Remembering those who gathered in 1816 by the shores of Lake Geneva, along with monsters and vampires

We’d all be Byron, if we could;
titled, desired, trangressive.
What wouldn’t we all give
to write Mary’s monster half as good?
Or to pen Ozymandias,
and find ourselves anthologised,
with the glamour of one who died
as young as PB. There’s a bias
towards such as he, or Jimi Hendrix.
Mary Shelley lived a longish life
but many cast her just as the wife
of genius drowned. As if she were thick!
Yes, in our hearts, we opt for glory.
Pity we’re all Polidori.

P.S. Cottier

Polidori was Byron’s doctor, who accompanied the poet to the villa he rented near Lake Geneva, where he hosted his friends Mary and Percy Shelley.* They read ghost stories and composed their own. Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein, and Byron wrote a fragment of a vampire novel. Polidori wrote the first full length vampire story written in English. When published it was attributed to Byron, who denied authorship. It is still listed as written by Byron in various catalogues. You can see how keen someone was to attribute it to Byron in the image above!

Polidori has had a bad rap; an anthology of vampire stories I am reading prints not a paragraph of that first novel, on the basis that the author was a ‘hack’. I am also beginning to read his book (The Vampyre: A Tale) and it’s true to say that the prose doesn’t sing:

“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.”

My poem above is, to some extent, about our tendency to feed upon the ‘young and beautiful’ after they die, at least.

Poor John Polidori died very young himself, like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron. He was best known for who he associated with; a groupie, not a musician. There is some evidence that he committed suicide, but this is controversial.

The poem deals with the way that most writers, whether poets or novelists, far fall short of the Shelleys or Byron, and most musicians are not Hendrix. That does not mean that nothing worthwhile can be written by those ‘silver poets’. It just means that some people seem blessed with an additional talent to take what was around and transform it into something instantly recognisable as new. A glamour, perhaps, to use that word in an old way meaning spell or magic. A blessing is another word that could be applied. Some use the word ‘genius’, and surely that reminds us of something magical, that grants wishes?

Next year is the 200th anniversary of that meeting on the shores of Lake Geneva, and I hope to write a lot about Frankenstein and his monster this year. Let’s praise the genius of Mary Shelley who took scientific ideas of her time and created a profoundly moving tale that examines what it is to be human.

By the way, there was another visitor in Byron’s house in 1816, who is not mentioned in the sonnet; Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who had a child in 1817. Byron was the father.

(Public domain image from Wiki Commons.)

*They were married in late 1816, after the famous meeting, but I’ll use the name under which Mary became better known here.

When geeks were women

or one woman.
Lovelace, unknotting expectations
into programmes; cognition dancing.
Father’s couplets sounding through
the could-be Difference Engine cogs,
but twirling in pas de deux maths;
poetry dressed and transmogrified.

‘Supposing, for instance…’
you saw a computer writing music;
an Aeolian harp catching numbers,
driven by numbers, until numbers
were the musician and the song.
No mere calculator; you sang too.
Your thoughts ring in history’s ear.

Medicine lagged behind your mind,
and the small number 36
is all the years you had. Cancer
bloomed inside your womb;
a sick reminder of biology.
No algorithm could remove that fate.
The same age as your unknown father

who died heroic on the shores of myth.
Ada, when I Google you,
I think of you holding a fan
(lace as elegant as your ideas)
and I want to shout back through clogged time
to deafen sad boors who still say no:
Ada, it works! My dear, it works!

‘Supposing, for instance’ is a quotation from Ada Lovelace’s writing. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852), born Augusta Ada Byron, wrote the world’s first algorithm.


(Note that the first line is supposed to be properly broken into two; so that the words ‘or one woman’ occur at the extreme right of the line. My blog — or, more probably, my ancient difference engine — doesn’t seem to like cleverness today!)

Ada Lovelace was a scientist/mathematician back when women really didn’t do that sort of thing. There are still places where women don’t get any education at all, and even in highly developed countries, there are far fewer women than men who manage to occupy the highest research positions in academia.

But raise a glass to all the women who do science, including Ada Lovelace, all those years ago. Then click this link, for further poesie. You may put your glass down first:
Tuesday Poem


I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

Lord Byron

Now while George’s vision of a dead planet is so very excellent (note, though, while he is even shocked out of rhyme, he just had to have one good dog remaining) I am happy to report that the globe seems very much alive from where I’m sitting. If you click this feather, you will go to the Tuesday Poem hub, and watch the creation of a global poem, with lines written by poets from lots of different countries.
Tuesday Poem

Poets in the corner

February 2, 2012

not everyone is such a publicist...

No, this is not a post about naughty poets (I told you to stop playing with Augusta, George*!) but about three sculptures that were just unveiled in Canberra’s Garema Place, in an area now known as Poets’ Corner. Judith Wright, David Campbell and A.D. Hope make up the triptych.

I attended the launch, and forgot to take photographs, but anyone interested can follow this link to a Canberra site called The RiotACT see what the sculptures look like. (Not everyone is as forgetful as I am.)

There were excellent poems read at the launch, and an appearance was made by Jon Stanhope, a former Chief Minister of the ACT (sort of a cross between Mayor and School Principal and Premier) who was also Arts Minister.  He was supportive of this project.

While many poets pushed for something like this, I left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Do poets need any memorial outside their words? I don’t think so. And the sculptures (while competent) show the poets at once staring into the middle distance and totally wrapped up in an internal world, with little awareness of the actual world around them. I’m afraid that’s probably how most people see poets, anyway. The idea that the real poets of the world are the dead ones is somehow supported by this type of project, in my opinion.

Byron’s memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey (a somewhat more salubrious location than Garema Place, Canberra) was not installed until the 1969, due to his most naughty reputation. Yet did the reputation of his poetry suffer in the meantime? I don’t think so. The real memorial to these three fine poets can be found in their work. A.D. Hope and David Campbell are represented at the Australian Poetry Library.  Judith Wright doesn’t seem to be (copyright?) but examples of her work can be found on the net.

*Byron’s Christian name, as you all undoubtedly knew.  And Augusta was his half-sister.