John William Polidori

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John William Polidori

John William Polidori (7 September 1795-24 August 1821) was the son of Gaetano Polidori, a Tuscan man of letters and at one point secretary to the dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, who had emigrated to England where he married a Miss Pierce and settled in London as a teacher of Italian. John was educated at Ampleforth, Yorkshire -- a Roman Catholic school -- and subsequently matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine, writing a dissertation -- Dissertatio medica inauguralis, quaedam de morbo, oneirodynia dicto, complectens ...  -- on the highly romantic subject of sleep-walking and receiving his medical degree at the remarkably young age of 19. The next year, still not yet legally an adult, he accompanied Lord Byron on his excursion to Geneva. That Byron quickly tired of his protege's immaturity is well known, but Polidori was, indeed, quite young and inexperienced to be in such company.

Polidori left Switzerland for Italy in September 1816, where he traveled for nearly a year, returning to England the following spring, at which point he sought to practice medicine in Norwich. But he was unhappy in his profession and thought, instead, of turning to law. In the meantime, perhaps as his own response to the heady literary summer he had passed on the continent, he began a short, but productive literary career. His first work was an extension of his interest in psychology, An essay on the source of positive pleasure (1818). The following year came a volume of poems -- Ximenes, the wreath: and other poems -- the novel Ernestus Berchtold, and the short story, "The Vampyre," which, unfortunately, was passed off as the production of Lord Byron when it was published in the New Monthly Magazine. When he found the work being published under a separate imprint, Polidori went to some lengths to claim the work as his own, but the scandal of imposture dogged him thereafter. His final work, Sketches Illustrative of the Manners and Costumes of France, Switzerland, and Italy, was published in 1821 under the pseudonym of Richard Bridgens. That August, purportedly as the result of contracting a gambling debt he could not honor, he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid. He was 25 years old.