Critical Introdution: Lord Byron’s Manfred (Textual Analysis)

The Byronic hero is most notable for the human capacity of extremes. These extremes center on the capacity of good and evil: the mortal interacts with the supernatural; pleasure is only found in the acceptance of suffering; there is an unsteady balance between responsibility and resilience against consequences. The Byronic hero is both appealing and detestable to the reader because he represents both the best and worst in us, and his ethics are a reflection of our own desire for redemption. Human responsibility for one’s own good and evil is explored in Manfred through mortal interaction with the supernatural and the power of memory in the reconciliation of an individual’s deeds.

Memory

The plot of Manfred is driven by Manfred’s desire to repress his memory. He seeks out spirts of the earth to request “Forgetfulness— …. Of that which is within me” (1.1.136-137). Manfred is consumed with wanting to forget, not only the past, but also the implications that an incestuous relationship with his sister has on his own soul. Unfortunately, he cannot just forget the past because he recognizes that it is intertwined with the present. Thus, his nights and days are spent in seeking oblivion. Oblivion implies not just as a state of forgetting, but of not actively living. Manfred says that “I have no power upon the past, and for / The future, till the past be gulfed in darkness, / It is not of my search” (1.2.5-7).

Malaney, in discussing the ethical concerns of Manfred, asserts that “Manfred is haunted by the past, which prevents him from achieving a satisfactory relationship to the present … [he] undertakes a journey that remains forever out of phase with the possibility of ideal fulfillment” (Melaney 466). It is not just the memory of his past that Manfred wants to escape, but the memory of the evil he is capable of. He himself asks, “Think’st thou existence doth depend on time? / It doth; but actions are our epochs” (2.1.51-52). Actions define the passing of time, so actions define the quality of existence. Without memory, Manfred is suspended in a state of disrupted continuity; by trying to suppress the past, Manfred cannot live in the present.

As long as Manfred strives to forget, he will never know peaceful living. Eventually he determines that there is no way to drive away memory. He resigns himself to the suffering of memory and instead finds calm:

There is a calm upon me—

Inexplicable stillness! which till now

Did not belong to what I knew of life.

. . . .

… It will not last,

But it is well to have known it, though but once:

It hath enlarged my thoughts with a new sense,

And I within my tablets would note down

That there is such a feeling.

(1.1.6-8, 14-18)

In remembering Manfred recalls the knowledge of his own evil, and in seeking oblivion he tries to push away the weight of responsibility for that evil. However, it is only in remembrance that Manfred can find redemption. Rawes says that “memory is not only capable of imposing intensely painful recollections on him, but also capable of offering his consoling, comforting, and revitalizing memories… Obsessed with finding an escape from one kind of memory he has sought escape in all” (127).  In seeking to drive away the memory with the power to crush him, he also drives away the memory with the power to restore him.

In the final act, Manfred discovers that, although he has the capacity for evil, his life also has the capacity to experience good. It is the remembrance of the good in him that redeems him from being overcome with the evil. The Byronic hero recognizes that although humanity is capable of extremes both good and bad, as long as there is good not all is lost.

The Supernatural

Byron’s description of his Byronic hero looks at nature in terms of the sublime, and Manfred’s thought process plays an important role in understanding the supernatural aspects of the poem itself. Byronic heroes are “invariably solitary, and are fundamentally and heroically rebellious, at first against society only, and later against the natural universe or against God himself” (Thorslev 67). In his isolation, Manfred calls upon the Witch of the Alps:

Of Earth, whom the abstruser powers permit

At times to commune with them- if that he

Avail him of his spells- to call thee thus.

And gaze on thee a moment

(2.2.25-30)

Manfred calling upon the Witch of the Alps shows that he cannot turn back on his journey that he began. His own journey into the Alps represents the framework for the “threshold of the sublime” and it “has not resulted in a satisfactory solution to the problem of moral guilt.  (Melaney 464). Manfred creates a moment in which elements of the sublime have not been fully expressed. This also alludes to the theme of incest, because he calls on the Witch of the Alps in order to express his feeling towards her.

Throughout the play, the setting plays an important role. While the setting might seem very simple such as on the Alps or the Jungfrau Mountain both give off a sense of beauty and power. This reflects the power that Manfred seeks and the power that he could have as an individual.

In his journey of for supernatural aid, Manfred requests of the Witch of the Alps:

My long pursued and superhuman art,

Is mortal here: I dwell in my despair-

And live- and live for ever

To do this thy power

Must wake the dead, or lay me low with them.

(2.2.147-149,152-154)

Manfred expresses this concern that the world around him is holding him back from both death and a peaceful life. The death and guilt that he feels for his most beloved, Astarte, also plays a role in his despair. Manfred is also bereaved by the death of Astarte and is toured, because the Fates will not allow him to die in order to be with her. This influences the idea of the supernatural, because Manfred reaches beyond mortal bounds.

Time and experience also play an important role in understanding the Byronic hero, because a character such as Manfred senses that there is a bigger life than the life around him. His experience and sense of time leads him out of the human world into a world of nature is part of the sublime. Time also plays an important role, because the poem begins in the morning and ends at twilight. Over the course of the day, Manfred has to understand his past in order to understand how he can move forward. Manfred states in when talking to Nemesis:

I have outwatched the stars,

And gazed o’er heaven in vain in search of thee

Yet speak to me! I have wandered o’er the earth,

And have never found thy likeness- Speak to me!

Look on the fiends around- they feel for me:

I fear them not, and feel for thee alone.

 (3.1.141-146)

Manfred uses this as an understanding of being outside of time that he seeks an answer to understand his own past as a way to understand his own present and future. The conscious mind of his past plays an important role, because it provides him with a limited understanding of being able to reject the supernatural that is around him.

2 thoughts on “Critical Introdution: Lord Byron’s Manfred (Textual Analysis)

  1. Thank you! I was looking for some background on the “Manfred” after whom Manfred Township, Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota was named. This is that Manfred.

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