Issue 115, Summer 1990
Lord Byron’s doctor and traveling companion, John Polidori, was dead by his own hand at twenty-six, having taken a potion he himself had brewed, based on prussic acid; but then, all through his time in Europe as part of Byron’s entourage, he had been trying out one form of suicide or another. He was a man perpetually on the edge, almost a maudit, and his manner—alternating between sulks and effusive silliness—early on began to provoke Byron beyond endurance (he several times thought of killing him off, either by drowning or in a duel). Polidori was a prodigy, the youngest man ever to receive a medical degree from Edinburgh University, and he came from an artistic family: his father had translated The Castle of Otranto into Italian, and he was the uncle of the future Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. At first he amused Byron and had so earned the honor of traveling as a near-equal with the most famous man in England. He had also been promised five hundred guineas by Byron’s publisher, John Murray, for a full diary of Byron’s doings while abroad. Polidori kept that diary, but was dissuaded from publishing it. After his death, his aging sister ripped out of it what she thought the obscenest pages and allowed it into the world (it came out in 1911), but it is clear from what such initiates as William Michael Rossetti said that Polidori had set down every instance he had witnessed of Byron’s sex life (Rossetti remembered a chambermaid raped in Ostend» for instance).
It is odd to think of a doctor in such a constant ferment of emotion, as full of malice and masochism as Polidori was, always bringing to the fore Byron’s latent sadism. He used Polidori as a butt and Polidori seethed. He ridiculed his amours, his verse, his ideas, and even gossiped that something unholy was going on in Polidori’s medical career: all his patients died, and he seemed more interested in dissection than in prophylaxis or cure. At one point, perhaps to get away from a medical scandal threatening in Italy, Polidori planned to go to Brazil, to make a fresh start on fresh meat, as Byron quipped, and it was clearly dangerous to entrust one’s body to his flighty, devious hands.
An image builds of a man who, despite his levity and charm, was too highly strung for his own good: a plagiarist, a hanger-on, a climber, a satanist who was also a klutz and a social menace. The novelist Stendhal watched him getting arrested at the Milan Opera and left a long, detailed account of it, and Byron’s tabletalk leaves one in no doubt as to the bickering that went on between the two of them. Eventually Byron had to let him go and paid him off. Polidori became a gambler and took his own life in August, 1821, upon which event Byron commented, “Poor Polly is gone.”
Miss Manila calling. She hears a dream, when it was wartime in the doghouse of the heart, although a garage is where she started, only nine, jammed in with Mamma Remedios and the other kids, next to the fumey clapped-out car, whose metal was a foretaste of the corrugated iron prefab in Leyte.
In one painting, where an oily tropic sky walks the full moon out from under its epidermis like a tumor of shrapnel. she just touches his hand: the nail of her little finger taps his third knuckle, receiving the current. In the end, Manila’s Four-Hundred accepted her, but never with the homesick fervor of the GI’s to whom she crooned. Tried for Miss Manila. Sounds like an offense. Lost, having no money with which to win votes. So, as they say, she intervened personally with the mayor, and it was all right after that, apart from the weird games he liked to play with leeches. Then Ferdinand the Bull, the sawn-off nouveau riche living down a trial for murder, underpacked the rugs with so much moolah their heads rode ever nearer the ceilings. They were the only patients to whom doctors offered quantity of life. Retinue of seven hundred at the White House.
Fifty-seven, she competed for Miss Manila all over again, purring how contestant Aquino had no make-up, no manicure, whereas “Filipinos are for beauty. Filipinos who like beauty, love, and God are for Marcos.” Could Cleopatra be a klutz? Never in all her lovely life did Miss Manila have a thousand breasts or six thousand feet.
My voice was such a Volga orgy, lardies unt gentleschnitches, zat, ven I sprang a title role, no longer ze burly peasant I once was, but really Boris, I could turn toward the wings and without breaking cadence or tone command my offstage servant “Go-oo to-oo thee Haut Elle art vance and breeng me the Vine Ay Four Gott.” Da. They were listening to my face, much as, later, they worshipped at Stalin’s mustache. On waxen cylinders I still rise from the mud like an Egyptian pharaoh, basso profundo dell tutto mondo. Yet where is my Chaliapinograd? Whose is my voice now?