The Gothic and the Classic

Posted by Rarignac on May 17, 2012 in Guest Blog, Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Blessed Bay of Eleusis and the destination of the Sacred Way, Iera Odos (© Rarignac).

Bordeaux, l’Aube, La Fête de l’Ascension, 2012

The Gothic and the Classic: The Road to Eleusis

Arlanda, undoubtedly an admirably efficient airport, was overly full of unboarded passengers the day I set out from Stockholm to Eleusis via Milan.  Corralled by retractable belt barriers into an intestinally-inspired queue, I found myself squeezed into a knotted lump of technology-burdened passengers consisting of myself, ‘The Bad Seeds’, their companions, tour manager, and Nick Cave.  Amidst voyaging Swedes and assorted business persons, our little bolus of the indigestible seemed conspicuously tribal.  As we stood there awaiting processing, paperwork in hand, technology piled at our feet, I explained my mission to the manager.  With his concord, I sought out Cave’s: I wanted to interview them on the subject of Gothicity.  The carefully-groomed, authoritarian Mr. Cave was pleasant enough but refused to make any on-camera pronouncements on the subject of ‘Gothic’ or ‘goths’, seeming to view it, no doubt rightly, as a radioactive topic that could only get him into trouble.  Once he had declared Gothicity an out of bounds subject, none of his vassals would broach it, including those that already had.  Cave wished me success with the project and I contented myself with sharing travellers’ bonhomie.  So much for the business of the Gothic.  Arriving at Milan where Cave was to play, we wished ourselves mutual good luck and good-byes.

Fellow traveller on my Gothic quest.

A page from a discarded newspaper found on a bus.

A Sentimental Journey

Still on my search for the Gothic, I had to reach Eleusis.  To clarify the Eleusinian imperative requires passing through Geneva, 1816, for it is from that lofty vantage point we can best perceive that that which was thought of as inviolably Gothic may perhaps more rightly be classic.

Let’s concede:

1) that the picture of Percy Brysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, and George Gordon Byron appending their signatures in witness to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s own upon a document proclaiming the posthumous emancipation of Lewis’s vodun-practicing West Indian slaves (fortuitously, considering Lewis would die of yellow fever within two years) provokes myriad ironic, perversely enchanting associations within the Gothic Imagination;

2) that countervailing claims exposed in a) ‘Extract of A Letter … from Geneva…’, incestuously linking (in its original version) Mary and Clare (“William Godwin’s ‘daughters’”), and Byron (“having in his house two sisters as partakers of his revels”), and b) Mary’s 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, primly recalling horrific storms, tremulous fears, a French book of German ghost-stories, and (effacing Polidori) Byronic scientific pronouncements, serve to stoke the Gothic Imagination’s fevered engine;

3) that conventional wisdom labels the Vampire, like Victor Frankenstein’s revivified cadaver, a product of the Gothic Imagination (perhaps because the most compelling text in Mary’s ghost-story anthology, Fantasmagoriana, is a translator’s preface whose greatest number of pages are dedicated to reporting on the ‘Vampire’, a creature appearing nowhere in the body of collected stories);

4) that the sum of these items intensifies the gnawing hunger of the collective Gothic Imagination for ever more anecdotes and fictions concerning that long ago Genevan summer.

No wonder so many quirky films, secondary school lectures, standard university courses, and dusty tomes of literary criticism have held forth on 1816’s Gothic Summer!

Yet other visitors making an appearance in the vicinity of Lac Léman that occasionally stormy summer cloud the moment’s Gothic nature and illuminate something of the blurry, often ignored point of convergence between classic-neoclassic and Gothic.  For example, the mistress of the Chateau de Coppet, Madame de Staël, subscribed to and received a copy of the latest Pamphleteer, vol. 8, n° 15, containing essays by none other than Polidori, “On the punishment of death”, and Thomas Taylor, “A Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries”.  Then there is the presence at Coligny, virtual and actual, of John Cam Hobhouse, notably the record of his coming-of-age tour with Byron some half-dozen years previous, A Journey Through Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey….  Polidori’s father, Gaetano, in an 1818 letter (Macdonald 56), contends that, despite his best efforts to discourage John from accepting Byron’s offer of employment, Hobhouse’s journal of his tour with Byron convinced young Polidori to put aside paternal counsel and accompany Byron to the Continent.  Hobhouse, when he arrived in person, hardly showed up alone, bringing, as instructed by Byron (Quennell 339), Thomas Taylor’s translation of Pausanias’s Description of Greece, a book Byron and Hobhouse used as a guide in their travels, and Hobhouse as a general model in drafting his own Journey….  The presence of Caroline Lamb, manifest in the three-volume copy of Glenarvon she sped to her intimate, Genviève de Staël, was keenly felt in non-Gothic ways across the lake chez Byron.  All these sources, distinctly not or not entirely Gothic, were influential to the legacy of the British literary colony at Coligny 1816.

