Manfred, a Play of Language; or, Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Erring Manhood

Jerome McGann (University of Virginia)

An ironic and pitiless landscape, a seriously preposterous search, Byron’s clubbed right foot, Ahab’s stump: there is a brief conspectus of the untrodden ways of the Byronic Hero, the Pilgrim of Eternity.


The drawing is the cover design for Burnett’s illustrated edition of my Byron’s Manfred an acting version of the work I made in 2008 that was published by Burnett’s Pasdeloup Press in 2009.

The drawing captures the tone and attitude that a person ought to take when venturing on a study of Manfred. But it doesn't actually show us how Byron fashioned his queer masterpiece. For that, I will work from three quotations that supply another way of mapping the territory of Manfred.

Enigma, made to be unresolved, affords the opposition of immersion, of argument: it offers an opaque exterior; not offering entry or exit, it posits (the generic trace of pleasure). The enigma, cued only to itself, faces nothing. However, it is not bracketed. It is merely less loose among particles more active. Though its delight is not extinguished, it has no tendency. Its argument is that, it, is, here.
– Alan Davies, “Private Enigma in the Opened Text”


The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


The continuing power of privacy in writing can make tangible what otherwise seemed invisible: the world made strange so that we can see it, as in a dream of the familiar become foreign.
– Charles Bernstein, “Thought’s Measure”

Each seems to me an apt comment on Manfred, which is a poem about open secrets, about strange things lying in plain sight. So it comes to us like a dream that illuminates the familiar exactly because the world’s familiarities estrange the world from us.

An investigation of those matters might best start with Manfred’s signature problem, the poem’s greatest open secret: the scandalous reference to “the Lady Astarte, his—” (III.iii.55). Read biographically—privately—the missing word has always been supposed to be “sister” and Manfred’s “half-maddening sin” (II.i.31), incest. Everything about the historical context of Manfred supports that reading, which can, and I think should, be glimpsed in Manfred’s keyword: Astarte. We haven’t studied that word, listened to it, closely enough. Say it: Astarte. A star. Star is one of the poem’s most prominent motif words. Say the name again: Astarte. Augusta. Star. Gus. Once you see or hear that, the echo becomes irresistible. Byron called his sister “Gus.” The word Astarte is an exemplary instance of a private enigma in an open text. Byron casts Astarte as the traumatic sign for Manfred’s estrangement from himself and his world.

But Manfred is replete with traumatic signs. Traumatic and dramatic. Remember that it is “A Dramatic Poem,” not “A Poetic Drama.” The description suggests why it’s so difficult to stage. It also suggests that we perhaps do best to approach it as a play of words, which is how we approach the plays of Gertrude Stein. The action is primarily in the ways the words behave, the plot that they are driven to execute. The simplicity of the poem’s surface, its rehearsal of the all-too-familiar Faust legend, is seriously deceptive. Manfred is a play full of secrets and, as such, a work whose dangerous words need to be watched closely. When we do we discover that its object is to dismantle the authority of the myth of Faust, one of the two great myths of Western civilization. Byron would soon undertake Don Juan to subject that other great Western myth to a similar critical investigation.

So let’s look closely at Manfred. Consider three famous passages—first, this reflection on Astarte:

What is she now?—a sufferer for my sins—
A thing I dare not think upon—or nothing. (II.ii.196-7)

What do we think of those three alternatives Manfred gives for his question “What is she now?” In point of fact, “a sufferer for my sins—A thing I dare not think upon—or nothing” are far from the only alternatives. But that’s all we get because that’s all Manfred at this point can think of. If we pay attention to exactly what Manfred says here we ought to be provoked.

Or consider this exchange with Nemesis:

What would'st thou?
Thou canst not reply to me.
Call up the dead—my question is for them.
Great Arimanes, doth thy will avouch
The wishes of this mortal?
Whom wouldst thou
One without a tomb—call up
Astarte. (II.iv.78-83)

What are we to make of the “dead” Astarte being described as “one without a tomb”? The remark gives one serious pause in at least two respects. First of all, in an obvious sense, it upends the question Nemesis asks. Uncharnel what? Uncharnel one without a tomb? But then we also have to wonder how Manfred knows she is tombless, and what exactly that could mean.

