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.