There is also the larger question of the group’s literary output, interests, and attitude towards the Gothic.  The Coligny coterie “visited Melerie, and Clarens, and Chillon, and Vervey — Classic ground, peopled with tender and glorious imaginations of the present and the past” (Six Weeks Tour, v).  With youthful days of Zastrozzi and St. Irvine behind Latin- and Greek-spouting Shelley, and with Byron’s complicity, the group’s poets set about to recreate a new theatre of the mind through classically-themed closet dramas and heroic poetry.  Mary, passing through Paris, sounds downright Vasari-like in her evaluation of the Gothic: “I do not know how it may at present be disfigured by the Gothic barbarism of the conquerors of France, who were not contented with retaking the spoils of Napoleon, but with impotent malice, destroyed the monuments of their own defeat” (Six Week Tour, 12).  According to Polidori’s journal, he and Mary repeatedly spent pleasant hours together drifting upon the lake in a rowboat reading Tasso in Italian.  Worthy literary subjects consisted of Prometheus, Œdipus, and Cain.  Gothic was clearly not the initial flavour of the day.

Byron on the balcony of la Bellerive, writing, left foot exposed.

There was of course the Gothic-tinged post-Fantasmagoriana ghost-story challenge that was Mary’s triumph.  Byron duly began a ‘ghost-story’ in which he invested but a single evening, a story fragment eventually published to distance himself from ‘The Vampyre by the Honourable Lord Byron’, as Polidori’s novella was entitled when it appeared in an unauthorised publication.  Byron’s prose fragment recounts the incidents of a voyage whose itinerary noticeably mirrors the coming of age tour he undertook in company with Hobhouse.  The reflexive tale breaks off in the ruins of the Ephesian temple with its dying protagonist, Darvell, charging his nameless companion, the tale’s narrator, to bear a ring on his behalf to the blessed bay at Eleusis, where he is to toss it into the sacred springs.  Darvell’s request that his ring be immersed in Eleusinian waters on a lunar ninth day in anticipation of his emissary’s temple visit on the tenth connects the act, no doubt intended to spark Darvell’s resurrection, to the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Apparently, Darvell and friend began a journey whose destination was enlightenment.  While the ring, symbol of continuity, suggests that such a voyage is endless, the sun’s appearance, mere hours after our author set forth, was sufficient for Byron to indefinitely suspend the journey and expend no further ink on the affair.  His efforts, nonetheless, put me on the road that, despite Byzantine twists and turns, leads to Eleusis.

La Bellerive of the 21st century, stone wall of the 18th still in tact (© Rarignac).

View from the lake, the vineyard stretching towards the shore, the spire of Coligny above (© Rarignac).

Jacques Necker’s Chateau de Coppet, inherited by his daughter, Genviève de Staël (© Rarignac).

Society, Diaries, Literature

The passage of two earth-shaking centuries have little changed in outward appearance many sites frequented by Byron and Polidori near Geneva.  Although now divided up into several ‘luxury’ housing units, La Bellerive or ‘Villa Diodati’ is recognizable in every detail.  On the lake’s opposite shore, the Château de Coppet, centre of Genevan intelligentsia during the 19th century’s early decades, is remarkably preserved — the furnishings altered not an iota, even the marvellously conserved upholstery, carpeting and artwork remain unchanged.  Coppet, geographically situated on Lac Léman’s north shore but culturally marking the intersection of British, French, German, and Italian currents of 1816, was uniquely European before Europe had any developed sense of itself.  The château’s Neoclassical furnishings welcomed with enlightened tolerance and considered debate the expression of sentiments Gothic and all other shades of aesthetic, theological and political doxies.  It also hosted many heated and overcrowded ‘drawing-rooms’ of the gayest sort.

It was only natural that Madame de Staël would seek to welcome the celebrated poet and his travelling physician when Byron installed himself on the lake; she and Byron had previously met on numerous occasions in England.  David Lorne MacDonald, establishing certitude through the journal intime of Elizabeth Hervey, William Beckford’s half-sister, contends that “Byron and Polidori went to Madame de Staël’s château for the first time on 12 July”, nearly a month after the ghost-story incident of 16 June (date based on Polidori’s journal).  Byron corroborates Hervey’s chronology, telling publisher John Murray on the 22nd that he had visited Staël ten days earlier, even mentioning that he had learned of Caroline Lamb’s novel there; the month before he claimed to have never heard of the book (23 June letter to Hobhouse).  Byron confided to half-sister Augusta Leigh that while Staël was ‘particularly kind and friendly’, she had ‘marvellous & grievous things’ (Moore 250) to say about Glenarvon.  MacDonald observes that, despite having claimed on the 22nd that he hadn’t “even a guess at the contents”, “by the twenty-ninth, he had read Glenarvon; evidently Madame de Staël lent her copy of the novel to her cross-lake visitors, who read it within the fortnight.  Byron read it with Polidori, commenting on the mixture of truth and fantasy in its portrayal of the affair” (96).