The problems metastasize. Consider the action that immediately follows when Nemesis actually succeeds in calling up “The Phantom of Astarte.” Commanding her to speak, neither he nor Arimanes can manage it. Then Manfred tries with his spasmodic, insistent, and ultimately confused prayer since, as he admits, “I know not what I ask, nor what I seek: / I feel but what thou art, and what I am” (II.iv.131-2). When Astarte is finally induced—prayed—to speak, her words are cryptic, not least of all when Manfred makes his final desperate plea: “One word for mercy” (II.iv.154). The word turns out to be Manfred’s name. What does that mean?

From the outset of the poem/play, Manfred has come before us as a person of consummate power, knowledge, and decision. But that image of Manfred is also being cunningly undermined from the very beginning. Recall, for instance, his move in Act I, scene one to summon the “spirits.” A sly comical tone pervades the scene where we watch him take three tries to succeed in his conjuration. He didn’t know exactly how to proceed. When he finally does hit on the correct formula, we discover something else that’s interesting. We see that Manfred didn’t know how those “subordinate” spirits, especially the Seventh Spirit, would play tricks on him. That happens because Manfred is mistaken when he tells the spirit that there is no “form on earth” he would find “hideous or beautiful” (I.i.184-5). Manfred has unaccountably forgotten that the “form” he at once fears and desires isn’t “on earth.” So when the Seventh Spirit conjures “The shape of a beautiful female figure,” Manfred falls down “senseless.” This is the “shape” or image of Astarte, not her phantom or ghost. “The Phantom of Astarte” won’t appear until much later.

Or remember that he knew he wanted to leap from the crag but hadn’t imagined he would be prevented by a Chamois Hunter. Chance intervenes to prevent his suicide. But when he leaves the Chamois Hunter—let’s call him Wordsworth, another of Manfred’s secrets—he was free to resume what he began. But he doesn’t. So, we wonder: does he really want “Forgetfulness” and “Self-Oblivion”? Do we believe it when he says that he does? Does he even want to die? What exactly is Manfred after?

Or remember that he says he can “call the dead / And ask them what it is we dread to be” (II.ii.178-9). But when he does this in Act II scene four, he doesn’t ask Astarte that question at all. His prayer to Astarte’s Phantom is largely a confession of his bewilderment (“I know not what I ask or what I seek”) until he stumbles at last to his desperate request for “One word for mercy.” What are we to make of the Phantom’s merciless-merciful answer, “Manfred”?

Let’s run through some further provoking passages:

Hast thou further question
Of our great Sovereign, or his worshippers?
Then for a time farewell.
We meet then—
Where? On the earth
That will be seen hereafter.
Even as thou wilt: and for the grace accorded
I now depart a debtor. Fare ye well! (II.iv.162-167)

Consider how freighted that final sentence is with the language of Christian theology. But here the remark has wrung out the theology that stands behind the words. Manfred politely declares how deeply he is in debt “for the grace accorded” to him by Nemesis, Arimanes, and the demons. But such creatures are not the agents of grace. Grace is accorded by God through Jesus Christ, and this grace then frees you of the debt of sin. For anyone—like myself—who has internalized the discourse of grace and debt and redemption, the passage is a piece of well-mannered blasphemy. It recalls nothing so much as the polite exchanges between Michael and Satan in The Vision of Judgment.

Or consider this remark in his final act of defiance against the authority of the demons who come to demand that he fulfill his bargain to live out the great myth of Faust. “I do not combat against Death, but thee / And thy surrounding angels” (III.iv.112-3). That is surely an odd thing to declare. Had he said, or had Byron written, “And thy surrounding demons” both the prosody and the myth would have been preserved intact. The word “angels” is seriously intrusive. Are the angels of God hanging around the action of Manfred? When the word comes in here we are flung back in thought to the time when the demons were simply rebellious angels “hurled from heaven for sinning” (Don Juan IV.1). That prehistorical event is much on Manfred’s mind throughout.

These striking passages invite one to think again about what is perhaps Manfred’s greatest passage, the “Incantation” that climaxes and closes Act I scene one. Though it begs for a line by line examination, I will confine my comments to a few of the most salient passages. First off, recall how it is introduced to us: “A Voice is heard in the Incantation which follows.” That is surely far more a direction for reading than what it is formally, a stage direction. But it is indeed a stage direction for the play of language Byron has mounted. One can easily miss the plain meaning of those words: that we should be listening for “A Voice” within the incantation which follows. We hear and read an incantation as we hear and read for the subtext that is working somehow or other inside. The Incantation is double-talk, both “a magic voice and verse” that—mirabile dictu—has “baptized [Manfred] with a curse” (I.i.223-4).

