Manfred, George Gordon (Noel), Lord Byron
Manfred George Gordon (Noel), Lord Byron
The following entry presents criticism of Byron's dramatic poem Manfred (1817). See also, Don Juan Criticism.
Byron's first drama, Manfred, details the author's characterization of the Romantic hero, a figure of superior abilities and intense passions who rejects human contact as well as the aid and comfort offered by various religious representatives. Consumed by his own sense of guilt for an unspecified transgression involving Astarte, the only human he ever loved, Manfred finally seeks peace through his own death.
Byron was born in London in 1788 to Captain John Byron and Catherine Gordon, of Scotland. His father, who had squandered the fortunes of both his wives, died when Byron was three and the boy was raised by his mother in Aberdeen. When he was ten, Byron became the sixth Lord Byron and was sent to Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he began writing poetry. After several years of writing and an extended period of travel, he returned to London and published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). The work was an immediate success and he soon became an important literary and social figure in London. His tumultuous public affair with Lady Caroline Lamb caused him such distress that he sought comfort in marriage to Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was not successful, however, and the pair separated amidst scandalous charges of sexual improprieties and an incestuous affair between Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Attacked by the press and ostracized by London society, Byron left England for Switzerland in 1816 and never returned. He traveled through Europe and eventually settled in Italy. In 1823 he went to Greece to train soldiers for the Greek War of Independence from Turkey. He died of a fever in Missolonghi at the age of 36.
Byron's visit to the Swiss Alps provided the setting for Manfred, published in 1817 and considered by some critics to be autobiographical, even confessional. The unnamed but forbidden nature of Manfred's relationship to Astarte is believed to represent Byron's incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta. Some critics claim that writing Manfred was essentially an act of catharsis for Byron, enabling him to work through his personal guilt and achieve a more detached, ironic approach to his writing that resulted in the creation of his masterpiece, the mock epic Don Juan (1819-24).
Plot and Major Characters
Manfred is set in the Alps where the title character lives in a Gothic castle. Tortured by his own sense of guilt for an unnamed offense, Manfred invokes six spirits associated with earth and the elements, and a seventh who determines Manfred's personal destiny. None of the spirits are able to grant him what he wishes; they offer “Kingdom, and sway, and strength, and length of days,” but not the forgetfulness and oblivion he seeks. The seventh spirit assumes the form of his dead lover Astarte but vanishes when Manfred tries to touch her. Manfred falls into a state of unconsciousness during which an unidentified voice delivers a lengthy incantation full of accusations and predictions of doom. Variously attributed to Astarte, to an unspecified external force, or most commonly to the voice of Manfred's own conscience, the incantation tells Manfred that he will be governed by a spell or curse and will be tortured—not by external agents but by his own nature. Although he will seek death, his wish will be denied.
In the next scene, Manfred attempts to plunge to his death from the high cliffs of the Jungfrau, but he is rescued by an elderly Chamois Hunter who takes him back to his cabin and offers him a cup of wine. Manfred imagines that the cup has blood on its brim, specifically Astarte's blood, which is also his own blood. This passage, along with Manfred's admission that he and Astarte had loved as they should not have loved, suggests that the two engaged in an incestuous relationship.
Manfred next invokes the Witch of the Alps, a beautiful spirit who offers to help him on condition that he swear an oath of obedience to her. Manfred refuses to be her slave and similarly rejects submission to the various forces of evil led by Arimanes. Unlike Faust, Manfred is unwilling to submit to any external authority—natural or supernatural, good or evil. Astarte appears to him again and Manfred begs her forgiveness. She refuses to answer and then predicts that his “earthly ills” will soon come to an end.
Manfred returns to his castle feeling peaceful, if only for a short time. He is visited by the Abbot of St. Maurice who offers comfort through religion. Manfred refuses, although he takes the hand of the Abbott at the moment of death, possibly accepting the human contact he had disdained during life.