As Byron fled England, Henry Colburn published Glenarvon as an anonymously-written novel.  Lamb’s Glenarvon, like Byron-impregnated Clare Claremont, overtook the self-exiled poet in Switzerland, and squarely struck its mark at Coppet.  The force of the impact concussed through Byron and, with a little prodding, set Polidori to writing.  Still merchandised as a glimpse into scandal-ridden Regency society, Glenarvon has been pounded into a one-dimensional work.  Much of the novel’s worth may drown in prolixity, complexity, redundancy, but the roman à clef aspect has obscured richer elements demonstrably perceived and exploited by Polidori.  Since The Vampyre is the foundation on which has been constructed an extensive class of fiction, inevitably termed Gothic, impacting many media, Glenarvon retains a larger interest than it has habitually been afforded, and an ignored aesthetic truth.  Its closer review may afford purchase of passage to Greece.

To aid Glenarvon’s readers, tablatures were elaborated to enable instant conversion from the fictive to the biographic.  Arming readers with such keys orients them towards a single comprehension: Glenarvon amounts to a portrait gallery of its author’s extended family, acquaintances, and lover (Byron) via caricatures rendered for revenge.  Perhaps getting the code right is capital — surely that must have preoccupied Byron — but, just as surely, it depends on why one is reading: Polidori, who — like contemporary readers — was no intimate of Melbourne House society, appears to have focused more on the novel’s symbolic discourse and poetic framework than on its plotted actions transposed towards life.  If Glenarvon is to be judged first and foremost for what it is, a novel, fictional elements must be assigned some measure of importance.  The text reveals aspects that speak to the construction of a modern grotesque: tragic form and caricatural, ultimately satiric contents are disjunctive.  Polidori extracted five elements from the rambling confines of Glenarvon and incorporated them into The Vampyre: 1) reflexive, autobiographical references; 2) a doubling strategy; 3) a Celtic-inspired poetics; 4) a Dionysian theme; 5) an appealing, resonant name for his malefic aristocrat.

In that the autobiographic informs and interacts with the fictive in generating narrative, Glenarvon is distinctly modern.  Several mementoes, torn from a painful reality — Lamb’s shattered affair with Byron —, fragmented into jagged shards, were exported to the plane of fiction and implanted into Glenarvon’s soft tissue.  For instance, Lamb has pasted into the novel a cruel letter signed by Glenarvon (Byron, by the roman à clef cipher-code) but dictated by Lady Mandeville (Oxford), the novel reproducing a note in Byron’s hand verbatim.  In an inversion of Lady Lamb’s last encounter with the breathing, flesh and blood Byron, ‘Glenarvon’, appearing at a costume party as a black monk, meets heroine ‘Calantha’ for the first time.  Byron had appeared as a black-cowled monk at an affair given 1 July 1814 on the occasion of the signing of the Franco-British peace treaty, the Schedoni-like robes being a costume of predilection (Byron habited his coterie as black monks when he inherited his title and took possession of Newstead Abbey).  Caroline, known to go about cross-dressed in the guise of a Biondetta-like page boy, attended as true to character as Byron.  Lamb’s fiction exports the entire theatrical gathering to Ireland, where Glenarvon’s monk unveils in rhyme Calantha’s faltering fortune, sad and friendless end; he further appears in Calantha’s dreams.  This collage effect, this playful, jumbled dream construction is something Polidori appreciated and a strategy he would employ in The Vampyre and his lengthier Ernestus Brechtold…..

Lamb had read John Ford’s plays, appropriating her heroine’s name ‘Calantha’, signifying ‘Flower of Beauty’, from him (to represent herself).  In Ford’s incest-drenched ‘The Broken Heart’, Calantha, only child of the king of Sparta, is betrothed to one paternal cousin before another appears as a more noble though less well-loved suitor.  The appropriately stoic Calantha becomes virgin queen who weds, as she dies, both cousins simultaneously, one in life to minister her temporal realms, the other in death to rule her soul, where this groom already awaits her, his mutilated body present at a scene which combines royal coronation, wedding, and funeral.  Ford’s ‘Heart’ breaks the material from the spiritual.  Lamb appropriates its pieces and uses them to emblazon her work, subtitled The fatal passion.  The inheritance motive and the matrimonial interests of paternal aunts in their nieces in view of their sons, all present in ‘The Broken Heart’, provide Lamb a pattern for much of her Tome I.  The rationale for choosing this model seems clear; despite its use of doubles, disguises and comically romantic situations, ‘The Broken Heart’ is a revenge-tragedy.

Glenarvon appeared in “three small, richly gilt volumes, with … a Love contemplating a burning heart” (Jenkins 100).  The set forms a clearly articulated narrative triptych, each discrete book treating different phases of the developing action, emphasising separate themes, bestowing a different name on its many-named antagonist: Vivani, Glenarvon, Ruthven.