In its most obvious register the Incantation is a curse laid upon Manfred by Manfred himself, as the astonishing sixth stanza makes clear:

By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,
By that most seeming virtuous eye,
By thy shut soul’s hypocrisy;
By the perfection of thine art 5
Which pass’d for human thine own heart;
By thy delight in others’ pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee! and compel
Thyself to be thy proper Hell! (I.i.252-61)10

Manfred is the ultimate authority for the curse, just as earlier we saw that he could command the spirits because his life has been ruled by “a star condemn’d” (I.i.44). That would be “Astarte,” who “withered” when she “gazed on” Manfred’s “heart” (II.ii.119). It would also be Manfred, since Astarte is “The star which rules [his] destiny” (I.i.110).

“Wither” is the key, the final word in the “Incantation.” But it is a word within which we hear another word, as becomes clear when we pluck each of them out of their key locations in Manfred:

Lo! the spell now works around thee,
And the clankless chain hath bound thee;
O’er thy heart and brain together
Hath the word been passed—now wither! (from “Incantation,” I.i.258-61)
When thou art better, I will be thy guide—
But whither? (II.i.4-5)
I loved her, and destroy'd her!
With thy hand?
Not with my hand, but heart—which broke her heart—
It gazed on mine, and withered. (II.ii.116-9)
Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die. [MANFRED expires.]
He’s gone, his soul hath ta’en its earthless flight;
Whither? I dread to think; but he is gone. (III.iv.151-3)

Wither/whither. That is one of the most provocative as well as one of the most decisive wordplays in Manfred. Decisive because it’s so plainly tied to the surface action, the plot as traditionally understood. Whither has the withered Astarte gone, whither is the wither-cursed Manfred going at the end of the poem? Unlike Manfred, who has pledged allegiance to the Kantian proverb, sapere aude, the Abbot dreads to think about that because he can only imagine either heaven or hell. But an entirely different “Voice” may be heard in the unreferenced first-person pronouns that speak through the Incantation. It is the voice we can only call Manfred. Not Manfred, not Astarte, not even Byron. Manfred, the one word that matches the strange “mercy” being offered by the poem (or is it a play?).

Well, as we know, it is a play, a play of language that we are called to pay attention to. Some of the moments announce themselves with an outrageous, comedic directness, as when a spirit says of the “convulsed” Manfred after Astarte departs at the end of Act II: “He would have made an awful spirit” (II.iv.162). Of course, that word means, first of all, “awe-inspiring,” like God Almighty. But a ludic voice is heard in the spirit’s language that Byron would soon let loose (1818) when he published Beppo, written shortly after Manfred. It is a vulgate meaning of “awful” that he received out of his Scots linguistic heritage and that is now perhaps the primary meaning of the word.


Burns supplies good instances of the Scots usage—for instance in “Tam O’Shanter” , 141.

In Beppo, Byron again puns upon that word, or rather torques and works it, to skewer the pious poet Sotheby as “A stalking oracle of awful phrase” (LXXIV).

Or consider the three times that Manfred calls up the image of a desert, the psychic place referenced in the contemporary lyric “Stanzas to Augusta”: “In the desert a fountain is springing” (45). In Manfred the word is carefully manipulated in order to effect its striking final transformation and transvaluation. Here is the word in its first two appearances:

Think’st thou existence doth depend on time?
It doth; but actions are our epochs: mine
Have made my days and nights imperishable,
Endless, and all alike, as sands on the shore,
Innumerable atoms, and one desart . . . (II.i.51-5)
. . . Like the Wind,
The red-hot breath of the most lone Simoom,
Which dwells but in the desart . . . (III.i.127-9)

That spelling, unusual now, was still a common orthographic form in Byron’s time. But the word could be—and was by Byron—spelled both ways, and in Manfred Byron exploited the optional spelling to fine effect. The third usage comes in Manfred’s climactic act of defiance in the final scene. I shall quote the relevant passage at some length because it has some further, equally remarkable and equally salient, word plays.

