Anthony Costello: Doctors and their Romantic Poets

In Richard Holmes’ Dark Reflections, the second volume of a two volume biography of Coleridge, we learn much about the poet’s increasingly frail health. When Coleridge arrives in London in March 1816 after a two year absence from the capital, within a month his friend and amanuensis, John Morgan, finds Coleridge a doctor, Joseph Adams, to address the poet’s acute medical problems. Adams, in turn, writes to a young surgeon, Dr James Gillman, to enquire if he would be willing to examine the now famous poet and treat his chronic and life-threatening addictions. A week later Coleridge and Dr Gillman met, but Gillman was not the first doctor to treat Coleridge’s maladies.

Holmes reminds us that Coleridge’s problems with opium addiction were apparent as early as 1797, and through the early 1800s at home and abroad. Three years before the meeting with Dr Gillman Coleridge had been seriously ill in Bristol. Josiah Wade one of Coleridge’s benefactors at the time, had appointed his personal physician, Dr. Daniel, to treat his house guest and patient for addiction and suicidal depression with a range of associative complaints such as kidney stones and cirrhosis of the liver. And yet in periods of remission Coleridge was writing lectures and essays and poems with a fervent intensity.

Indeed, only two weeks before his consultation with Gillman in London, Coleridge famously met Byron for the first and only time, reciting to Byron at his home in Piccadilly ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’, the latter poem to be used by Byron a few months later at the Villa Diodati on the night of fantasmagoriana that so affected Shelley and led to the conception of Byron’s Augustus Darvell, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre. Byron was to leave England for good, accompanied by his own personal physician, Dr John Polidori, two weeks after the meeting with Coleridge. Among his possessions he took the pamphlet Coleridge had given him, a pamphlet that was to play a pivotal role in the haunting night of storytelling in Geneva three months later.

The doctor-patient relationship between Dr James Gillman and Samuel Taylor Coleridge contrasts greatly with that of Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori. Coleridge and Gillman had a relationship imbued with the utmost medical probity, mutual respect, friendship and, ultimately, love. Dr Gillman’s intervention in Coleridge’s life not only saved the poet’s life, but extended it, by and large for the good, for 18 years. 18 years where the poet lived-in as a patient in the Gillman’s family home. It is one of the most remarkable stories in medical-literary history, an important milestone in the history of art and medicine and where those two disciplines intertwine. An enlightened and progressive medical man valuing the work and existence of a visionary poet, and a poetic genius in awe and respect of a doctor and his faith in medical science.

Coleridge’s meeting with Gillman at the doctor’s home in Highgate transformed both men’s lives. While Byron is about to begin a wanderlust abroad that would culminate in his death 8 years later at the battle of Missolonghi, Coleridge is about to settle in one abode for the rest of his life. It is as if Coleridge began to shed the skin of his dissolute life of addiction and also shed the style and subject matter of the poems evident in ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’. Until his arrangement with the Gillman’s, Coleridge’s restlessness meant he never stayed in one place longer than 18 months. In Highgate he finally finds security and expert and long-lasting medical attention as he moves into a period of self-questioning middle age, the man maturing (somewhat) and the work changing.  In his later years Coleridge writes more philosophical and political works: Aids to Reflection (1825), Political Works (1828), On the Constitution of Church and State (1829).

John William Polidori was only 20 years old when he entered into an arrangement to be Byron’s travelling personal physician. Polidori specialised in neurological and nervous dispositions, writing a thesis on somnambulism. Unlike Gillman’s 18 year involvement as the doctor to Coleridge, Polidori only spent a few, pivotal, momentous months in the company of his patient, for five months travelling to Europe and living at the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva in the spring and summer of 1816.

Although Gillman was to write a biography of Coleridge after the poet’s death, Polidori had long held literary ambitions which he tried to fulfil during his tenure as Byron’s physician. Polidori had already written philosophical essays, poems and plays before he met Byron, and was to subsequently write The Vampyre. Given the tempestuous ‘summer of darkness’ at the Villa Diodati, the sky a cloak of volcanic ash which had enveloped much of Europe in 1816, famous now for the coming together of Mary Godwin, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont, the love triangles and sexual intrigue therein, the drug-taking and disagreements, the night of fantasmagoriana, the telling of ghost tales which spawned Frankenstein (and The Vampyre), the fresh-faced young doctor Polidori is in privileged position as onlooker, participant, and diarist to the events of that summer.

Fictionalised in books and films and achieving the posthumous literary fame he desperately wanted two hundred years earlier, Polidori is initially welcomed by the group, taking numerous walks with Shelley, teaching Italian to Mary, but by July he has become an outsider, significant only as Byron’s employed physician, often reduced to the status of a lackey or a harlequin, an easy target to be the figure of fun, a footnote, literally and figuratively, to the drama engulfing his more luminous friends.