The first book legitimately is a look into Regency society, the action steeped in the doings of an aristocratic outpost in Ireland.  It is a look back, written in the past tense, to happenings in which an even more primeval past erupts into the life of a sleepy, rural community; it sketches out relationships and deeds that are delineated in fractured acts whose consequences are only in part revealed.  Behind turreted walls, consanguineous marital relations abound and are overtly encouraged.  Calantha wants to marry Henry, Lord Avondale, but deprived of choice by a brother-sister father-aunt arranged betrothal to her cousin, Calantha throws a tantrum.  When it appears that through her pining Calantha will waste away, her doting father accedes to his only child’s wishes.  Her engagement to Avondale is represented less as a triumph of love than of Calantha’s volition to dominate.  However, the unexpected birth of a male heir to Calantha’s aging parents voids the importance of Calantha’s nuptials.  The Duke’s sister, Calantha’s scheming and now doubly-disappointed aunt, plots with ‘Vivani’ to murder the infant, a conspiracy whose reported execution completes the tableau.  The ambient Gothic drama of this first panel, revolving around the projects of inheritance of the noble of birth, finds its resolution in the third.

Book II, dominated by Lord Glenarvon, moves forward to a near-present and engages a larger society rendered as a political whole: an old order, challenged by a wild spirit of freedom, appears to be faltering and losing hold.  The freedom proposed is a magical elixir constituted as much of Love and Music as any binding political entitlement; but mostly it is a freedom from constraining institutions, traditional morality, religion, crown: marriage.  The central point of this tableau again concerns the heroine’s falling in love, Calantha now enraptured by Glenarvon.  As in Book I, a symmetrical design is employed, the volume’s first part documenting love’s blossoming; the second, its decay.

The final tome — ostensibly evoking events leading to the collapse of the Irish ‘Rising of 1798’ — brings misty past into relation with tumultuous present, Vivani with Glenarvon, to the perverse effect of clarifying the past while obscuring a present that seems pre-ordained to revert to a traditional order.  One after another, the principal figures meet guilt-ridden ends or suffer death, their honour cruelly, undeservedly besmirched.  Glenarvon, catalyst of change thwarted, who abandons associates and principles but never his notion of self, his ultimate cause, meets his death bravely in the service of all he had opposed in life.  As he dies, a vengeful god promises eternal sufferance for his arrogance and selfishness.  He is consumed as Glenarvon by the churning waters and as Vivani by lapping flames.  Rightful heirs are restored to their now desolated estates.

Throughout the work, Romantic tension is strung between Georgian Neoclassicism and Walpolean Gothic; various Radcliffean elements appear alongside scenery from Walter Scott’s Highland terrain, a Manichean chiaroscuro projecting the novel’s leitmotif.  In the 2nd volume —conceived as the triptych’s great central panel — Lamb most consistently concentrates on her portrayal of her multiply-divided anti-hero as one transfigured as he becomes Lord Glenarvon.  What also emerges from Book II is how Lamb’s Gothic is classical.

The book opens with a striking painting of a mountainous green land by the sea as a figure who had previously imposed himself upon a resistant Olympus arrives — a lord who is Dionysian — to harness the classical and foment the Romantic.  Depicted up in wild hills and woodlands, surrounded by madmen and savage sinful maidens, long hair flowing, flute piercing the air, leading the people towards unbridled liberation, the youthful, nearly effeminate Glenarvon is present upon the cleft rock cliffs of his domain.  Glenarvon’s followers are described as a “lawless gang” “of sex-disgracing … rebellious libertines”, women, “struck mad, like Agave in the orgies of Bacchus, … running wild about the country, their hair dishevelled, their heads ornamented with green cockades” (II 6), “following him about as if he were some god” (II 7).  Lamb’s god, modelled on Euripides’, is introduced indirectly through this presentation of his Bacchantes and others’ complaints about them; only later will the masked god deign to reveal himself more frontally.  Indeed, Lamb explicitly associates Lord Glenarvon, Ruthven, with Dionysus, as the liberty that he proposes is equated to Dionysian freedom, and his followers with Maenads.  Led by “girls in the most flaunting attire … covered by green ribbands” (II 20), accompanied by intoxicated young men, Glenarvon’s constitutes a singular view of modern political revolution.  The green cockades are not merely a sign of Irish patriotism, but of the Nysan god’s ivy and vine, and the Dionysian theme of filicide is found in several expressions at the novel’s core.  “At the centre of Dionysian cults and myths”, writes Walter Otto, “stands the figure of the frenzied god and women swept up in his savagery. … Certain celebrations give rise to chases which at time end in a bloody fashion; and the idea of a tragic death becomes evident in several legends and practices” (100).  Tears and laughter, the tragic and comic juxtaposed, ‘phrenzy’, ‘heathen’, licentious’, ‘cruelty’, Dionysian attributes all, furnish Lamb with her vocabulary.

