"Dead But Sceptered Sovereigns"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Manfred has been called the perfect expression of Byron's temperament. The first two acts were written during the poet's residence in Switzerland with the Shelleys in 1816. The early lines of incantation over the unconscious Manfred were composed immediately after Byron's unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with his wife, and are filled with thoughts of her. The final act, completed in Venice the next year, was so adversely criticized by the publisher, that the poet rewrote most of it before publication. However, he explained in the covering letter that he had been ill with a fever when he wrote the original version, and that while he thought the speech of Manfred to the Sun contained some passable writing, the new version offered some pretty good poetry. He noted that he had changed his characterization of the Abbot and made him a good man. He also brought back the Spirits to be there at Manfred's death. A reader, comparing the two versions, will agree that the changes improved the play, though like most "closet drama," it would be impossible to stage. In this first great poem of revolt by Byron, the parallel to Goethe's Faust is obvious. He said he had never read Marlowe's version, but had heard a reading of a translation of the German tragedy. However, he gave his drama originality, and in its field it is excellent, as the story of an individual who cannot find in any external social machinery a remedy for his feeling of isolation. Therefore, he must work out his own solution. Like Dr. Faustus, Manfred is a lonely magician, meditating in his Gothic gallery at midnight about his life. He calls repeatedly upon the spirits of the universe to appear before him, but they do not obey until he commands them in the name of his accursed soul. He demands their aid to help him forget his guilt-haunted past, a former love whose details he will not reveal. They cannot help him. As he falls senseless, there is heard a mysterious, despairing incantation. In the next scene, wandering alone in the Alps, Manfred is befriended by a chamois hunter who suggests he seek the consolation of the Church. A witch offers help in return for obedience to her. Refusing, Manfred returns to his castle where the Abbot of St. Maurice arrives, to save his soul. However, the Abbot confesses he cannot help so noble a man. Later he makes a second attempt, and finds Manfred remembering his thoughts of the past when he stood in the Coliseum, where those who are dead still command. The Abbot, told that a dangerous Spirit is approaching, offers to confront it. Manfred refuses to go with the Spirit to Hell, to which he has no obligation. And so he dies alone and lonely. Nothing except death could conquer him. In his soliloquy in the tower he says:

I do remember me, that in my youth . . .
I stood within the Coliseum's wall,
Midst the chief relics of almighty Rome . . .
And thou didst shine, thou rolling moon, upon
All this, and cast a wide and tender light . . .
Leaving that beautiful which still was so,
And making that which was not, till the place
Became religion, and the heart ran o'er
With silent worship of the great of old,–
The dead but sceptred sovereigns, who still rule
Our spirits from their urns. . . .