Manfred A dramatic poem
Lord Byron counts to the most brilliant and celebrated British poets and is regarded as one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in the early 19th century.
Born in 1788 to Captain John Byron and Catherine Gordon of Scotland, Byron enjoyed a privileged life and education. At the age of ten George Gordon Noel Byron inherited the title of his great-uncle, William Byron, and was henceforth known as Lord Byron. At the age of twelve he attended Harrow School in London, where he first got known for his sexual escapades. Later on he attended Trinity College and Cambridge University, where he began his writing career. Due to his extravagant lifestyle and multiple sexual affairs he early on gained himself an infamous reputation.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron undertook his first journey through Europe. Back in England he started to become famous as a poet. Soon after his first publications in 1812 he became a celebrity and gained access to England’s most exclusive societies. In April 1816 he got accused of having a sexual affair with his half- sister Augusta Leigh. He went into exile and embarked on several journeys, on which he became friends with Mary and Percy Shelly as well as Mary Shelley’s stepsister Clair Clairmont, with whom he had a daughter. After his journey to Switzerland he wrote his dramatic poem Manfred. Summer 1816 Byron spent with Mary and Percy Shelly at his mansion in Italy.This summer vacation became famous for inspiring Mary Shelly to her world-famous novel Frankenstein or The modern Prometheus. Byron's Manfred got published in 1817.
After continuing his scandalous lifestyle and poetry for several years, Lord Byron died in 1824 at the age of 36 in the Greek Independence War.
The main character Manfred embodies a classic Romantic or Byronic hero living in solitude in a Gothic castle in the Bernese Alps. Although feeling superior to all his fellow human beings as well as the forces of nature and the spiritual world he is unable to find peace. Driven by an unnamed unbearable guilt his only desire is to forget, but neither his knowledge nor his magic spells can grant him his only wish. After a monologue contemplating his situation, Manfred summons seven spirits that embody the forces of nature (earth, sky, water, mountains, winds, night) and his own destiny.
After the third invocation the spirits appear and consent to fulfill him a wish. Manfred wishes for forgetfulness and oblivion, but the spirits tell him, that this wish is beyond their powers and that he should wish for something else. Indifferent to all other offerings of the spirits his disdainfulness prevails and he commands the spirits to show him their true form. The seventh spirit, the spirit of his destiny, obeys and appears to him in form of a young beautiful woman. Recognizing the woman’s face Manfred faints.
While senseless a disembodied voice casts a spell over Manfred, telling him that his only salvation lies in death, but that he will be cursed to live and endure his guilt.
Determined to die Manfred climbs to the highest summit of the mountain Jungfrau and wants to throw himself off the cliffs, but a chamois hunter approaches and saves him. During a conversation Manfred reveals to the hunter, that he had been in love with Astarte but that they loved each other in a way it was not meant to be. Implicitly, it is said, that this love causes Astarte’s death and as a consequence Manfred’s despair. Furthermore, Manfred’s choice of words implies an incestuous relationship and therefore is often interpreted as an autobiographical reference to Byron and his relationship with his half- sister.
On a lakefront Manfred summons the Witch of the Alps. He desires to look upon her and find peace in the beauty of nature. The witch offers her help in exchange for his obedience. Manfred refuses. Unwilling to surrender his free will or power to any supernatural force he makes one final attempt to end his misfortune and enters the magic realm of Arimanes. Arimanes summons Astarte’s ghost for Manfred and Manfred begs her for forgiveness. Before her ghost vanishes, Astarte assures Manfred, that his misery will end soon. Nonetheless she never explicitly forgives Manfred his deeds.
Back at his castle a priest visits Manfred, but Manfred is unable to find comfort in religion. Finally, Manfred dies in company of the priest after a demon attacked him. In death he is able to find peace.
The Romantic Hero
Manfred shows the typical features of a Byronic or Romantic Hero. Manfred’s abilities and knowledge surpass the ones of every other human being. He seem to be a genius in his sphere of actions. He is acquainted with the matter of the metaphysical world and the realms of the spiritual and supernatural. Nonetheless he can’t find pleasure in it. Driven by one overpowering emotion he is forced to dedicate his entire time and being to his one goal of forgetting his past and former deeds. He acknowledges the beauty and power of nature, but at the same time tries to dominate and manipulate it.
Manfred perceives himself as superior and therefore separates himself from the rest of society. His one possible companion, his soul mate, Astarte, who he describes as having “the same lone thoughts and wanderings, / The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind /To comprehend the universe” (Byron; Act II s. 2 v. 115-118) dies as a consequence of his own actions and leaves him grieving and alone in a world where he finally has to face his own boundaries.
Guilt represents a major theme throughout the whole poem. Manfred’s guilt is what drives him and motivates all of his actions. Although the source of his guilt remains a secret throughout the whole poem, the reader learns, that Manfred feels responsible for his beloved Astarte’s death. Interesting is, that he primarily seeks forgetfulness and not forgiveness. Right at the end when he encounters Astarte’s ghost in Arimanes’ realm, he begs her to forgive him, but until this scene he focusses all his powers on obtaining forgetfulness and oblivion. Moreover, it is left to the reader’s imagination, whether Astarte actually forgives Manfred by predicting him the end of his “earthly ill” (Byron; Act II s. 4 v. 171, 172) or not.
