Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1259
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 to Wordsworth’s leech gatherer. The hunter saves Manfred from leaping off the mountain because such an act would have polluted the natural world with Manfred’s “guilty blood.” He is represented as a “peasant of the Alps,” characterized by his dignity and self-respect. The chamois hunter can be contrasted to Manfred. The hunter lives a simple, poor, innocent life, at one with nature. He exemplifies ordinary humanity. Manfred, however, is apart from nature; he is complex, wealthy, and laden with guilt. In his courage and daring, Manfred resembles Prometheus, the Titan of Greek myth...
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who created humans out of clay and stole fire from the gods for the benefit of his creation. Manfred’s turning away from society echoes the acts of the rebel Prometheus.
The character of Manfred is the embodiment of the Romantic hero, an individual who takes responsibility for his own choices and who rejects society’s restraints and institutions. Byron’s particular deployment of this figure has come to be known as the Byronic hero. Typically, he is a man carrying unbearable guilt, full of remorse for an unspeakable act, and doomed to search for oblivion or forgiveness. Much like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s title character in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), Manfred has committed an act against nature. Manfred’s crime is incest, loving his sister, who is portrayed as Astarte. His sister is like him; his love for her is a form of excessive self-love, and he destroys her.
The theme of incest was used in other Romantic and Gothic writing, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance (1796; also known as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk). Incest is another act of self-assertion, a way for an individual to break the bonds established by society. The heroic quest for forgiveness and death is in the tradition of the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus, who is doomed to roam the earth, unable to die. Whereas Coleridge’s mariner must continually travel and find a listener for his tale, Manfred only tells of his “crime” to the Witch of the Alps. He tells her of his attempts to forget, but he seems destined to live forever. The Witch offers to help him, but for a price: to “swear obedience” to her will. Manfred refuses and continues on his quest for oblivion through death.
Unlike Coleridge’s mariner, Manfred has power over the spirits. In act 2, scene 4, he fearlessly confronts the Destinies and Nemesis. They order him, a mere mortal, to bow to them, but he will not. The refusal to bow to anyone or any spirit carries over to Manfred’s rejection of salvation by the Church, reflecting the skepticism exhibited by the Romantic poets, Blake and Shelley particularly, toward established systems of belief. In act 3, the abbot offers Manfred a change for penitence and pity if he will be reconciled to the Church. In an earlier version of the poem, Bryon’s abbot was a self-serving meddler, but in the final version he is kind, caring, and brave, ready to combat the demons for Manfred’s soul. He offers absolution as well, knowing Manfred will die. Manfred says it is too late; he takes responsibility for his acts and vows to die as he has lived, alone.
Some critics have stated that Manfred is too derivative of the character of Faust in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (pr. c. 1588, pb. 1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Ein Fragment (pb. 1790; Faust: A Fragment, 1980). Byron, however, claimed no knowledge of the Marlowe play and did not read German; he had heard the story of Faust only as told by Lewis. What differentiates Manfred from Faust is that Faust bargains with Satan for knowledge and power and surrenders his soul. Manfred, who has knowledge and power and wishes for forgetfulness, does not bargain with anyone, much less Arimanes, who represents darkness and evil. The magician surrenders only his life, not his soul, when he dies, and his death has been long sought.
Manfred’s final words are that it is “not difficult to die.” When this line was dropped in the printing of the first edition of Manfred, Byron was angry with the publisher and pointed out that the line was critical to the moral of the poem. Manfred struggles with guilt throughout the poem; he continually looks for forgiveness and for death, but he refuses to bargain for either. He finally triumphs by embracing his death. Manfred, in true Romantic fashion, demonstrates the power of individuals to choose their own destiny.