What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine:
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts, —
Is its own origin of ill and end
And its own place and time; its innate sense,
When stripped of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorbed in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert.
Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me;
I have not been thy dupe nor am thy prey —
But was my own destroyer, and will be
My own hereafter.— (III.iv.127-40)

The pentameter line has, as throughout Manfred, an iambic base, and in this passage, we see that all the lines are quite regular until we come to the initial foot of “Born from the knowledge of its own desert.” The line opens with an inversion but then quickly resumes its iambic regularity. When we reach the final foot of the line, we would have another clear inversion if the word were spelled “desart,” as it was spelled twice before. But here it is spelled “desert” and the difference exposes a word play that Byron achieves through prosodic ambiguity. If the accent is left to fall on the word’s first syllable, then the line echoes the idea (and the word) of “In the desert a fountain is springing.” But if it is left to fall on the second syllable, filling out the iambic rhythm, then the word means something else. It means “dessert,” and we hear in the line an echo of Manfred coming at last to his just desserts.

Is Byron also playing with the phrase “Born from”? It’s hard to think otherwise. And if we look closely at the next four lines, in particular the parallel syntax in the statement “I have been . . . my own destroyer and will be my own hereafter,” more games with language are in play. “Hereafter” is primarily an adverb and here, at first encounter so to speak, that is how we read it. But because the parallelism encourages one to read it simultaneously as a noun, the line is made to carry a virtually Nietzchean meaning. Note how the word “own,” under these pressures, also slightly shifts its meaning the second time around.

Or what about the comment Nemesis makes after “The Phantom of Astarte” leaves: “She’s gone, and will not be recall’d” (II.iv.180). Actually, Astarte will never not be “recall’d” (remembered) exactly because she is, like Manfred himself at the play’s conclusion, “gone” forever. As such, she has become what the dead Leila is to the Giaour, “The Morning-star of Memory” (1130). This kind of Byronic loss operates according to a poetic formula laid out in a lovely little poem Byron wrote shortly after returning in 1811 from his Levantine sojourn. Though probably written with John Edleston specifically in mind, the verses recall as well three other keenly felt losses: John Wingfield, Charles Skinner Matthews, and his mother.

Written Beneath a Picture

Dear object of defeated care!
Though now of Love and thee bereft,
To reconcile me with despair
Thine image and my tears are left.
’Tis said with Sorrow Time can cope;5
But this I feel can ne’er be true:
For by the death-blow of my Hope
My Memory immortal grew. (CPW I:287-88)

These are only some of the language games that play about Manfred. I’ve noticed others, and I’ve no doubt that still others have escaped my attention. While I leave those to your discovery, it may be useful to recall that Manfred’s structure depends in great part on a handful of keywords like fear [9], mind [11], hour [12], “star” [14], voice [15], soul [18], come [31], power [39], earth [46]. “Gone,” though less frequently repeated, is yet another since it is invoked at three of Manfred’s most significant moments: II.iv.155, III.ii.29, and III.iv.152-153. And, of course, “spirit” is everywhere, all of them, I believe, transformations of what Manfred calls “the inborn spirit” (III.ii.22)—to make a distinction with the spirit or soul of men created by God. Such words form a constellation of echoing motifs that recall the pervading presence of Manfred’s epipsyche, Astarte, whose being and absent presence is specifically linked to music (see I.i.175-9 and II.iv.134-5), as is Manfred’s:

Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony,
A bodiless enjoyment— born and dying
With the blest tone which made me! (I.i.52-5)

These features of Manfred’s language put significant demands on a reader’s attention. They underscore the aggressive strangeness of one particular passage that we want to look at carefully. Coming after Manfred turns off the Witch of the Alps and her offer to help him gain what he “wishes” (II.ii.157), the passage is a kind of gloss on two enigmatic but crucial lines in the “Incantation”: “Though thy death shall still seem near / To thy wish, but as a fear” (I.i.256-7).

. . . I have one resource
Still in my science—I can call the dead,
And ask them what it is we dread to be:
The sternest answer can but be the Grave,
And that is nothing—if they answer not—5
The buried Prophet answered to the Hag
Of Endor; and the Spartan Monarch drew
From the Byzantine maid's unsleeping spirit
An answer and his destiny—he slew
That which he loved, unknowing what he slew,10
And died unpardoned—though he called in aid
The Phyxian Jove, and in Phigalia roused
The Arcadian Evocators to compel
The indignant shadow to depose her wrath,
Or fix her term of vengeance—she replied15
In words of dubious import, but fulfilled. (II.ii.178-92)

No one, I submit, can follow that passage and claim to understand what it is saying while it is being read. Even when we excavate its allusions it resists. Part of the difficulty is its odd juxtaposition of a mysterious biblical event with a recondite episode from Greek history. Perhaps even more obdurate are its rich and cryptic linguistic particulars. Consider as well how the fall of that arresting language follows upon a phrase—“if they answer not”—that floats in an ambiguous syntactic space. It comes at first as a hanging afterthought but then shifts to the opening of a sentence that is never completed, the words dissolving into the dark exempla of two men who (vainly) sought helpful knowledge from the dead.