Manfred represents Byron's articulation of the Romantic hero, a figure so far superior to other humans that he need not be bound by the constraints of human society. Similarly, he submits to no spiritual authority, rejecting pantheism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. Manfred answers only to himself, and because of this he is the instrument of his own destruction, fashioning a punishment for his unexplained guilt that far exceeds any possible retribution imposed by human or religious authorities.
The nature of Manfred's guilt is widely thought to be associated with an incestuous relationship with his sister Astarte, for whose death Manfred feels responsible. His attempt to transcend humanity fails and he is forced to accept the limitations of the human condition. At the moment of his own death, Manfred takes the hand of the Abbot, suggesting that he is at last embracing the possibility of human contact and ending his self-imposed isolation. The Abbot, meanwhile, mourns the failure of such a superior being to benefit humanity in any way: “This should have been a noble creature,” he laments. The charges against Manfred go further, according to some analyses, in which the narcissism of the Romantic or Byronic hero is described as not only self-destructive but dangerous to others as well.
Critical response to Manfred has been mixed. It is judged to be his best dramatic poem by some scholars and considered confusing and incoherent by others. Byron himself cautioned that it was “inexplicable.” Confusion centers around the incantation in the first act. The unnamed voice charges Manfred with offenses that are not described elsewhere in the poem, suggesting to some critics that the charges are unfounded. K. McCormick Luke believes that failure to acknowledge Manfred's own unconscious as the voice of the incantation leads to misinterpretation of this scene.
Critics have long debated the extent to which the work is autobiographical, particularly as it involves the relationship between Manfred and Astarte. D. L. Macdonald maintains that early scholars were reluctant to delve into the issue of incest, but modern critics seem able to discuss little else. Since Byron's writing has often been considered confessional, scholarly interest has turned to the poet's relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh and has treated the character of Astarte as a substitute for Augusta. The guilt Manfred feels is attributed to the forbidden nature of his love for his sister. Stuart Sperry asserts that writing Manfred was essential to Byron's mental health and personal growth; it was the personal catharsis engendered by this play that enabled the author to achieve the ironic detachment he would later employ in his masterpiece Don Juan. The passages regarding the forbidden love are, according to Sperry, among “the most self-consciously confessional that Byron ever wrote.” Other critics do not agree, however, on the specific nature of Manfred's guilt. Luke maintains that Manfred is not remorseful because of his relationship with Astarte, nor did he cause her death, as is often assumed: Manfred is grieving because he was unable to prevent her death and, therefore, he has had to come to terms with his own human limitations. Atara Stein disagrees, claiming that Manfred is culpable for Astarte's death. Stein argues that the egotism and narcissism characterizing the Romantic hero directly led to her demise.
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Lara (poetry) 1814
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Hebrew Melodies (poetry) 1815
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Third (poetry) 1816
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The Siege of Corinth (poetry) 1816
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Manfred (drama) 1817
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Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Fourth (poetry) 1818
Mazeppa (poetry) 1819
Don Juan, Cantos I-XVI 6 vols. (poetry) 1819-1824
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The Two Foscari...
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SOURCE: Luke, K. McCormick. “Lord Byron's Manfred: A Study of Alienation from Within.” University of Toronto Quarterly 40 (fall 1970): 15-26.
[In the following essay, Luke claims that Manfred's guilt stems not from a possibly incestuous relationship with Astarte, but from his failure to prevent her death.]
From the time of its publication, critics have ever emphasized the Faustian elements in Byron's Manfred. The emphasis is crucially misleading because by definition the Faustian character deliberately chooses to strike a bargain with evil in exchange for knowledge and power. Byron makes it explicitly clear that Manfred has at no time bargained with evil, that he has gained his knowledge of earthly and occult matters by means of studious and daring endeavour. His quest is self-oblivion, not the self-gratification pursued by the central character in Marlowe's A Tragical History of Dr Faustus, with which Manfred is most often compared. The perversion of knowledge and degeneration of character which form the dramatic momentum of Dr Faustus are elements totally absent from Manfred. There is no evidence within Byron's play which points to an evil act or decision whereby Manfred deliberately invites his suffering. In fact, the dark hour of Astarte's death, when Manfred's grief begins, marks an event for which he assumes the responsibility but for which external...
