When Manfred was published in 1817, Lord Byron was both the most famous and the most notorious man of letters in Europe. His fame derived primarily from cantos 1 and 2 (pb. 1812) of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (complete work pb. 1819), whose contemporary attitudes, daringness, and originality had made Byron the dominant literary figure of his time. By the spring of 1816, however, a series of well-publicized liaisons with highly placed women and his openly expressed affection for his own half sister, Augusta Leigh, had led to scandal. With his reputation and his marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke destroyed, Byron left England and lived the remainder of his short life abroad.
In many ways, Manfred embodies the concerns of the Romantic poets. Bryon, as is typical of Romantic poets, wished to try new forms of writing. Manfred is his first dramatic work. It comprises three acts, a number of characters, and a central conflict, but it is a closet drama—a play meant to be read rather than staged. However, since Manfred was published, it has been staged and also set to music. Byron intended Manfred, as indicated by the subtitle, A Dramatic Poem, to be just that. It is a hybrid, combining drama and lyric. The lyric “Incantation” (1816), in act 1, was published as a separate poem six months before Manfred. Dramatic conflicts within the poem occur between Manfred and values represented by other characters, such as the chamois hunter and the abbot, as well as between Manfred’s own contradictory desires.
Byron assigns to nature an importance characteristic of Romantic poetry, but nature functions more as a setting than as a force in Manfred: Byron’s interest lies more with his hero than with the landscape. The poem is set in the Alps; Manfred reflects on the beauty of nature, but—unlike William Wordsworth’s characters, for instance—he can find no solace in nature. Nor does he empower nature with the ability to provide a haven for the soul. Manfred differs from the works of Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley in that natural beauty and sublimity cannot detract from the hero’s self-absorption. In act 1, Manfred invokes spirits that symbolize aspects of nature: Air, Mountain, Ocean, Earth, Winds, Night, and Manfred’s own guiding star. As a powerful philosopher-magician, he exercises control over them. Much as in the poetry of Shelley, the spirits represent the “spirit of the place,” but they are not able to supply what Manfred wants: oblivion.
In scene 2, Manfred relocates to the Jungfrau and looks around him and down on the earth, yet he cannot see the beauty of nature or love it. He sees the peril of nature but does not fear it, fearing living more. Unlike in other Romantic poetry, nature does not provide tranquility, or even escape. The shepherd’s pipe makes Manfred wish he could be a part of the harmony of nature, but that is not to be.
Byron does create a man who is in harmony with the natural world, the chamois hunter, who is similar...
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