The Continental adventure was not going to plan for John Polidori. A young English doctor dreaming of literary acclaim and resentful of his father’s injunction to study medicine, he had accepted – against his father’s advice – a glamorous posting as travelling physician to the world’s most famous poet, only to find that proximity to fame brought not glory and greatness, but diminishment and disappointment. He felt, in his own words, “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible”.
The year was 1816, and the famous employer whose luminescence had eclipsed Polidori’s own light was Lord Byron – poet, philanderer, military hero, and the most talked about man in Europe. Polidori’s prospects had been bright when the pair had set off from Dover for the Continent. He was a 21-year-old nobody, yet here he was setting off for escapades unknown, in fresh possession of an offer of 500 pounds from Byron’s own publisher, John Murray, to keep a journal of his travels. Perhaps most heartening of all, the more accomplished man did not condescend to his younger travelling companion. “I am with him on the footing of an equal,” wrote Polidori in his diary.
But as the journey progressed, any equality in their relations began to evaporate. Andrew McConnell Stott recounts the growing tensions between the vain young doctor and the charismatic writer in his book The Poet and the Vampyre, tensions which culminated in Polidori penning a thinly-veiled allegory of Byron as a pale, mysterious nobleman who, in order to achieve immortality, sucks the life from others.
The Vampyre: A Tale was the first modern vampire story, transplanting the rat-like monsters of Eastern European fable to his own aristocratic milieu. Polidori had been inspired by the same night of ghost stories at Lord Byron’s Swiss villa that gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but unlike Shelley’s Gothic horror, Polidori’s macabre tale brought him neither fame nor fortune. It languished in a drawer, unread, for three years before it fell into the hands of an unscrupulous journalist who published the story under a new byline: The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron.
Goethe declared it Byron’s greatest ever work, and Polidori’s protestations about the story’s true authorship were largely ignored. Five years after travelling to Europe with Byron, he took his own life by drinking a beaker of cyanide. “Poor Polidori,” wrote Byron, reflecting on the young doctor’s death, “it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
Byron, we can presume, was speaking from personal experience, intimately acquainted as he was with literary fame and its attendant disappointments. Following the spectacular success of his semi-autobiographical epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he achieved a level of notoriety that was not only unprecedented in its intensity – his wife Annabella coined the term ‘Byromania’ to describe the gossip and scandal that dogged his every action and word – but also unprecedented in kind, for unlike well-known writers before him the line between Byron and his work became blurred beyond all recognition.
In other words, Byron was no longer, following the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a mere poet. He had become what so many celebrities after him would become: the projection of his adoring public’s deepest dreams and desires, and more – he had become an adjective, a mode of being, the embodiment of the Byronic hero who appeared so often in his poetry, a figure described by British historian Lord Macaulay as, “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.
That transformation from poet to the object of poetry was no accident. Byron kept strict control of his visual image, ordering his portrait artist paint, “no pens & books upon ye canvas”, depicting him instead as a man of action in dramatic and militaristic poses.
In a similar vein, Byron did little to quell the many rumours of his scandalous affairs, understanding as he did the nature of his fame. “A great poet belongs to no country,” he wrote, “his works are public property, and his Memoirs the inheritance of the public.”
But Byron was to find that his literary success came at great cost. Rumours of an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and the subsequent separation from his wife, proved a scandal too far for polite society, and he found himself hounded out of England. As the writer Walter Scott said, Byron had “Childe Harolded himself, and outlawed himself, into too great a resemblance with the pictures of his imagination”.
Judging by his later work, Byron-in-exile was well aware of the hollowness of fame. In fact, following the overwhelming success of Childe Harold Byron’s publishers had encouraged him to embark on a ‘great work’, or as Byron put it in a letter to them, “an Epic poem I suppose or some such pyramid”.
Don Juan, the ‘great work’ that followed this exchange, explicitly repudiates the epic form as a grand folly. “I want a hero,” declares Byron in the opening line. The line is ambivalent – it expresses both a desire for, and lack of, a hero. The poem goes on to reject the great military heroes of the day, including the most revered of them all, Napoleon’s vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington. “Each in their turn like Banquo’s monarchs stalk”, mocks Byron, “Follower of fame”.
It’s ironic then that Byron spent much of his life courting the very same thing he despaired of in others. And while he pitied those who, like Polidori, broke themselves in pursuit of fame, Byron himself was no less ensnared within its distorting mirrors. “I especially dread, in this world, two things,” wrote Byron, “to which I have reason to believe I am equally disposed – growing fat and growing mad”. That fear of time’s progress – and the dissatisfaction with life that it reveals – drove him finally to seek a glorious death, which he found during the Greek War of Independence. In doing so, he achieved his ultimate goal, crystallising his public image into the one we know today – mad, bad, and dangerous to know – and proved what Polidori had already understood in The Vampyre; the price of immortality is life.
André Dao is the deputy editor of New Philosopher magazine.