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SOURCE: Eggenschwiler, David. “The Tragic and Comic Rhythms of Manfred.” Studies in Romanticism 13, no. 1 (winter 1974): 63-77.
[In the following essay, Eggenschwiler discusses the aesthetic unity of Manfred while taking into account its logical inconsistencies.]
Manfred is now generally recognized as an important transitional work in Byron's career: together with Childe Harold iii and iv, it has a sophistication of theme and character that Byron had not achieved before 1816. Yet the same critical commentary that has pointed out a richness of religious sources, dramatic traditions, and philosophical problems has also left the play seeming quite muddled. After acknowledging Byron's broad interests and rhetorical force, the reader may well consider the play a bag of ill-sorted delights. Even M. K. Joseph, who defends Byron “as a poet,” concludes that Manfred is a confused mixture of genres.1 And, in terms of logical consistency, the objection is valid. Consider, for example, the moral ambiguities in the character of Manfred. Peter Thorslev has shown him to be a composite of the hero-villain of gothic melodrama and the Promethean rebel against tyranny; thus Manfred is variously the agent and opponent of evil.2 Or consider the apparently confused metaphysics of the play. Whereas some commentators have found the universe of the play fated and...
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SOURCE: Sperry, Stuart M. “Byron and the Meaning of Manfred.” Criticism 16, no. 3 (summer 1974): 189-202.
[In the following essay, Sperry places Manfred within the context of Byron's life and career, suggesting that the writing of the play represented for its author a personal catharsis that enabled him to write Don Juan.]
I am content to follow to its source Every event in action or in thought; Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot! When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness flows into the breast We must laugh and we must sing, We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.
W. B. Yeats, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”
Byron's greatest drama, Manfred, holds an important transitional place within the scope of his career as writer and thinker. It looks back to the third canto of Childe Harold, written, as Byron put it, when I was “half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies”; and it partakes of that same turbulence and mental anguish—a play “of a very wild, metaphysical and inexplicable kind.”1 At the same time there is a sense in which it anticipates the poise and self-assurance of Don Juan, the masterpiece the poet was shortly to begin. More than any other of Byron's major works, it is...
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SOURCE: Twitchell, James. “The Supernatural Structure of Byron's Manfred.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 15, no. 4 (autumn 1975): 601-14.
[In the following essay, Twitchell discusses the supernatural world created by Byron in Manfred.]
Although in recent years there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in Byron's verse dramas, little new knowledge has flowed in its wake. This is especially true of Manfred, where although there is a new level of appreciation (witness the number of times it has been anthologized in the last decade), critical commentary has lagged. Perhaps this new interest in Manfred has arisen because scholars who have been uneasy about Byron's place in the nineteenth century have at last found a way to make him into a Romantic. For Manfred is Byron's most “Romantic” work, both in character and in theme. Here is an almost Faustian man, who has spent his life pushing towards a union of himself and invisible forces beyond, a “Streben nach dem Unendlichen.” Like his peers Prometheus or Endymion, Manfred finally does what no eighteenth-century character could ever do: he transcends body and mind of this world to enter a “world beyond.” But unlike them he is not seeking the future; like the Ancient Mariner, he is fleeing the past.
Despite the Romantic character of its hero, other attributes of Manfred make...
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SOURCE: McVeigh, Daniel M. “Manfred's Curse.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22, no. 4 (autumn 1982): 601-12.
[In the following essay, McVeigh examines the Incantation in Manfred's opening scene and suggests there are thematic implications for its incongruity with the rest of the play.]