At Dover, even before the trip by packet boat to Ostend and then on to Geneva via Belgium and the Rhine, Polidori’s literary ambitions (he reads aloud to Byron one of his plays) are apparent, but his efforts are ridiculed by Byron amongst the gathered company the night before they sail. Initially, Polidori’s assiduously kept diary shows him to be a keen traveller; he refers to Byron as ‘my friend’, both men writing and taking in the architectural and cultural delights during their long journey by carriage (along with three of Byron’s servants) to Switzerland.

But what follows is a doctor-patient relationship that is dominated by aspects of class consciousness, a master/slave dialectic and elements of sadomasochism. From the diary we learn that Polidori felt on a par with Byron: ‘I am with him on the footing of an equal’, verbalising this self-regarding point at an inn on the Rhine where he tests Byron’s resolve. Name three things, Polidori ponders, apart from writing, which you are better at than I. And Byron replies:

‘First, I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of that door, second I can swim across that river to yonder point and thirdly, I can give you a damn good thrashing’

The withering put down and boastful language of an aristocrat to a serf above his station. For Polidori, despite being the son of a man of letters, an educated man, multilingual, a physician, and with a role as travel companion and doctor, given Byron’s aristocratic lineage, he is at times treated as a servant by Byron. Not the life-saving man of medicine afforded the honour of a portrait (think Goya or Kahlo), but an inferior quack needed only to administer lotions and potions (including laudanum), or to rid the Lord of noxious substance, to provide enemas, to induce vomiting, to blister and blood let in the tradition of early 19th century medicine as applied to the theory of antiphlogostics.

Polidori, either through a feeling of rejection or an idiosyncratic approach to medicine, exhibits (to Byron) the macabre. Byron writing that ‘when he was my physician he was always talking of prussic acid, oil of amber, blowing into veins, suffocating by charcoal and compounding poison’. Ironically, Polidori shows signs of hypochondria on the journey to Geneva, frequent headaches, nausea, fainting fits, and so on. On a few occasions, Byron has to play the role of doctor and administer to him, albeit unenthusiastically. Polidori, sensitive to environmental conditions whether it be perfumed tea or a freshly painted room. ‘I have a pain in my loins and languor in my bones’ is one example of many medical self-diagnoses in Polidori’s diary. Polidori, nevertheless, is the doctor to Byron and Byron’s guests at the Villa Diodati, administering ether to Shelley at one point, treating Byron with magnesium and opiates; he is also (initially) a participant in the daily social engagements, visiting soirees, attending balls, boating. With letters of introduction, Byron plays the role of friend and facilitator, therefore enabling the doctor’s acceptance into Geneva society.

The doctor is present on that infamous night when the gathered party are challenged by Byron to write a ghost story. Byron has the pamphlets given to him by Coleridge. Byron gives a copy for Shelley to read in the August of that cloudy summer. Could it have been the ghostly moats and the ghostly oaks and the ghostly castles, the mastiffs and the serpent eyes and the jagged shadows that give ‘Christabel’ its eerie atmosphere that tipped the balance of sanity that night? Shelley, as Polidori would have it, running from the room in a fit of nausea at the images of Geraldine’s deformed breast and snake-like torso. The curse of ‘Christabel’ affecting the party in Geneva while Coleridge finds relative peace as the ‘Sage of Highgate’? Between July and August, Polidori has both angered Byron and Shelley and become ostracised, parting company with Byron in September. The diary entries cease, which is indicative of a troubled time for Polidori and question marks about his behaviour. Polidori writes retrospectively in September:

‘Had a long explanation with Shelley and Byron about my conduct to Lord Byron. I threatened to shoot Shelley one day on the water’

We learn from Byron and Shelley that Polidori had challenged Shelley to a duel on another occasion, that he quarrelled with Byron and Genevan doctors (about inferior magnesia given by an apothecary to Byron), Byron having to vacate the Villa Diodati during one of Polidori’s moods, and he was dismissed from his position in September, Byron writing to John Murray years later that

‘I never was much more disgusted with any human production than with the eternal nonsense and tracusseries and vanity of that young person’

But in another letter he concedes Polidori had manners, honour and talent, perhaps a frustrated talent. He had mixed feelings about Polidori. At one point he is a friend and companion and then he can treat the Doctor demeaningly and disparagingly.

‘He is clever and accomplished’ but ‘his faults are the faults of a pardonable vanity and youth’ and then ‘his remaining with me is out of the question. I have enough to do to manage my own scrapes’

It seems for all of Byron’s guests at the Villa Diodati that nothing was the same for any of them after the night of ghost stories, and Byron’s reciting of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, including Polidori, who had already been relegated in Byron’s affections with the arrival of Shelley’s circle and who, perhaps, through writing was able to establish an identity strong enough to withstand the strong characters in the group, and also, tired of the demeaning jokes at his expense, begins to fight back, passionately forgetting his responsibilities as a doctor and his presence as an employee.

