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At midnight, alone in a Gothic gallery, Manfred is meditating about his life. He has undergone many experiences, but only one has profoundly affected him. When he calls on the spirits of the universe to appear before him, none come. He summons them three times, and the third time voices of the seven spirits are heard, invoking a mysterious curse on Manfred’s soul. The first voice is that of the Spirit of Air. It is followed by the voices of the spirits of the mountains, ocean, earth, winds, night, and Manfred’s guiding star. They agree to do his bidding and ask what he would have them do.

Manfred replies that he desires forgetfulness. When the Spirit of Air seeks further explanation, Manfred does not reveal what he wishes to forget. Surely, he insists, spirits that control earth, sky, water, mountains, winds, night, and destiny can bring the oblivion he seeks. The spirits reply, however, that they have no powers beyond their own realms. When Manfred, failing in his hopes, asks the spirits to take bodily forms, the seventh spirit, the star of his destiny, takes the shape of a beautiful woman. At the sight of her, Manfred, hinting at a former love, attempts to hold her, but she vanishes, leaving him senseless. An unidentified voice then utters a lengthy incantation, in which Manfred is cursed and seemingly condemned to wander the earth forever with his spiritual agony unassuaged.

The next morning, alone on a cliff of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, Manfred resolves to forego all superhuman aid. He praises the beauty of nature around him, but he also recognizes his alienation from it. While Manfred is musing on the relative merits of life and death, a chamois hunter approaches unobserved, just in time to restrain Manfred from flinging himself over the cliff. Together, they descend the rocky trail.

In his cottage, the hunter urges Manfred to rest a while before journeying on. Manfred refuses guidance and declares that he will go on alone. When the hunter offers Manfred his best wine, Manfred exclaims in horror that he sees blood, a symbolic transformation in which Manfred turns communion into guilt. The hunter, thinking Manfred mad, suggests that the wretched man seek comfort in contemplation and in the Church. Manfred spurns the suggestion, saying that he wishes he were mad, for then his mind would be tortured by unrealities instead of the truths that now beset him. He envies the hunter’s simple life, but when the hunter, noting Manfred’s high-born appearance, wonderingly asks if his guest wishes to change stations in life, Manfred replies that he would not wish any human to suffer his own wretchedness. To this, the hunter remarks that surely a man capable of such tenderness cannot harbor a soul belabored by evil. Manfred, departing, protests that the evil is not within himself; he has destroyed those he loved.

Again on the Alps, in a lower valley, Manfred summons the Witch of the Alps to share the loveliness of nature with him. To her, he describes his past spiritual life, when he lived among men but not with them: Preferring solitude, he studied ancient mysteries, and he loved—and destroyed with love—a woman said to resemble him. The witch promises to aid him if he swears obedience to her, but he refuses her offer, and she leaves.

The three Destinies and Nemesis gather for a festival in the Hall of Arimanes, spirit of evil and prince of earth and air. Manfred, daring to approach, is recognized as a magician. He tells them he has come in quest of...

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Astarte, the symbol of his sin. When she is summoned from her tomb, Manfred asks for forgiveness, but she only says that the next day will end his despair.

Back in his castle, Manfred feels a sublime calm. The abbot of St. Maurice, having heard that Manfred has practiced witchcraft, arrives to save his soul. To Manfred’s bitter assurance that his sins lie between heaven and himself, the abbot urges that Manfred turn to the Church for help. Manfred explains that he has always lived alone and will remain alone. The abbot mourns that he cannot help such a noble man.

While his servants gossip about their master’s strange behavior, Manfred stands alone in his tower. There, the abbot comes once more in a last vain attempt to save Manfred. Warned that a dangerous spirit is approaching, the abbot insists that he will confront the spirit, who has come to summon Manfred. Manfred, however, defies the summons; he is willing to die but not to join the spirits of hell, to whom he owes nothing. As the demon disappears, Manfred dies, still lonely but unconquerable to all but death itself.