Glenarvon’s Dionysian terrain is, at the least, Ossianic: “A lonely pile stood upon the cliff in solitary grandeur… barren moors, the distant mountains, and the vast ocean, everywhere filled the eye” (II 24).  While other members of her party explore the revolutionaries-inhabited ruins of the Abbey that stands on Glenarvon’s lands, Calantha is left alone to overlook the vastness of the sea, and pray to God to save her soul.  “Upon the air at that moment she heard the soft notes of a flute.  …There are times when the spirit is troubled — when the mind, after the tumult of dissipated and active life, requires rest” (II 28).  Captivated by the mesmerising breath of the god’s winds, Calantha, Beautiful Flower, is blown back through time to a primordial condition of mythic residence: distilled in the sound of the flute, the wind returns this woman to maidenhood, to ancient times and former states when in the season of blooming flowers she found love and fond regret on a spot immortalised in myth.  A charm divine, irresistible, of a “fallen angel” dominating her soul, she is attracted and repulsed by Glenarvon as a prelude to Byronism as vampirism.  The language employed, the description of the “maiden’s airy step” (II 31) approaching the godly flower, typify the coming half-century of vampire texts based on mythic Persephone.

While Calantha’s soul was being enthralled, her companions became trapped in Glenarvon’s priory.  They were being shown the premises “till the dame who led the way, calling to them, shewed them a large dreary apartment hung with tapestry, and requested them to observe the view….  ‘It is here,’ she said, ’in this chamber, that John de Ruthven drank hotblood from the skull of his enemy and died’” (II 37).  It has been suggested that Lamb’s image of John de Ruthven drinking hot blood from a skull, no doubt recalling Byron’s infamous Newstead Abbey chalice, inspired Polidori’s Vampyre.  It may be that the image so struck the good doctor that his mind formed an association linking Glenarvon to Byron’s languishing story.  But rather than just a single image or isolated phrase, the entire conceptual envelope should be retained: any vampire issue of Glenarvon can only be Dionysian — confounding wine and blood —, and a Mystery, in which appears the notion of a vampyric Bacchanalia.  As Euripides’ blind seer Tiresias proclaims, “The new god you think so fatuous, words cannot encompass the greatness of his coming power….  I tell you, young sir, mankind has two blessings: the goddess Demeter is the one—Earth, that is, call her what you will—who keeps us alive with solid food; the other is Semele’s son, who came afterwards and matched her food with wine” (Euripides 407).  These two figures abide in the heart of the Mysteries from which the modern age’s vampire springs.  This, Lamb’s gift to Polidori, is the real interest of Glenarvon: Vivani and Ruthven, Glenarvon is life and death.

Even more inspirationally indicative to Polidori than John de Ruthven’s cup of kindness may have been an insistent turn of interrupted dialogues.  On at least three occasions a person with knowledge, an initiate, is about to reveal something terrible about Lord Glenarvon’s nature, and, though they begin, they discover the secret’s betrayal is beyond them.  Likely, this is where Polidori found his vampire with silencing oaths, aporrheton, from a monk who cannot speak of certain things: “’Beware’, he said, ‘of Clarence de Ruthven.  He is a ….  He is a….’” (II 258-59).  One can well imagine Polidori filling the ellipsis with the cry of ‘A Vampyre!’.  Glenarvon is something monstrous, but, as speaker after speaker fails to expose the horrible truth, on each occasion his secret is preserved.  As Polidori consumed Lamb’s novel, there was only more to confirm that ‘A Vampyre!’ resonates better than ‘an Infanticide’.  Moreover, Lamb seemed to have conceived of Darvell before Byron, the figure appearing to Lamb’s slumbering Calantha differing from Byron’s ailing traveller not a whit.  Thus, with all the pieces required for concocting The Vampyre present and waiting to be put in place over the course of a few gay mornings of a fading Alpine summer, Lamb handed Polidori the climactic great stroke through the voice of Clarence de Ruthven himself, at last identified by that name.  Calantha has a dream in which Ruthven appears to explain:

“There is a rite accounted infamous amongst Christians:—there is an oath which is terrible to take.  By this, by this alone, I will have you bound to me — not here alone, but if there be a long hereafter then shall we evermore be linked together: then shall you be mine far more, far dearer than either mistress or bride.  It is, I own, a mere mockery of superstition: but what on earth deserves a higher name?” [Tome II 296-97]

The library at Coppet, where the summer theatricals were held (© Rarignac).


Although Byron was an infrequent guest, Polidori was enthralled with Coppet’s urbane and lively society, and, as an actor in the theatricals held in the library, became a late summer habitué.  Goaded by a lady he met there into illustrating how Byron’s ill-fated tale might have concluded, the eager young doctor scribbled out The Vampyre over the few amorous mornings he passed by her side.  Leaving Darvell buried and borrowing from Lady Lamb’s roman à clef, Polidori confected The Vampyre.  By the time it was completed, Hobhouse had rejoined Byron, and Polidori was dismissed from service.  Polidori thus gallantly dashed off his novella between his late-July reading of Glenarvon and his 16 September Genevan farewell.  Polidori’s path crisscrossed with Byron’s in Italy on several occasions over the concluding months of 1816, but his story remained in Geneva with his shrewd inamorata.  Three years later it somehow passed into the mischievous hands of Henry Colburn, apparently through the offices of the lady or a confederate, and was published along with appended extraneous material as Byron’s in the 1 April 1819 edition of New Monthly Magazine.