One possible interpretation could be, that he actually receives absolution through the act of begging for forgiveness. Manfred’s wish to forget his guilt instead of showing actual repentance, can be seen as a result of his pride and feeling of superiority, which caused Astarte’s death and Manfred's despair in the first place. After Manfred tries to force the seven spirits to grant him his wish, the disembodied voice curses him to live on with is guilt unable to forget, but after he begs for forgiveness instead he is able to be killed by the demon.
Another prevailing theme of Manfred is the main character’s tendency to remain in self chosen solitude. Manfred turns away from society, prefers to live in solitude at his castle in the Alps and avoids human interaction. He believes in having obtained a level of knowledge that sets him apart from his fellow human beings and that elevates him to a higher sphere of existence. His pride and arrogance make him indifferent to people trying to comfort him (Chamois hunter, priest) and leave him alone with his decisions and its consequences.
Throughout the whole poem Manfred tries to surpass boundaries on different levels. His knowledge incites him into thinking of being invincible and therefore he shows no respect to the supernatural entities he encounters. He, as a human, tries to command the forces of nature in form of the seven spirits and, as a consequence, falls senseless to the ground and gets cursed. He tries to overcome the boundaries of time by attempting to change his past and then, finally, by entering the magic realm of Arimanes he transcends even a metaphysical border.
Impact on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Besides the fact, that both literary works, Lord Byron's Manfred as well as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, belong to the Gothic literature of the 19th century, the texts show similarities concerning their main characters and how they experience life. It is known, that Mary Shelley and Byron stayed in close contact during the period of time in which both literary pieces were created and that Manfred had a great impact on Frankenstein.
Indeed, there are some remarkable parallels between Victor Frankenstein and the character Manfred. Both literary figures can be described as Faustian characters. On their quest for deeper knowledge both are prepared to transcend all boundaries to reach their goals.
Parallels between Victor Frankenstein and Manfred
Both characters believe themselves beyond the limitation of all other human beings and therefore show an arrogance and self- importance that ultimately climax in their downfall. They separate themselves from the rest of society and remain in self chosen isolation. As a result, Victor Frankenstein and Manfred lack a human corrective and all of their decisions are made from their own radical but limited point of view. As a consequence they can’t foresee the long-term effects their actions have not only on themselves but on their beloved ones.
Another common theme in these to literary pieces is guilt and how Victor Frankenstein and Manfred decide to handle it.
In the very moment the creature comes to life and Victor Frankenstein realizes what he has done, he simply runs out of the room:
“I had worked hard for this for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bed- chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.” (Shelly 35, 36)
Victor refuses to deal with the consequences of his work and remains in denial for almost the next two years until the creature decides to approach him. His guilty conscience, however, manifests in his illness and nightmares.
Manfred also desperately wants to forget what he did to Astarte. Instead of accepting his mistakes and trying to move on he decides to omit the laws of nature and manipulate his memory. He refuses to admit his failure and tries to undo it with the help of the spirits instead. As a consequence the spiritual world curses him.
Both Victor Frankenstein’s mysterious illness and Manfred’s curse can be seen as a product of denying their wrong deeds. It also can be interpreted as nature’s payback for trying to omit her rules.
Other common themes in Frankenstein and Manfred
In General, every major theme mentioned above can also be found in Frankenstein.
Besides the similarities in the personalities of Victor Frankenstein and Manfred a very important issue in both literary pieces are human boundaries and the consequences for those who dare to cross it. Both characters try to accomplish deeds that are beyond the sphere of action of human beings. While Manfred's attempt to manipulate his memories fails, Victor Frankenstein accomplishes his goal of creating life, but nevertheless has to face the consequences of betraying nature. The creature becomes the embodiment of Victor's doubtful victory over nature that starts to haunt and punish him for his impudence. In this sense the creature in Frankenstein equals the disembodied voice in Manfred. Both represent epitomizations of nature's payback for trying to surpass boundaries of humankind.
Victor Frankenstein and Manfred become "haunted men" desperate but incapable to undo their deeds and powerless to control the events that are happening as a result of their wrongdoing. While Manfred, after Astarte's death, just has to face consequences for himself in form of the curse that prevents him from committing suicide, Victor Frankenstein has to witness how the creature bit by bit destroys his whole family.
References and Recommendations for Further Reading and 'Primary sources:'
Byron, Lord. “Manfred,” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar.New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2009. 712-47. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. New York: Pearson Education, 2003. Print.
"Lord Byron." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 08 Mar. 2015. http://www.biography.com/people/lord-byron-21124525
MANFRED, A CONFESSIONAL. https://britlitsurvey2.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/manfred-a-confessional/
MANFRED AND VICTOR AND THE DARK DEPTHS OF SOLITUDE https://britlitsurvey2.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/manfred-and-victor-and-the-dark-depths-of-solitude/
Contributed by: I. Strimitzer