‘A Tassel to the Purse of Merit’: Byron and literary failure

by Andrew Stott
For those who crave celebrity, obscurity is the worst affront – a long stretch in the penal colony of indifference with no promise of parole. Yet in the Romantic period, obscurity could be elevated to the status of an art.

Failure had both its laureate and its muse. The young poet, Thomas Chatterton, was virtually sainted when he killed himself in 1770 in a fit of seeming despair. Hailed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose first published poem was his Monody on the Death of Chatterton, as a unique talent destroyed by a philistine and uncaring world, John Keats would dedicate Endymion to him, while Shelley would in turn apply the trope to Keats in his Adonais, laying the blame for the poet’s death at the feet of a cruel public who saw him “hooted from the stage of life.”

While alive, Keats and Shelley had both been members of what Shelley dubbed “The Academy of Disappointed Authors.” “I am morbidly sensitive to what I esteem as the injustice of neglect,” wrote Shelley to his friend, Leigh Hunt, whereas Keats’ request that his epitaph should read “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” exemplified his sense of himself as hopelessly ignored. At least posterity has treated both kindly, unlike the genealogist Sir Egerton Brydges, who in 1825 recalled the forty years of anguish he had experienced after his youthful book of poems was panned. “I had looked up to the fame of a poet as something magical,” he wrote, but their failure,

drove back the fire upon my heart, [where] it smouldered inwards for some years, consuming me with a black burning melancholy. I had no spirit; my faculties were shrivelled up, like dry scorched leaves, ready to fall into dust at a touch. I had no amusements… I sank in my own estimation down into helpless feebleness. My…shyness and reserve redoubled upon me; – and thus I lost the prime years of my youth from 23 to 28.

Shelley, Keats and Brydges could all look for consolation in the work of Isaac D’Israeli, literary odd-jobber, father of the future Prime Minister, Benjamin, and chronicler of the bitter, overlooked and obsolete. Since suffering his own poetical breakdown, D’Israeli, whose books included An Essay on the Literary Character (1795), The Calamities of Authors (1812) and The Quarrels of Authors (1814), had come to occupy a specialized niche by recounting the feuds and failures of writers driven to jealous fits and violent insanity. Ironically, his books were a huge success, and as their girth attests, he never lacked for material.

That the cult of literary failure should become so popular in the early nineteenth century might be attributed to two things. The first was the perception among serious writers and their cliques that popular culture had become irredeemably trivial, with artistic gravity giving way to cheap sensations and what William Wordsworth descried as “a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.”

The second factor was the growth of a literary marketplace that had made enormous celebrities of writers such as Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, while also transforming them into “personalities.” An enlarged and more geographically diverse readership necessarily meant less access to the writers themselves, and so the space that had opened up between author and audience was filled with gossip, fantasy and speculation. This was particularly acute in the case of Byron, whose poetry cultivated an air of intimacy and rich interiority that frequently led to the speculation that his heroes, taciturn men of “loneliness and mystery,” were windows onto the poet himself, to the extent that it was not unusual for him to receive letters addressed “Dear Childe Harold.” “It was peculiarly hard,” he complained, “in being everlastingly taken or mistaken for my own Protagonist.” Shelley tried to assure him that it was ever thus. “When Dante walked through the streets,” he told him, “the old women pointed at him, and said, ‘That is the man who went to Hell with Virgil; see how his beard is singed.’

For the strivers, Byron’s success cast a long shadow. “I despair of rivalling Lord Byron,” Shelley confessed to his wife, Mary, “and there is no other with whom it is worth contending.” Others saw him as an all-devouring monster, with the power, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, of “bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.

Of those so eclipsed, none felt the indignity as keenly as John William Polidori, the young man hired as Byron’s travelling physician in the spring of 1816. Although a doctor, Polidori had literary aspirations of his own, but far from finding inspiration in his proximity to a famous poet, Bryon’s celebrity asphyxiated him, demoting him, wherever they went, to the status of an afterthought. Polidori’s diary records the humiliations in Brussels – “We went and were graciously received; Lord B as himself, I as a tassel to the purse of merit” – and in Geneva – “L. B’s name alone was mentioned; mine, like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible” – but far more unforgivable was the way Byron mocked his writing when in the company of others, and the deployment of his patrician wit whenever Polidori needed reminding of his place. The doctor was eventually dismissed from service, resulting in the kind of angry helplessness that permeates his most famous work, The Vampyre, published in 1821. Although ostensibly a horror story, notable for being the first fully realized vampire tale in English literature, Polidori’s novella is as much a meditation on the corrosive effects of proximity to fame as it is an attempt to create a monster. Indeed, fame is the monster.

The story involves the travels of the young and guileless Aubrey in the company of the mysterious and charismatic Count Ruthven; of the brutal murder of Aubrey’s young love, Ianthe; the death of Ruthven at the hands of Macedonian bandits; and Aubrey’s return to London where he finds Ruthven alive and well and poised to satiate his lust on Aubrey’s sister. That the vampire is a serial seducer, the cause célèbre of a vapid and unthinking chattering class, and furthermore named “Ruthven” after the anti-hero of Lady Caroline Lamb’s roman-a-clef, Glenarvon, leaves us in little doubt that he is Byron’s proxy. That Ruthven grows stronger even as Aubrey is weakened by sickness and shock, that he punctuates his evil with jeering laughter, and that he sustains his power by feeding on the virtue represented by Aubrey’s virginal sister, serves to make a lurid fantasy of a relationship in which one man’s power enervates another.

The Vampyre was an instant success, although not for Polidori, who saw his work stolen by an unscrupulous publisher and advertised as “A Tale by Lord Byron.” Accused of plagiarism and baited by the press in the ensuing scandal, he renounced literature and fell into a depression from which he never emerged. In the summer of 1821, Polidori took a lethal dose of Prussic acid in his father’s house in Soho.

“Poor Polidori,” wrote Byron when he heard the news. “It seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
Andy Stott
Andrew McConnell Stott’s books include The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, which won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron. He is Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.  His Twitter ID is @amstott1789.