Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Polidori, John William

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649456Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46 — Polidori, John William1896Richard Garnett

POLIDORI, JOHN WILLIAM (1795–1821), physician and author, was the son of Gaetano Polidori, teacher of Italian in London, who had been Alfieri's secretary, and is known as the author of tales and educational works and the translator of Milton and Lucan into Italian (1840 and 1841). He was born in London on 7 Sept. 1795, and at the early age of nineteen received the degree of M.D. from the university of Edinburgh, reading and publishing an able thesis on nightmare, ‘Disputatio medica inauguralis de Oneirodynia,’ 1815. Early in the following year he obtained, through the recommendation of Sir Henry Halford, the post of physician and secretary to Lord Byron, then departing on his exile from England. They travelled together to Geneva, and Polidori continued in Byron's suite during the greater portion of his sojourn there; but his whimsical and jealous temper, of which several instances are given in Moore's biography of Byron, led to a dissolution of the engagement ere Byron quitted Switzerland. Polidori, nevertheless, proceeded to Milan, where Byron found him ‘in very good society;’ but he was soon expelled the city for quarrelling with an Austrian officer. From a letter of Byron's to Murray, dated 11 April 1817, he appears to have returned to England from Venice in attendance upon the widow of the third Earl of Guilford [see under North, Frederick, second Earl]. As Byron entrusts him with commissions and recommends him to Murray, their relations cannot have been absolutely unfriendly. Polidori had designed a speculative expedition to Brazil, but settled instead as a practising physician in Norwich, where he met with little encouragement, and eventually returned to London, and began to study for the bar. In April 1819 he published in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ and also in pamphlet form, the celebrated story of ‘The Vampyre,’ which he attributed to Byron. The ascription was fictitious. Byron had, in fact, in June 1816 begun to write at Geneva a story with this title, in emulation of Mrs. Shelley's ‘Frankenstein,’ but dropped it before reaching the superstition which it was to have illustrated. He sent the fragment to Murray upon the appearance of Polidori's fabrication, and it is inserted in his works. He further protested in a carelessly good-natured disclaimer addressed to ‘Galignani's Messenger.’ His name, nevertheless, gave Polidori's production great celebrity upon the continent, where the ‘Vampyre’ was held to be quite the thing which it behoved Byron to have written. It formed the groundwork of Marschner's opera, and nearly half a volume of Dumas's ‘Memoirs’ is occupied by an account of the representation of a French play founded upon it. Polidori made a less successful experiment in his own name with ‘Ernestus Berchtold, or the Modern Œdipus,’ another melodramatic story published in the same year, which also witnessed the publication of ‘Ximenes, The Wreath,’ and other poems. ‘The Fall of the Angels,’ a sacred poem, was published anonymously in 1821, and reissued with the author's name after his death. He also wrote an ‘Essay on Positive Pleasure,’ 1818, which was censured for immorality and misanthropy, and one upon the punishment of death (1816), which had the honour of insertion in the ‘Pamphleteer.’ In August 1821 Polidori, pressed by a gaming debt which he was unable to discharge, died at his lodgings in London, ‘from a subtle poison of his own composition,’ says Edward Williams in his ‘Diary.’ A verdict of natural death was returned, but there is no doubt as to the real facts of the case. Polidori's unpublished diary is stated by Mr. W. M. Rossetti to contain some particulars of substantial interest. ‘Dr. Polidori,’ says Medwin, ‘was a tall, handsome man, with a marked Italian cast of countenance, which bore the impress of profound melancholy; a good address and manners, more retiring than forward in general society.’ There is a portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery, London. One of his sisters married Gabriele Rossetti [q. v.], and became the mother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti [q. v.]

[W. M. Rossetti's D. G. Rossetti, i.; Moore's Byron; Moore's Diary, v.; Medwin's Shelley; Williams's Diary in Shelley's Prose Works, ed. Forman, iv.; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vii. ix. x.]

R. G.