you as Editor of The Morning Chronicle, stating the little share Lord Byron had in the work. This was upon the Friday evening after its publication. I at the same time wrote to the publishers of the tale in its separate form, and to those of the magazine, to stop its sale under his Lordship's name. On Monday the publishers of the magazine called upon me, and promised it should be instantly announced as mine.... When I came to claim my share in the profits, I was offered £30, instead of nearly £300....

Your obedient servant,
John Polidori.

The prefatory note to The Vampyre, in The New Monthly Magazine, runs thus: "We received several private letters in the course of last autumn from a friend travelling on the Continent, and among others the following, which we give to the public on account of its containing anecdotes of an individual concerning whom the most trifling circumstances, if they tend to mark even the minor features of his mind, cannot fail of being considered important and valuable by those who know how to appreciate his erratic but transcendent genius. The tale which accompanied the letter we have also much pleasure in presenting to our readers.—Ed." There is also a final note thus: "We have in our possession the tale of Dr. –, as well as the outline of that of Miss Godwin. The latter has already appeared under the title of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The former, however, upon consulting with its author, we may probably hereafter give to our readers.—Ed."

Two questions arise as to that prefatory note: (1) Did the Editor really write it, or did the Publisher Colburn write it? (2) Is the averment true or false that the Editor (or the Publisher) had received in the course of the preceding autumn "several private letters" from the same person who had now forwarded a letter enclosing The Vampyre?

Murray wrote to Lord Byron on April 27, 1819. He speaks of the publication of The Vampyre in The New Monthly Magazine, and afterwards in book-form, and proceeds: "The Editor of that journal has quarrelled with the Publisher, and has called this morning to exculpate himself from the baseness of the transaction. He says that he received it from Dr. Polidori for a small sum; Polidori averring that the whole plan of it was yours, and that it was merely written out by him. The Editor inserted it with a short statement to this effect; but, to his astonishment, Colburn cancelled the leaf.... He informs me that Polidori, finding that the sale exceeded his expectation and that he had sold it too cheap, went to the Editor and declared that he would deny it."

This statement by Murray makes it probable that the paragraph purporting to come from the Editor, or some substantial part of it, really emanated from the Publisher, and the same is definitely asserted in Polidori's letter to The Morning Chronicle; but Murray's letter does not settle the question whether the allegation about a traveller at Geneva was true or false. The Editor's assertion that "he received it from Dr. Polidori for a small sum" does not by any means clear up all the facts. It seems quite possible that there really was a correspondent at Geneva who sent to the Editor the MS. of The Vampyre, along with that of Polidori's other tale, and an outline of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as expressly affirmed in the final note signed "Ed."; and that the Editor, having no right to publish The Vampyre unless by authority of its writer, spoke to Polidori about it. How could Polidori dispose of it "for a small sum" if he alleged that it was written by Byron, or by any one other than himself? He averred "that the whole plan of it was" Byron's—and this is apparently true; adding "that it was merely written out by" himself—in the sense not of having written from Byron's dictation, but of having composed a story founded upon Byron's intended incidents. Murray's final phrase—that Polidori "went to the Editor, and declared that he would deny it"—is loosely expressed, but seems to mean that he would deny Byron's authorship of The Vampyre—and so in fact he did.

If we suppose (as did Murray apparently) that Polidori had in the first instance planned a deliberate imposture, and had palmed off upon the Editor The Vampyre as being virtually the writing of Byron, we are encountered by three difficulties left unexplained: (1) What plea could Polidori advance for having the MS. and the right of publishing it? (2) Why did he sell for "a small sum" a work which, if written by the world-famous Lord Byron, would be worth a very considerable sum? (3) Why did the Editor pay to Polidori a sum, whether small or large, for a book which, according to this assumption, was avowedly not the writing of himself, but the writing and property of Byron? All these difficulties are avoided, and no other serious difficulties arise, if we assume that the account given by Polidori is the true one, viz. that he offered the tale to the Editor as being his own composition, strictly modelled upon a series of incidents invented by Byron.

Polidori's letter, addressed to the Editor of The Morning Chronicle, was, as I have already said, delivered to the office of that paper. It was not however published there, as Messrs. Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, the publishers of The Vampyre in its book-form, represented to Polidori that the appearance of such a letter would tend to compromise them, and he therefore, out of consideration for this firm, withdrew the letter unprinted. This is Polidori's own statement, contained in the Introduction to another romantic tale of his, Ernestus Berchtold, published in 1819; being the tale by Polidori which, as stated by the Editor of The New Monthly Magazine, had been sent to him along with The Vampyre and the outline of Frankenstein. Besides all this, the Doctor wrote a brief letter, published in The Courier on May 5, 1819, saying—what was clearly the fact—"Though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron's, its development is mine."

I must now revert for a moment to the "skull-headed lady." In the Introduction above named, Polidori asserts that that tale, Ernestus Berchtold, was the one which he began at Cologny. It does not contain any sort of mention of any skull-headed lady. There is some supernatural machinery in the story, of a rather futile kind; it could be excluded without affecting the real basis of the narrative, which relates the love-affair and marriage of a young Swiss patriot with a lady who is ultimately identified as his sister. As to Mrs. Shelley's allegation that the (non-existent) skull-headed lady was punished for "peeping through a keyhole," no such incident exists in Ernestus Berchtold; there is, however, a passage where a certain Julia seeks to solve a mystery by looking "through the wainscot of a closet for wood." Her head, after this inspection, remains exactly what it was before.

The Vampyre was in its way a great success. As stated in The Dictionary of National Biography, Byron's name gave Polidori's production great celebrity on the Continent, where The Vampyre was held to be quite the thing which it behoved Byron to have written. It formed the groundwork of Marschner's opera, and nearly half a volume of Dumas's Memoirs is occupied by an account of the representation of a French play founded upon it.

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