The scene of many ‘Drawing-rooms’, the furnishings have not changed at all in two hundred years (© Rarignac).

Exposing the most obvious way in which Polidori emulates Lamb’s strategy of collage, having just read Glenarvon, he seized upon ‘Ruthven’, plucked it from its source, and appropriated it, dragging along a good deal of context and thematic content.  It is noteworthy that, unlike ‘Vivani’ and ‘Glenarvon’, the patronym ‘Ruthven’ scarcely figures in Lamb’s novel, only making a glancing appearance at the beginning and somewhat more prominently towards the end of the work, one exception figured through Calantha’s dream.  Polidori, indebted to Lamb for attributing ‘Ruthven’ Dionysian characteristics and Byronian associations, and discerning the implications of Darvell’s ring, harnessed Taylor’s Dissertation and Pausanias’s Guide to further their development.  And so it was that Byron’s final fictional incident squarely describes what actually did transpire when Polidori took charge of conducting Byron’s dead story to its predestined circuitous conclusion.  What has remained opaque about this transaction is that through their fiction(s) Byron and Polidori collectively retrace the ancient Mysteries’ Sacred Way, subject written on so insistently by Taylor, wherein lies our path to Eleusis.

The Vampyre

In Vampyre Polidori tersely sets out, catalogues, and bequeaths to posterity the Vampire’s now familiar attributes enwrapped in images seemingly torn from delirium and nightmare then projected onto a fictional realm representing the contemporary quotidian experience of a Coppet denizen.  Familiar elements of this profaning being tend to veil the interior sacred contents Polidori secreted in his story.  Although the facile landscape of huts, roving mobs, and bandits, tormenting secrets and guilty suspicions may seem likely imported from Caleb Williams and its ilk, remarkable differences, concordant with Byron’s abandoned ébauche, separate Polidori’s Vampyre from anything written since The Golden Ass.

The torches of the illuminati still burn at Eleusis (© Rarignac).

Under Polidori’s pen, the setting shifts from Ephesus to Athens, as he sends Aubrey to unrelentingly search out and resolve ancient mysteries.  He dispatches torch-bearing souls to wander the woods in the dead of night in a place we’re told no Greek would go, and he drives blood-lusting Ruthven to exclusively pursue Aubrey’s feminine intimates, his Grecian love and nameless sister.  He brilliantly inserts a mother who has lost her daughter out to search for her on that night of mystery when the Lord of the Dead appeared in a darkened soot-encrusted hut.  Polidori obliges a heroine named ‘Ianthe’ to lead Pausanias-clutching Aubrey to the dangerous road he must descend alone on his trip out of Athens.  Her name, so close to Calantha, signifies “Flower of Violet”.  According to the Homeric ‘To Demeter’,  Ianthe was among the maiden daughters of Okeanus that accompanied Persephone as she went flower-gathering that day she was abducted to become Queen of the Underworld.  Aubrey travels the Sacred Way.

Inspired by Glenarvon, Polidori’s is a novel roman à clef.  In recalling Darvell’s dying imperative to have his ring tossed into ‘the salt springs which run into the bay at Eleusis’, we sound the depths to which Polidori plunged to retrieve that which Byron had discarded.  The salt springs ripple at the Rheitoi’s mouth, near “Erineos, the place where Plouton descended, they say, when he carried off” Persephone and “Eumolpos and the daughters of the Keleus performed the holy rites of the two goddesses”, according to the Taylor translation of Pausanias (1971: 107) that Hobhouse delivered into Polidori’s hands.

In myth, the divine Maiden was drawn to a magnificent Narcissus growing in a meadow lying by briny sea.  As she plucked it, the Earth opened beneath her, as though the plant’s roots reached into Hades.  When the underworld’s Many-named Lord burst through, Persephone cried out piercingly.  None but ‘Hekate of the shining headband… from her cave’ (“To Demeter” ¶25) and distant Demeter admitted to hearing it, though Helios saw everything.  According to the translation of Discourse on the Mysteries that appeared alongside ‘On the punishment of death’ in The Pamphleteer, Persephone, ‘in the new spring, was ravished… and being carried from thence through thick woods, and over a length of sea, was brought by Plouton into a cavern, the residence of departed spirits, over whom she afterward ruled’ (87).  “The place where this happened was pointed out by the river Kephisos near Eleusis” (Kerényi 35).

A view of the Ploutonium, Eleusis (© Rarignac).