As if anticipating a reader’s puzzlement, Byron added an explanatory note to clarify the second of those exempla: ‘The story of Pausanias, king of Sparta, (who commanded the Greeks at the battle of Platea, and afterwards perished for an attempt to betray the Lacedemonians) and Cleonice, is told in Plutarch's life of Cimon; and in the Laconics of Pausanias the Sophist, in his description of Greece. (CPW IV:473)’ Such a note only doubles down on the obscure verse. It has all the perversity, though none of the slapstick, of those wonderfully preposterous notes Byron attached to The Giaour. Reading this note, one wants to reprise what Byron wrote in Don Juan of Coleridge’s obscure “metaphysics”: “Explaining his poetics to the nation, / We wish he’d annotate his annotation” (see Don Juan, “Introduction” II).

And we could annotate Byron’s annotation, as various editors have. But if we did, the original textual problems would scarcely be removed. All the words in the passage still preserve—indeed, they positively “fulfill”—their “dubious import.” Certainly, we recognize that Pausanias and Cleonice are being offered as types to Manfred’s and Astarte’s antitypes, but after we make that equation our reflections on the ancient historical episode that Byron elliptically lays out simply run free. “Dubious import”? I guess so! The two sources Byron cites, Plutarch and Pausanias the Sophist, tell very different versions of the story. As we pause over a glorious phrase like “Arcadian Evocators,” we might well think—or hear—the passage itself as evocative.

Verse and note are alike seriously provocative, inviting us to search out the relevance of Byron’s recollected tale. But the language of the passage is such that it erects a kind of maze from its flagrant language. Where to begin researching those particulars? Suppose we bracket out everything but the central event, the murder of Cleonice, what do we get? This is what Byron’s records—not Byron’s note—tell us. Pausanias has taken Cleonice, a princess of Bithynia, for his mistress. When she comes at night to his chamber, she accidentally overturns the lamp that was burning at his bedside. In the darkness he awakes startled and, thinking she is an enemy, kills her with his sword, “unknowing what he slew” (II.ii.186). Although the scene vaguely recalls what we were told of Astarte’s death, it is the bedside lamp—unmentioned in Byron’s verse or prose note—that leaps to attention, taking one back to the very opening line of Manfred: “The lamp must be replenish’d”!

To register that odd nexus, to make the connection that is at once hidden and invited, produces a seriously uncanny effect. Were the deaths of Cleonice and Astarte in some unrecognized sense Manfred’s fatality, the condition holding him—before the play or even his life began—to his “enduring” vigil? Manfred seems a play of language in which secrets lie about everywhere, awaiting—seeking—discovery. This passage fairly defines how Manfred repeatedly “send[s] us prying into the abyss” of its seductive intimations (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage IV.166).

The first person to annotate Byron’s annotation was Goethe, who was interested because he knew Manfred had been composed with his own Faust (Part I) in mind. We’ve already heard Peter Manning’s brilliant remarks on Goethe’s misreading, but I return to Goethe now because his commentary illuminates why Byron found Goethe’s famous poem the perfect vehicle for roughing up the Western myth of Faust.

Goethe begins with fulsome praise for what he calls the “wonderful phenomenon” of Manfred, “Byron’s tragedy”: ‘This singular intellectual poet has taken my Faustus to himself, and extracted from it the strangest nourishment for his hypochondriac humour. He has made use of the impelling principles in his own way, for his own purposes, so that no one of them remains the same; and it is particularly on this account that I cannot enough admire his genius. (qtd. in Works V:506-7)


Byron heard of Goethe’s 1820 review of Manfred and asked Richard Belgrave Hoppner to make a translation of it for him. It is printed by R. E. Prothero in his edition of The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals (London, 1901) V. 506-507.

’ Searching through “the alterations [Byron] has made” to his poem, Goethe recognizes in Manfred “the quintessence of the most astonishing talent born to be its own tormenter.” Seeing that, admiring it, he then confesses his “dissatisfaction” with Manfred, judging “that the gloomy heat of an unbounded and exuberant despair becomes at last oppressive to us.”


