Lord Ruthven's Power: Polidori's 'The Vampyre', Doubles and the Byronic Imagination

By Bainbridge, Simon | The Byron Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Lord Ruthven's Power: Polidori's 'The Vampyre', Doubles and the Byronic Imagination


Bainbridge, Simon, The Byron Journal


1. 'Who could resist his power?': 'The Vampyre' and Byronism

Towards the end of 'The Vampyre', the remarkable short story in which John Polidori transformed the image of the legendary bloodsucking predator by associating it with the glamorous, aristocratic and mysterious figure of Lord Byron, the third-person narrator finally reveals the nature of Lord Ruthven's 'irresistible powers of seduction'.1 Describing how the vampire Ruthven has 'won the ear of Miss Aubrey', the sister of his European travelling companion, the narrator asks:

Who could resist his power? His tongue had dangers and toils to recount - could speak of himself as of an individual having no sympathy with any being on the crowded earth, save with her to whom he addressed himself; - could tell how, since he knew her, his existence had begun to seem worthy of preservation, if it were merely that he might listen to her soothing accents; - in fine, he knew so well how to use the serpent's art, or such was the will of fate, that he gained her affections. (pp. 22-23)

Polidori presents Ruthven's irresistibility as a product of his mastery of the rhetoric of Byronic poetics. Ruthven's 'power' derives from his use of language ('his tongue') and particularly from his ability to exploit the two most distinctive features of Byron's writing of the 'years of fame' - exciting romance narrative and sympathy-evoking selfpresentation - to create a particular kind of subject position for his listener. Ruthven appeals to Miss Aubrey by offering her a seemingly empowering role as the only individual capable of saving him from his fallen and dissolute state in exactly the way that Byron's verse constructed a reading position eagerly occupied by many of his women readers.

As a number of recent critics have shown, through his verse Byron created a relationship of peculiar intensity and unprecedented intimacy between his poetic persona and the woman reader in which the latter felt that she alone could truly understand the poet and redeem and reform him through her love (a process which obscured the relations of production and consumption in a period of mass publishing and the commodi- fication of the author).2 Such a response to Byron's poetry was most famously enacted by his future wife, Annabella Milbanke, who, as Fiona MacCarthy comments, 'shared with many others of his devotees the conviction that she, and she only, could save him from his rakish past'.3 Several other women readers made themselves the referent of Byron's love poems, fancying themselves imaged in his verse.4 Lady Falkland, the widow of one of Byron's friends to whom he showed generosity after her husband's death, provides the most famous example of this process of self-identification when reading Byron's poetry, and her letters to the poet reveal how his verse encouraged this form of reader response.5 Admiring Byron's 'Thyrza' poems, which were published as part of the Childe Harold's Pilgrimage volume (and were written about the Cambridge chorister John Edleston), Lady Falkland not only identifies herself as their object but also sees herself as the figure who can 'constitute' the poet's 'happiness':

Tell me my Byron - if those mournful, tender effusions of your Heart & mind, to that Thyrza, who you lamented as no more - were not intended for myself - [...] now my Byron if you really believe I could add to or constitute your happiness, I will most joyfully receive your hand - but remember I must be loved exclusively.6

Lady Falkland also puts herself in the role of Byron's reformer, remarking of his previous 'follies' and 'vices' that they 'have I hope been warnings to you my Dearest Byron, and I trust will teach you to shun the path which leads to so many evils'.7 Perhaps most revealing of the dynamics of Lady Falkland's sense of intimacy with the poet are the parts of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage which she alludes to when she makes the claim that she is 'certain' that 'it was myself you meant in the Romaunt', offering as evidence 'Your saying that you were withheld by every tie from offering your hand and heart'. …

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