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.