One of the curiosities of Romantic poetry is a mysterious incantation over the unconscious Manfred in the opening scene of Byron's best-known closet drama, condemning the hero's “guile”:
From thy false tears I did distil An essence which hath strength to kill; From thy own heart I then did wring The black blood in its blackest spring; From thy own smile I snatch'd the snake, For there it coil'd as in a brake; From thy own lip I drew the charm Which gave all these their chiefest harm; In proving every poison known, I found the strongest was thine own.
By thy cold breast and serpent smile, By thy unfathom'd gulfs of guile, By that most seeming virtuous eye, By thy shut soul's hypocrisy; By the perfection of thine art Which pass'd for human thine own heart; By thy delight in others' pain, And by thy brotherhood of Cain, I call upon thee! and compel Thyself to be thy proper Hell!(1)
In itself the curse seems not untypical of Byron, some of whose satire comes very close in spirit to the ritualistic, magical roots Robert Elliot sees in ancient Greek and...
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SOURCE: Stein, Atara. “‘I Loved Her and Destroyed Her’: Love and Narcissism in Byron's Manfred.” Philological Quarterly 69, no. 2 (spring 1990): 189-215.
[In the following essay, Stein discusses the destructive qualities of Manfred's narcissism and assesses the character's culpability for Astarte's death.]
In Manfred, Byron examines in detail the effects, both positive and negative, of the inevitable narcissism and egotism of the Romantic hero. Manfred is not only the center of his universe, he is his universe, with the surrounding environment and the other characters serving as aspects of his own dominating personality. This is particularly true of Astarte, his lost love; in fact, Byron's placing of the love affair in the distant past places her even more firmly within the province of Manfred's mind alone. Manfred's love for Astarte perfectly exemplifies the concept of love that Shelley presents in his short essay, “On Love”; Astarte is, for Manfred, an idealized version of himself. According to Shelley, love “is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void, and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves.”1 Yet, Shelley comments, such an ideal love is ultimately “unattainable” (p....
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SOURCE: Nicholson, Mervyn. “Byron and the Drama of Temptation.” Comparative Drama 25, no. 4 (winter 1991-92): 329-50.
[In the following essay, Nicholson discusses the idea that Byron, since he believed that the meaning of life is unknowable, emphasized action rather than thought in Manfred.]
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!—Faust, Part I
Byron is distinctive in that he thinks in actions rather than in abstract ideas. That is why he rejected system as the basis for understanding experience. Rejecting system has affected his reputation: critics, assuming significant thought is the same as systematic thought, have looked down on Byron as a kind of poetic rock star incapable of real intellection.1 But Byron's ideas are expressed in the form of actions, and actions cannot be judged by meaning or truth-content but by their quality as actions. That is, the study of Byron is the study of the logic of action.
Byron's concern with action springs directly from his world view. In that world view, reality is too large to be enclosed by any system; it is “an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed,” in Emerson's Byronic phrase.2 Hence it follows that acting in a meaningful way is more important than knowing the meaning of life—or trying to know it, for the nature of reality itself precludes such knowledge. Given this emphasis on...
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SOURCE: Boker, Pamela A. “Byron's Psychic Prometheus: Narcissism and Self-Transformation in the Dramatic Poem Manfred.” Literature and Psychology 38, nos. 1-2 (1992): 1-37.
[In the following essay, Boker suggests that the usual Oedipal reading of Manfred leaves much of the play's complexity unexplained; she offers a reading that also accounts for the protagonist's narcissism.]
Since its publication in 1917, Manfred has been viewed by literary scholars as one of the most enigmatic of Byron's works. As recently as 1982, Philip Martin dismissed it as a “very bad drama,” and as one which was “not capable of supporting a psychological or emotional dimension worthy of interest.” Martin's negative valuation is based on his belief that the play reveals “an emotional and intellectual immaturity of the kind usually associated with adolescence” (107,110). Ironically, this observation is also the strongest evidence employed by other critics to support an opposite interpretation: that Manfred's adolescent themes indeed contain a wealth of hidden psychological significance. These studies, however, merely point toward an understanding of this issue, while none yet seem to have uncovered the true nature of the deep, internal struggle of the dark, mysterious character of Manfred.