As Peter Manning has pointed out in his essay from this volume, however, Goethe’s view is based on a comically mistaken piece of gossip about Byron’s personal sin and guilt. Completely absorbed in Byronic mythology, Goethe writes that ‘When a bold and enterprising young man, he won the affections of a Florentine lady. Her husband discovered the amour, and murdered his wife; but the murderer was the same night found dead in the street, and there was no one on whom any suspicion could be attached. Lord Byron removed from Florence, and these spirits haunted him all his life after. ’ Guess what? That would be a mashup of the stories of The Giaour, The Corsair, and Lara set in Italy! Believing the Florentine tale to be true, Goethe goes on to argue that the Pausanias and Cleonice passage reflects Byron “select[ing] a scene from antiquity, appropriat[ing] it to himself, and burden[ing] his tragic image with it.” Byron was much amused by Goethe’s fantasy.

Yet in one obvious sense, Goethe is correct. Byron did select and burden his poem and his hero with that tale from antiquity. But Goethe’s reading misfires not so much because it is so badly misinformed about Byron’s actual life. It misses its mark because Manfred is about as far from what Goethe repeatedly calls it, a “tragedy,” as that famous “Greatest Story Ever Told” hovering in Manfred’s background. Although guilt and suffering are the pivot points of both stories—Jesus is crucified and Manfred, like Ahab, has “a crucifixion in his face”—their finales are in the strictest sense comic.

Many have understandably glossed Manfred’s climactic scene with the closing lines of his poem “Prometheus,” Byron’s pastiche of a chorus from Aeschylus’s lost play Prometheus Unbound: “Triumphant where it dares defy / And making death a victory” (58-9). But Manfred does not actually conclude in a posture of triumphant defiance. That moment comes in the poem’s penultimate scene, when the demons are dismissed. The finale comes afterwards and centers in Manfred’s famous, even complacent, last words: “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.” After the fitful fevers of his life, Manfred expects to sleep well.

Most telling, Manfred’s last words echo St. Paul’s gloss on the meaning of the life of Jesus, a tale whose argument is “that ye put off . . . the old man . . . and put on the new man” (Ephesians 4: 22-24). Christian theology regards the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a fundamentally comic action, a view gloriously represented in Dante’s Divina Commedia. Manfred is a comic action as well, but, being a kind of parody of the Christian story, it also involves a series of comical texts that help to build up the insidious, truly Nietzschean, joke on which Manfred concludes. The last state of Manfred is far different from the first.

Manfred, Goethe said, “closely touched me,” and it is easy to see that Faust Part II marshals an argument against the “unbounded and exuberant despair” that he found so “oppressive” in Manfred. We know that in December 1816 Goethe had sketched out a plan for Part II, but that plan did not indicate exactly how Part II would end. It seems that reading Manfred in 1817, which Goethe did, set him on his course to bring Faust to the redemption he receives in Part II Act V when angels “bear Faust’s immortal essence” into heaven. The redeemed Faust is exalted because his struggles have purified him:

Pure spirits’ peer, from evil coil
He was vouchsafed exemption;
"Whoever strives in ceaseless toil,
Him we may grant redemption."
And when on high, transfigured love
Has added intercession,
The blessed will throng to him above
With welcoming compassion. (I.1934-41)

As Goethe told Eckermann in 1831, he wanted Part II to move beyond the tragic action of Part I—he saw Part I as a tragedy—to install a poetic conception that “harmonizes perfectly with our religious views; according to which we can obtain heavenly bliss, not through our strength alone, but with the assistance of divine grace.”


Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, John Oxenford, trans. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1875), 554.

I bring up Goethe and Part II of Faust in order to spell out the sharp differences between their respective comedies. In a late letter Goethe said that Part II was organized around a set of “very seriously intended jests (Scherzen).”


The matter is discussed in Herman Meyer, “'These Very Serious Jests,'” reprinted in the first (1976) Norton Critical Edition of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's Faust. A Tragedy, op. cit. ed., 603-615.

These enable the work’s economy of grace and the redemption of Faust. But the comedy of Manfred is different—indeed, it is deeply irreverent. Manfred has no interest in either atonement or redemption (“What I have done is done”). He rejects both as clearly as had Byron throughout his life.