At Eleusis, the ineffable goddess, summoned out of darkness, appeared a Visio Beatifica; upon the Hierophant’s command “a great light burst forth” (Kerényi 92) to reveal Persephone.  According to Polidori: Aubrey “was again left in darkness; but what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corpse.  He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form” (Polidori 273–74).  Polidori writes that “lamentable cries, as they approached the city, forewarned the parents of some dreadful catastrophe” (274).  As on Mystery Night of yore, calls of ‘Iakchos!’ rang out.  The symbolic order employed is clearly indicated in the tangle of a single sentence: “They were soon met by different parties who had been engaged in the search of her whom a mother had missed” (Polidoir 274).  This mother, Demeter, searching out her Kore, will soon come upon Eleusis.

During Aubrey’s ‘unaccompanied’ initiation into life’s mysteries, Ianthe-Persephone, through her scream, ‘guided him’ and remained his ‘conductress’.  The torchlight of those illuminati following the Sacred Way sent the Nocturnal One crashing into woods to disappear into darkness.  Taylor teaches Persephone was carried “through thick woods, and over a length of sea, …into a cavern, the residence of the dead: where by woods a material nature is plainly implied” (100).  Polidori’s story is contained within Taylor’s Platonic discourse.  With “a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there” (Polidori 274), Ianthe, imbued with a transformed beauty, personifies Persephone.  Even in death, Aubrey sees her wandering “in quest of the modest violet” (Polidori 275); “…amidst the ruins he had formerly frequented, Ianthe’s form stood by his side’” (Polidori 275).

The image Polidori rendered exhibits genius as he contrasts Aubrey’s sketching of ancient sites with Ianthe’s verbal tradition and told tale: “in tracing the scenes of her native place; she would then describe to him the circling dance upon the open plain, would paint to him in all the glowing colours of youthful memory, the marriage pomp she remembered viewing in her infancy” (Polidori 271).  Persephone’s was the recalled marriage; the circling dance, that performed in great antiquity around the Temple complex’s Kallichoron.  Although Ianthe had quit her temporal abode, Aubrey remained upon the material plane engaged with Ruthven in a never-ending see-saw struggle.  Aubrey and Ruthven, like Apollo and Dionysus, are bound at the omphalos, dividing supremacy over the world according to the shifting tides of light and dark.  Aubrey returns westward, Ruthven in pursuit, to balance Aubrey’s eastward accompaniment of Ruthven.  Ruthven marries Aubrey’s sister, who satisfies the Vampire’s need for renewal.  Although crepuscular scarlet-faced Aubrey dies haemorrhaging from Ruthven-inspired lunacy, Polidori’s tale’s conclusion seems inconclusive.  It is just as difficult to imagine that Aubrey will not appear to share another eastward journey with Ruthven as it is to imagine that the sun will not rise tomorrow.  As East meets West, solar-informed polarity has Death give rise to Life.  Ruthven and Aubrey, Darkness and Light, divide the year, returning us to Byron’s Darvell, for Apollo’s sister, Aubrey’s in this roman à clef, is Artemis Hekate, distillate of Persephone and Demeter, virgin mother goddess of Ephesus, where, in the East, Darvell awaits by an occult source for his wedding band to be returned from Dionysian depths on an Eleusinian tenth day, Aubrey now having accomplished the mission Darvell set his narrator.

Images recorded along the Sacred Way (© Rarignac).


Byron would return to Greece and die there; Polidori, who longed to visit, never got closer than the Adriatic.  Had he walked the Sacred Way to its end, discovered its finality, he — like Byron and Hobhouse (who actually went on horseback) — would have found Gothic desolation.  A devastation such that today, after long decades of restoration, scant progress in reorganising the tons of upended stone is discernible above ground.  Hobhouse reported: “The remains of the ancient Eleusis are now very insignificant; some small stones, and pieces of rubbish standing upright, appear scattered about under the village, on the slope of the hill, and near the sea, and on one side of an inlet on the beach are fragments of a pier.  The site of the great Temple of Ceres includes most of the modern village, but the progress of decay must have been considerable since the time of Chandler, who seems, from his account, to have been able to measure the area and proportions of that magnificent building on the spot” (376).

I walked the Sacred Way, a journey of the dead for those still living, from its beginning in the Kerameikos, that ancient cemetery of the classical era, to its end at the Telesterion, where the departed are seen to come back to life through Persephone.  It was, but for one thing, as if I had never left Gotland: The Sacred Way meanders alongside, over, and across a route given over to motorways that obscure much of the classical and spiritual pathway; in following the Way one wanders from idyllic peace and heavenly nature to a road busy with heavy vehicles, heavier litter, crushing cynicism.  The vandals of Public Works, more barbarous than the Goths, have isolated Hadrian’s bridge between sections of highway.  The Way leads into the Temple to gates of the Telesterion, next to which are situated the caverns of Hades, the Ploutonium.  One of the great mysteries of Eleusis had to be that, as Heraclitus maintains: “If it were not Dionysus for whom they held their processions and sang their songs, it would be a completely shameful act to the reverent; Hades and Dionysus, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same” (Fragment 1).  Polidori elucidates the role of Dionysus in the Mysteries, Greater and Lesser.

