Manfred, George Gordon (Noel), Lord Byron - Essay

Lord George Gordon Byron


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hours of Idleness (poetry) 1807

English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (satire) 1809

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt (poetry) 1812

The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813

The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale (poetry) 1813

Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn (poetry) 1813

The Corsair (poetry) 1814

Lara (poetry) 1814

Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (poetry) 1814

Hebrew Melodies (poetry) 1815

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Third (poetry) 1816

Parisina (poetry) 1816

The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1816

The Siege of Corinth (poetry) 1816

The Lament of Tasso (poetry) 1817

Manfred (drama) 1817

Beppo: A Venetian Story (poetry) 1818

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: Canto the Fourth (poetry) 1818

Mazeppa (poetry) 1819

Don Juan, Cantos I-XVI 6 vols. (poetry) 1819-1824

Cain (drama) 1821

Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (drama) 1821

Sardanapalus (drama) 1821

The Two Foscari (drama) 1821

The Vision of Judgment (poetry) 1822

Heaven and Earth (poetry) 1823

The Island; or, Christian and His Comrades (poetry) 1823

Werner (drama) 1823

The Deformed Transformed (drama) 1824

The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry 7 vols. (poetry) 1898-1904

Letters and Journals 11 vols. (letters and journals) 1975-1981

K. McCormick Luke (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5636 words.)

David Eggenschwiler (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6476 words.)

Stuart M. Sperry (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5783 words.)

James Twitchell (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6013 words.)

Daniel M. McVeigh (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

Atara Stein (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11137 words.)

Mervyn Nicholson (essay date 1991-92)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9008 words.)

Pamela A. Boker (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13179 words.)

D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6310 words.)

James Soderholm (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4925 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 429 words.)