Polidori attempts a kind of slave revolt through literature. Humiliated repeatedly by Byron’s penchant for sadistic put downs, he tries to write through conflict and achieve an equable status through literature. Feeling inferior in the brilliant company he constantly seeks approval, showing Shelley his plays (Shelley feels they are not good), participating in the literary competition to write a ghost story on a par with the french-translated German fantasmagoriana and Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ recited to such powerful effect by Byron. Polidori wants to be the artist (Byron) but, in this case, wants to simultaneously overthrow him. In a boating incident recounted by Mary Godwin, Polidori accidentally strikes Byron with an oar. Byron, in deep pain, and grimacing retorts:

‘Be so kind Polidori, on another time, to take some care for you hurt me very much’

To which the doctor replies

”I am glad of it. I am glad to see you suffer pain’

Hardly the words one expects from a doctor to a patient! The medical profession is ethically based on the Hippocratic oath, but Polidori’s moral position is undermined and clouded by his role as a commissioned diarist, employed by Byron’s publisher, John Murray, to observe and write about his employer and patient. In being with, and tending to, and writing about Byron, his own sense of self is in danger of being eclipsed. So he writes The Vampyre; the main character like Byron, indeed a version of a character, Augustus Darvell, that Byron had created for his abandoned ghost tale and published by John Murray as Mappeza: Fragments of a Novel. The main character bearing some resemblance to a character in Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon, a roman a clef with its Byronesque anti-hero, Lord Ruthven. In writing The Vampyre Polidori can gain control of a fictionalised Byron and achieve literary fame. Fiction is therapy for Polidori, because only a week or so earlier he had felt anguished and vulnerable enough to attempt suicide.

The spectre of Byron haunts Polidori beyond that summer in Geneva. Polidori, leaving medicine after returning to England to work at the Bar (in Norwich) commits suicide by drinking a cup of cyanide five years later, in his London home at Pulteney Street, aged 26. Polidori had addictions and gambling debts, but also disputations about the authorship of his The Vampyre (it was initially attributed to Byron on publication in 1919) hit him hard. Even after his death Byron had this, perhaps telling, aside to make: ‘Poor Polidori, it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame’

The dynamic between poet and doctor was combustible, a touchstone effect that  changed both their lives. The night of fantasmagoriana might not have happened without Polidori’s presence? And without the pamphlet containing Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’. Polidori’s diary is indispensable, although the fine details are sometimes disputed. Polidori becomes a writer of a canonical book of Gothic horror. He also becomes aware of his shortcomings in relation to the luminous company.

It is fair to say that Polidori’s time with Byron changed his life inexorably. Byron, by now a ‘wandering outlaw’ and never to set foot in England again was also affected by his time with his personal physician. Like Doctor Gachet’s productive effect on Van Gogh’s output in the last three months of his life, Byron’s poetic output is prolific in the months spent with Polidori. He writes, amongst other writings, ‘Monads on the death of Sheridan’, ‘Stanzas to Augusta’, ‘Canto 3’ of ‘Childe Harold’, ‘Darkness’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘Prometheus’. Polidori gives Byron fuel for thought. He is useful as an doctor and travel companion. Whereas Gillman and Coleridge meet in an atmosphere of great minds if not thinking alike then respecting the other’s position and intelligence, for Byron, who felt himself superior to everyone perhaps with the exception of Shelley, Polidori is an irritant, ambitious beyond reason, a rebel.

Crucially this doctor-patient relationship is founded on duplicity. Byron is unaware his publisher Murray has commissioned Polidori as a diarist. Polidori, contravening the Hippocratic oath, betrays his patient’s confidence. Polidori is a spy, the doctor as imposter. In observing Byron as a diarist, Polidori forms a close association with his ‘subject’. Fascinatingly, the doctor is present when Byron meets Shelley for the first time, fascinatingly he falls in love with Shelley’s wife, fascinatingly, like Doctor Gachet’s identification with Van Gogh, he wants to be Byron, and fascinatingly (through the witness accounts of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Byron) we gain a perspective on our Doctor. Benita Eisler, reminds us that Claire Clairmont as an elderly lady, would recall how both Mary and Shelley, (Shelley about to meet Byron for the first time on the banks of Lake Geneva) ‘seeing the two men across the water mistook the darker young doctor for the poet’.



I am indebted to Richard Holmes and his book Darker Reflections for the background information on Coleridge that opens the essay

The quotations in the essay are from:

The Diary of John William Polidori, The British Library discovery website

Letters of Lord Byron, J.M. Dent, 1936

Benita Eisler, Byron: Child of Genius, Fool of Fame, Hamish Hamilton, 1999

Poems, Coleridge (ed: John Beer), Everyman, 1997


Press the link below and read another doctor-patient relationship


Anthony Costello is a gardener, editor and writer. His first poetry collection,The Mask, was published by Lapwing Publications in 2014. His second, Angles & Visions, was published in 2016. He is the editor of Four American Poets (The High Window Press) and a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems, Carcanet in 2016. Anthony’s pamphlet I Freeze Turn to Stone: The Poems of Vincent van Gogh is newly published by Poetry Salzburg (2018). He co-edits The High Window







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