The Ploutonium (© Rarignac).

Eleusis teaches resurrection of the spirit and eternal life through the divine order, yet, in our case, it unintentionally reveals that what is taken to be Gothic is in fact a consciously revivified classicism.  And so it is, that, following the trail laid out in Polidori’s Vampyre, we arrive at a place of beautiful desolation to encounter the savage expression of the authentic Goth.  Gibbon, referring to the fate of the Ephesian temple by which Darvell expired, wistfully comments that “the arts of Greece and the wealth of Asia… conspired to erect that sacred and magnificent structure. … Successive empires… had revered its sanctity, and enriched its splendour.  But the rude savages of the Baltic were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition” (320–21).  Jordanes, that Latinized, second-hand, sixth-century Goth historian, recalls how his ancestors boarded “ship and sailed across… the Hellespont to Asia.  There they laid waste many populous cities and set fire to the renowned temple … at Ephesus, which, as we said before, the Amazons built” (107).  The fiery end that in 262 befell the Temple of Artemis was more capricious, impulsively indulged, than the thorough demolition the Goth’s wrought at Eleusis, when, in 396, they unwittingly acted as divine agents and undertook to extirpate the material embodiment of the classical spirit — an intense, sustained, thorough effort that left in its wake a serenely mournful ruin with hardly one stone standing upon another.  Only the Ploutonium’s natural form escaped unscathed.  Eunapios, historian, biographer, and faithful initiate to the last, contemporaneously and bitterly recorded the last days of the Temple:

He it was who in the presence of the author of this book foretold the overthrow of the temples and the ruin of the whole of Greece, and he clearly testified that after his death there would be a hierophant who would have no right to touch the hierophant’s high seat, because he had been consecrated to the service of other gods and had sworn oaths of the uttermost sanctity that he would not preside over temples other than theirs. Nevertheless he foretold that this man would so preside, though he was not even an Athenian.  To such prophetic power did he attain that he prophesied that in his own lifetime the sacred temples would be razed to the ground and laid waste, and that that other would live to see their ruin and would be despised for his overweening ambition; that the worship of the Goddesses would come to an end before his own death, and that deprived of his honour his life would no longer be that of a hierophant, and that he would not reach old age.  Thus indeed it came to pass.  For no sooner was the citizen of Thespiae made hierophant, he who fathered the ritual of Mithras, than without delay many inexplicable disasters came on in a flood. … It was the time when Alaric with his barbarians invaded Greece by the pass of Thermopylae, as easily as though he were traversing an open stadium or a plain suitable for cavalry.  For this gateway of Greece was thrown open to him by the impiety of the men clad in black raiment, who entered Greece unhindered along with him, and by the fact that the laws and restrictions of the hierophantic ordinances had been rescinded. (437/439).

Across Victoria’s reign, a moment of mounting interest in archaeological exploration, ancient theologies, investigation of the mythic and ritualistic, the tale of an ancient, effectively-buried agrarian god that erupts upon a bustling industrial era was repeatedly mise-en-scène.  Theosophical currents that swept across certain strata of Victorian society left traces that are still visible in the writings of a class of spiritual questers that repeatedly depicted in fiction the momentary rupture of historic time by mythic time’s resurgence.  Members of this class would include one-time Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn adherents Algernon Blackwell (“The Willows” and “The Man Whom The Trees Loved”) and Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan).  Good English writers pursued the theme well into the 20th century, John Buchan’s 1928 “The Wind in the Portico” serving as one excellent example.  The tradition has perhaps been perpetuated and abstracted through works like Stephen King’s It.  Of these questing writers, the most ardent devotee to the returning divinity theme was Abraham Stoker, so much so that it is often, though perhaps wrongly claimed that he was himself a Golden Dawn member — indeed his most compelling writing always involves ritual construction and execution.  The returning dying-god or chthonic goddess is the constant that founds his oeuvre, most strikingly displayed in Jewel of Seven Stars, Lair of the White Worm, and, of course, Dracula.  All these authors followed in the wake of Polidori and Byron.  The dark attitude, the ungodly glee behind the superstition-driven, suspense-manipulating entertainments proliferated by Walpole, Radcliffe, Monk, and Maturin contradicts the devout sincerity of most questers’ allegorical pieces.  Should works, so dependent upon classicism and opposed to the essence of the Gothic, qualify as Gothic?

At Eleusis the Gothic demolished the classical only to have the classical upend the Gothic 1500 years later.  The connection between the two are numerous, as Pindar, transforming lines from ‘To Demeter’, proclaims: Blissful is he who after having beheld the Mysteries enters on the way beneath the Earth. He knows the end of life as well as its divinely granted beginning”. The ring knows no end.

Gothic created classical ruins (© Rarignac).


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