William Calvert admits that the play effectively “mirrors a...
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SOURCE: Macdonald, D. L. “Incest, Narcissism and Demonality in Byron's Manfred.” Mosaic 25, no. 2 (spring 1992): 25-38.
[In the following essay, Macdonald situates Manfred within the Faustian tradition to account for the spirit world Byron created.]
In 1816, Byron left England forever, his reputation ruined by the collapse of his marriage and the rumors of his affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He went first to Switzerland, where he met the Shelleys and suggested that they all pass the time by writing ghost stories. The most famous fruit of this suggestion was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Byron himself began a story but soon gave it up; it was completed by his personal physician, J. W. Polidori, and eventually published, under Byron's name, as The Vampyre (1819). Byron did not, however, entirely abandon the ghost-story project: later in the summer, after a visit by the Gothic novelist M. G. Lewis, he wrote his “supernatural” tragedy Manfred (1817).
Critics have often been baffled by Manfred, but we cannot say that Byron failed to warn us. He first described it to his publisher as “a kind of poem in dialogue … but of a very wild—metaphysical—and inexplicable kind”: “Almost all the persons—but two or three—are Spirits … the hero [is] a kind of magician who is tormented by a species of remorse—the cause...
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SOURCE: Soderholm, James. “Byron, Nietzsche, and the Mystery of Forgetting.” Clio 23, no. 1 (fall 1993): 51-62.
[In the following essay, Soderholm explores the connection between Byron's character Manfred and Nietzsche's Uebermensch, suggesting that Manfred is a hate-poem aimed at several people in England, particularly Byron's wife, Lady Byron, and his sister, Augusta Leigh.]
In the Romantic heroic tradition, a strain of rebellion runs from Byron's rogues gallery of Promethean heroes to Nietzsche's Uebermensch. A philosophy of radical individualism, best exampled in the “metaphysical rebel” of Camus, keeps this strain alive in the twentieth century. Bertrand Russell was so impressed with Byron's contribution to this form of titantic self-assertion that he devotes an entire chapter to the Byronic hero in his History of Western Philosophy. And Peter Thorslev, who wrote the book on the Byronic hero, persuasively links the enthusiasms of Sturm und Drang—its Promethean fire—to incarnations of rebellious individualism in the later nineteenth century, particularly in the ideals of Nietzsche.1 But the biographical underpinnings of this lineage, the ways in which Byron's and Nietzsche's lives and works parallel and inflect each other, has not been sufficiently explored. Nietzsche's interest in Byron can be best understood by examining his predilection for...
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Behrendt, Stephen C. “Manfred and Skepticism.” In Approaches to Teaching Byron's Poetry, edited by Frederick W. Shilstone, pp. 120-25. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991.
Suggests that the absence of an authoritative narrator in Manfred makes it an ideal text for exploring the function of skepticism in Romantic literature.
Clubbe, John. “‘The New Prometheus of New Men’: Byron's 1816 Poems and Manfred.” In Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Lionel Stevenson, edited by Clyde de L. Ryals, pp. 17-48. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1974.
Discusses Byron's various treatments of the Prometheus myth.
Edwards, Barry. “Byron and Aristotle: Is Manfred a Tragedy?” University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1991): 55-62.
Examines the long-standing critical debate on whether Manfred is a tragedy or a melodrama.
Higashinaka, Itsuyo. “Byron's Manfred and Kitamura Tōkoku's Hōraikyoku.” In Literary Relations East and West: Selected Essays, edited by Jean Toyama and Nobuko Ochner, pp. 207-14. Honolulu, Hawaii: College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1990.
Explores the influence of Byron on the...
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