What has happened in Byron’s poem that has brought Manfred to his peaceful death? Consider again the Pausanias and Cleonice passage, in this case the opening lines:

I have one resource
Still in my science—I can call the dead,
And ask them what it is we dread to be:
The sternest answer can but be the Grave,
And that is nothing.

Though Manfred indeed has “no natural fear” (I.i.25), though he is proud and defiant in face of all circumstance, he is nonetheless wracked by fear. Indeed, he sees his life’s purpose not to overcome but exactly to “champion human fears” (II.ii.205).

So, what is it “that we dread to be,” that Manfred dreads to be, and that he means to champion? He calls the dead, Astarte, to find out. The consequence of their interview at the end of Act II, and of Manfred’s fearfully tormented prayer to her, is the entirely untormented Act III. The psychic change in Manfred is dramatic. We know, we can see, what has happened: in the end, Manfred has no fears at all, natural or unnatural. We want to know why. What is it that we’re not seeing?

It helps to recall that Astarte declares “Manfred” the “one word for mercy.” In addition, it helps to parse the cunning wordplays in “what it is we dread to be . . . that is nothing.” One can scarcely not think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy and the “consummation devoutly to be wished” that Hamlet could not, however, commit to. Before his interview with Astarte, Manfred dreads to be mortal and therefore finally “nothing.” Manfred’s is the Faustian fear to be mortal, simply to be Manfred: unpurified, unatoned, unredeemed, and—finally—“gone”: “of the earth, earthy,” and then at last—to appropriate and shift the Abbot’s final word—“earthless.”

A letter Byron wrote in 1819 to Richard Hoppner helps to gloss the meaning of the Byronic “mercy” exposed in Manfred. Visiting Bologna, he stopped at the Certosa Cemetery and was deeply moved by the epitaphs engraved on the tombs of Martini Luigi and Lucrezia Pinini: “implora pace,” “implora eterna quiete”. “It appears to me,” he wrote, “that these two and three words comprise and compress all that can be said on the subject—and then in Italian they are absolute Music” (BLJ VI:147). That would be the absolute music of, say, Don Giovanni, not the Music of the Spheres.

The comedy of Manfred has set the agenda for the soon-to-be-written Beppo and Don Juan. One thinks of Byron’s cheeky reply to John Murray’s request to give up Don Juan and write “a great work,” something serious—an “epic”! ‘I'll try no such thing; I hate tasks. And then “seven or eight years!” God send us all well this day three months, let alone years. . . . You have so many “divine” poems, is it nothing to have written a human one? without any of your worn-out machinery? (April 6, 1819, BLJ VI:105)’ Manfred has a lot of worn out poetical—and religious—machinery. Indeed, the whole point of Manfred was to give that machinery its final quietus. Reading it in 1817, Murray and his editorial committee were uneasy, and especially with the outrageous comedy of the original third act where the Abbot is manhandled by Astarte’s dark double, Ashtaroth, who carries him off singing a profane jingle. They begged him to rewrite it, and he did. But, by 1819, Byron was no longer open to such pleas, having seen the first two cantos of Don Juan expurgated without his knowledge or permission.

And yet perhaps Manfred was improved by taking out those Monty Python hijinks. The work’s impious argument loses none of its force, or comic charm, for being better mannered.


1. This lecture/essay carries forward the extensive discussion of the medley style of Manfred from my earlier lecture/essay “Byron and Wordsworth” (Nottingham: Byron Foundation, U. Of Nottingham, 1999), reprinted in my selected essays of Byron and Romanticism, ed. James Soderholm (Cambridge UP, 2002). [back]
1. The drawing is the cover design for Burnett’s illustrated edition of my Byron’s Manfred an acting version of the work I made in 2008 that was published by Burnett’s Pasdeloup Press in 2009. [back]
2. Burns supplies good instances of the Scots usage—for instance in “Tam O’Shanter” , 141. [back]
3. Byron heard of Goethe’s 1820 review of Manfred and asked Richard Belgrave Hoppner to make a translation of it for him. It is printed by R. E. Prothero in his edition of The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals (London, 1901) V. 506-507. [back]
4. Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, John Oxenford, trans. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1875), 554. [back]
5. The matter is discussed in Herman Meyer, “'These Very Serious Jests,'” reprinted in the first (1976) Norton Critical Edition of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's Faust. A Tragedy, op. cit. ed., 603-615. [back]