|John William Polidori (1795-1821)
Polidori was hired by Lord Byron in
1816 to accompany him on his European odyssey and he
participated in the famous ghost writing competition
that took place at the Villa Diodati on the shores of
Lake Geneva Switzerland in 1816. The
competition spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
and also Polidori's The Vampyre - which was based
on Byron's incomplete tale 'Augustus Darvell'.
Its central character was Lord Ruthven who was almost
certainly modelled on the 'mad, bad' poet. However Polidori never managed to assert
ownership of The Vampyre and when it was finally
published by the New Monthly Magazine in 1819 it appeared
under Lord Byron's name. The Vampyre laid the
foundations for the modern genre of vampire fiction.
After returning from Europe, Polidori moved to
Norwich and attempted to set up a medical practice. His
arrival here in 1817 was prompted by an invitation from the Norwich
intellectual William Taylor
- who informed him that a physician (a member of the Martineau
family) was about to retire - thereby creating
an opportunity for a doctor in the city.
Martineau Family House,
Polidori, who was of Italian origin, was a strikingly
handsome young man and he entered Norwich society with
gusto, joining the Norwich
Philosophical Society and also becoming a regular visitor at the
Martineau house on Magdalen Street. The young
who was born at Gurney Court on Magdalen Street,
remembered him well:
|'About this time
there came to Norwich a foreigner who excited an
unaccountable interest in our house, considering what
exceedingly proper people we were, and how sharp a
look-out we kept on the morals of our neighbours. It was
poor Polidori, well known afterwards as Lord Byron's
physician, as the author of 'the Vampire' and as having
committed suicide under gambling difficulties.'
While trying to establish himself, it is likely that
Polidori worked at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital -
opening a dispensary and treating the poor.
Unfortunately however, on the 20th September 1817, Polidori suffered a
serious accident at Costessey when his gig hit a
tree and he landed awkwardly on his head. The accident
rendered him unconscious for four days and shortly
afterwards he wrote the following sonnet - subtitled
'Written in the Album, at Costessey, after my recovery
from an accident, 1817' :
|Hurl'd from my car
I lay upon the ground,
When death, who comes with rapid step alone
To those for whom joy spreads her gleam around,
Ran to transfix the victim 'fore him thrown.
But soon I saw of two fair forms the hands
Outstretch'd in my defence - like those they seem'd,
Whose breath had caused my happiness - no wands,
No weapons in the air around me gleamed.
Yet death recoil'd - it seemed as if he bowed
Before my guardian's will - perchance he thought
He saw in them, as in the two who brav'd
Awhile his pow'r, the Godhead's image grav'd
So bright; and though majestic, mild it showed,
As if the sov'reign fiat they had bought.
The accident almost certainly affected his professional
and literary life and contributed to his
rapid decline. Harriet Martineau said: 'If he had
(happily) died then, he would have remained a hero
in our imaginations. The few following years (which were
very possibly all the wilder for that concussion of the
brain) disabused everybody of all expectation of good
Polidori eventually left Norwich and moved
to London where he incurred considerable gambling
debts. He died on August 24, 1821 from a self-administered dose of prussic acid. It is likely
that he committed suicide but the coroner declared a
verdict of death by natural causes; he was only 25 years old.
His body was
buried in St Pancras Old Church but, as befits the
author of The Vampyre, he did not rest peacefully
- for in 1865 his corpse was
disinterred to make way for a railway line.
The Hardy Tree (Photograph by Peter L. Edwards, Oxford
UK (bradman 334))
architect responsible for overseeing the exhumation was
the young Thomas Hardy who was working at the time for
Arthur W. Blomfield. Many of the headstones were neatly
stacked next to an ash tree which is now known as the
'Hardy Tree'. Hardy later wrote a poem about his
experiences entitled The Levelled Churchyard.
Here are the first two verses:
"O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
"We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!'
The Vampyre Online