Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lord Byron is a vampire who gives Bibles to poor children

Prof. Burstein has been teaching a class in the “Nineteenth-Century Gothic” this semester and I have been reading around in the syllabus, just the works I had not read, so no Frankenstein or Jane Eyre or James Hogg right now.  Mostly the, how to say this, lesser Gothic.  Third-tier Charles Dickens ghost stories.  Elizabeth Gaskell magazine fiction.  Enjoyable, but I am not expecting to stumble on the equivalent of A Christmas Carol or Cranford.

Thus John Polidori’s The Vampyre; A Tale (1819) is the worst book I have read in a long time.  It is a milestone in, you know, vampire literature, but more importantly it is built on an outstanding joke, which is that Polidori’s pal Lord Byron, the most famous writer in Europe, is a – is the – vampyre.  Polidori does everything he can to encourage the association.

The punchline comes after the story proper (“Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!” as if anyone cares), in the “Extract of a Letter, Containing an Account of Lord Byron’s Residence in the Island of Mitylene,” which on the surface has nothing at all to do with The Vampyre, and just below the surface acts as a denial that Byron deserves any of his notoriety.   His reading, for example, is not only not especially shocking; he is just a poet, a scholar:

On the tablet of the recess lay Voltaire’s, Shakespeare’s, Boileau’s, and Rousseau’s works complete; Volney’s Ruin of Empires; Zimmerman, in the German language; Klopstock’s Messiah; Kotzebue’s novels; Schiller’s play of the Robbers; Milton’s Paradise Lost, an Italian edition, printed at Parma in 1810; several small pamphlets form the Greek press at Constantinople, much torn, but no English book of any description.  Most of these books were filled with marginal notes, written with a pencil, in Italian and Latin.  The Messiah was literally scribbled all over, and marked with slips of paper, on which also were remarks.

The last line is the culmination of the joke, that Byron’s attention is focused on the era’s great religious poem.  When he is not reading, Byron gives Greek girls money for – their dowries – what did you think I was going to say?  “He also bought a new boat for a fisherman who had lost his own in a gale, and he often gave Greek Testaments to the poor children.”  He bought another “most beautiful” girl a piano.

Lord Byron’s character is worthy of his genius.  To do good in secret, and shun the world’s applause, is the surest testimony of a virtuous heart and self-approving conscience.

I don’t know how much of this is true; that is the third level of the story, the put-on.  Byron wasn’t a vampire, that part I know is untrue.

Prof. Burstein has The Vampyre paired with Byron’s Manfred (1817), an inversion of Goethe’s Faust in which Byron is a wizard who spends his time summoning demons who then refuse to serve him.  Kind of ineffective.  But Byron is doing the same thing Polidori would later do, practically demanding that his readers identify the demented Byronic character with the celebrity author.

The Vampyre is most interesting as a landmark in the literature of celebrity.


  1. What a hoot. I saw a nice copy of this in a second-hand London bookshop a couple years ago and bought it for a friend who collects vampire literature. I had no idea that it was about Byron. I might have kept it for myself had I known.

  2. Vampires and Byron...brain cells stirring. Austen mentions Byron in a few places, and I was reminded of "Northanger Abbey." In one of the films of the book (2007), there's a good bit of mention of Byron's shocking-and-gossipy misbehavior (as tied in to the Gothic), a flirtatious chat that includes vampires, and later on a description of General Tilney as a kind of vampire of emotional life.

    In the book, Austen creates comedy and reverses expectations with mock-Gothic heroine Catherine Moreland. That's not so very off in aim from the mock-heroic comedy and reversal of expectations with Don Juan. Maybe they would make a good pairing.

    I have a vague memory of reading an excerpt from Polidori, and am feeling grateful to you for reading him so that the rest of us don't have to do so!

  3. The vampirism of The Vampyre is trivial, the Byronism is strong. The essentially Byronic nature of our contemporary vampires comes right out of this book.

    I wonder if Byron read Northanger Abbey. I hope he did. Don Juan is such a brilliant self-parody that it would be a hoot if he also knew other great parodies.

  4. I dunno, Byron as a vampire kind of explains a lot ;)

  5. Byron was not a vampire, but vampires are Byron.

  6. Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey has a brief swipe at Byron, though his main target is his friend Shelley. Tchaikovsky wrote a Manfred Symphony which is enjoyable. I suspect the poem read better in Russian too - after all, Byron was one of Onegin's heroes.

  7. Since I see that you're reading Nietzsche, I'll mention that he too wrote music inspired by Byron: a "Manfred Meditation" for piano 4-hands. You can listen to it on YouTube.

  8. I find the cross-cultural back-and-forth on this interesting. The Villa Diodati ghost story contest was supposedly inspired by Byron reading a collection of German ghost stories (translated into French). Polidori’s The Vampyre was later (1828) turned into a German opera by Heinrich Marschner and librettist Wilhelm August Wohlbruck. Marschner’s opera in turn was a big influence on Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

  9. Nightmare Abbey is a great book.

    The spread of Byronism is a remarkable artistic phenomenon. The Russian part of the story is at least as interesting as the English part, maybe more interesting - maybe produced better literature.

    That's why I was happy to read Polidori, even if it is a silly book. I wonder if the Vampyre opera includes anything from the supplementary material.

    I have never heard Nietzsche's music - I should remedy that.