A Critical Introduction to Lord Byron’s “Manfred” by Leigh Brown and David Guthrie

Lord Byron comes from a long, established tradition of Romanticism to which he played a part in shaping and polishing.  Manfred remains a great example of Byron’s contributions to the Romantic Movement and the establishment of what it is to be a Byronic hero.  Through the events of his life as well as the events and movements of the world, Lord Byron creates a mentality that drives the main issues of his play, Manfred; his use of the Byronic hero and subliminal nature creates a true illustration of Romanticism and literature in the 19th century.

Byron participated in the second wave of the Romanticism movement in the early nineteenth century.  This literary and cultural movement directly stemmed from a turn away from the Enlightenment ideals that spurred controversial events such as the French Revolution (Curran 26-27).  Because of the bloodiness and chaos of the French Revolution – and the revolutions it spurred in consequence – society’s mentality began to turn away from the doctrines that incented these episodes.  Though many writers were initially supporters of the Revolution, they were inevitably shocked by “its internal development, its repercussions in Britain, and its activities abroad” (Curran 50, 53).  It is important to understand the stark turn from these ideas while trying to understand the cultural context in which Lord Byron writes Manfred.  All while spurning the ideas of the preceding movement, Romanticism reflected the tensions of an age “at the intersection of competing philosophical traditions, of political and class divisions, of emergent gender distinctions, of high and low and sacred profane cultures, of battles of the books, and contested claims among the arts” (Curran xiv).

In Manfred, Byron goes against preceding canon and tradition by epitomizing the Byronic hero.  This character appeals to the Romantic tradition because of their strong and visceral personalities, sardonic sense of humor, tortured pasts, and link to supernatural elements.  Manfred’s implied incestuous relationship, his attempt at suicide, and his lack of sympathy make him a great example of this archetype.  Looking at the Romantic turn away from Enlightenment ideals, this description of what makes a Byronic Hero fits well into the Romantic canon.  Byronic heroes oppose the traditional set of standards of heroism by upholding different character values. These heroes define themselves by: rebelling against convention or society, having low tolerance for societal norms and social institutions, being isolated or choosing to be isolated from society, not being impressed with rank or privilege, having larger-than-life abilities and pride, being suspected of committing a crime or has been cursed, suffering from grandiose passions, and having a tendency to be self-destructive.  Manfred’s relationship that has doomed him shows his self-destructive nature and a facet of his overly passionate temperament.  However, the second act does much to uncover this representative personality.  Also, these characters ironically are purposefully constructed as dislikeable. When Manfred is advised by Chamois Hunter to be patient, Manfred responds:

Patience and patience! Hence—that word was made

For brutes of burthen not for birds of prey;

Preach it to mortals of a dust like thine, —

I am not of thine order (Byron 646).

Because the Chamois has acted as the traditional hero in saving Manfred from killing himself, the reader sees the switching of roles, and therefore a turn in the idea of heroic characteristics.  However, this does not make Manfred more likeable or admirable a character, but emphasizes his tortured soul and duality of his nature.  This quote also indicates the most dominant characteristic that makes Manfred such a perfect example of the Byronic hero.  He is someone cast apart from society, distinct from the social order and solitary.  When he says, “I am not of thine order,” he separates himself from his savior and therefore the world and society in which Chamois belongs.  His motivations are not entirely known, though the reader does get some insight into the tragic past from which he is running and the internal demons that haunt him and drive him.  Also, when Manfred is able to accept his overall fate, the reader is able to see that Manfred is an overall decent human being, something that the Byronic Hero receives at the very end of the narrative.

The isolated setting of Manfred is perfect for our Byronic hero. This setting is used to emphasize the sublime aspects in nature.  Many other contemporary poets of his time used similar settings when describing the sublime.  Look at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, arguably the poem that showcases the sublime in the best way. What does “Mont Blanc” have in common with Manfred?  They both share this setting of harsh mountains and nature.  In the opening scene, the dialogue between a hunter and Manfred infers that the local environment is very hazardous and could easily take Manfred’s life.  One of the main criteria of sublime nature is to belittle human nature while building up nature.  By implying this inherent danger of simply being on the mountain Byron makes Manfred seem little.  Later, when we see him complete his journey to the summit, it then causes us to be placed in a state of awe at what this little human did against this towering dangerous mountain.

Next we look a list of sublime he encounters during his trek up the mountain.  First, the witch of the Alps is the character through which we can see the supernatural within the play.  She is indeed a nature spirit as Manfred summons her by flinging some water into the air and chanting some sort of incantation. He is also superhuman is her physical appearance:

Beautiful Spirit! With thy hair of light

And dazzling eyes of glory, in whose form

The charms of Earth’s least mortal daughters grow

To an unearthly stature, in an essence

Of purer elements” (Byron 648).

There are several ways of being superior to humans and here we see the sublime beauty and purity of nature. In Act III Scene III, the reader is introduced to the Three Destinies. In the opening monologue, the First Destiny goes on to describe in detail the various sublime aspects of the Alps: “The glassy ocean of mountain ice, / We skim its rugged breakers, which put on / The aspect of a tumbling tempest’s foam, / Frozen in a moment – a dead whirlpool’s image” (Byron 653). Here, ice is transformed into this permanent and strong embodiment of the Sublime.  Also note how Byron writes that the ice is “frozen in a moment.”  From this we are to understand that in order for any piece of nature to be Sublime, it must be enduring and permanent.  While Manfred is only familiar with Eternity, the Sublime, by default, embodies eternity (Higashinaka 68).  Manfred, then, must look towards this Sublime nature, the eternal being, for answers he cannot find himself.

Lord Byron lived in interesting times. The Romantics were originally supportive of the French Revolution but after receiving but a taste if its aftermath, they split away from this once glorious idea. The Romantics were turning a new leaf, they changed their ideals. Byron saw this change coming and created the Byronic Hero, a new archetype that embodied new traits. This Byronic hero was and is very distant cousin of the hero that save princesses and fights dragons for his king. Instead the Byronic hero took to isolation and punished himself for crimes that only he knows. Such ideas may stem from the Romantics’ original support of the French Revolution and living with the guilt for the rest of their lives.

 

 

Sources:

Bainbridge, Simon. Napoleon and English Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.

Curran, Stuart. The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Greenfield, John R. British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832: Second Series. Ed. John R. Greenfield. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 96. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

Lord Byron – Biography – Poet, Playwright.” Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.<http://www.biography.com/people/lord-byron-21124525>

Higashinaka, Itsuyo. “Manfred and the Sublime.” Revue de l’Université de Moncton (2005): 63. CrossRef. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.

Semmel, Stuart. Napoleon and the British. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

4 thoughts on “A Critical Introduction to Lord Byron’s “Manfred” by Leigh Brown and David Guthrie

  1. This is a pretty neat website to brush up on Manfred. This is also a good website to use for my research project. Hopefully, I get a reply back to see how quick this website is in giving a response.

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