Freemasonry and Mental Theatre in Manfred

This essay explores Byron’s Manfred as an allegory of Freemasonry, arguing that ecological or existential interpretations of the play must still account for the various forms of worship (Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian) addressed.

Freemasonry and Mental Theatre in Manfred [1] 

1.        The writers and political figures Byron most admired—Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and George Washington—were all Freemasons. He admired them because of their talent and their moral outlook. Byron praises Franklin for his letters on religious toleration, for example, and holds up Washington as an example of self-effacing civic leadership in “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte” (1814). Yet Byron’s relationship to the craft was at least as complex as Benjamin Franklin’s. The unlikely name Franklin adopted of “Silence Dogood” (Van Doren 21) concealed Benjamin Franklin’s more lascivious and libertine ways: his erstwhile marriage to Deborah Read (Van Doren 50), his illegitimate son William (Van Doren 91), pornography collection, sexual advice column, and 16-day visit to the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood in October 1772, when Dashwood led the Hellfire club, or Medmenham monks (Van Doren 437). Franklin conversed with Byron’s grandfather about the Patagonians (Van Doren 357). Unlike Franklin, however, Byron enjoyed making himself appear worse than he was, quite the opposite conduct of a Mason. Byron inherited his interest in masonry from William Byron, the fifth Baron Byron (1722-1798), the uncle of George Gordon (our poet) and the one who shot Mary Chaworth’s father. That such a man could also become master of a Masonic lodge proved to some the depths to which masonry had fallen (Bullock 11). Nevertheless, this same uncle of George Gordon, the Sixth Lord, defended a man tortured by the Portuguese inquisition and took principled stands on political issues of the day (Walker 126). Appearances could be deceiving. Man was “Half-dust, half-deity,” to use the language of Manfred, alike unfit “to sink or soar” (I.ii.40-1).

2.        In several quotations from “The Vision of Judgment,” Byron treated masonry facetiously, mocking the back stairs diplomacy and mysterious mumbo jumbo connected with its practitioners. As a young man, Byron staged lodge-like fraternal meetings at Newstead Abbey in imitation of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Medmenham Monks, where he would sip wine from a human skull, a ritual specified in the Royal Arch ceremony and several Carbonari rituals, and one which may well have been practiced by his great-uncle who built Folly Castle at Newstead. (Moore 142). Charles Skinner Matthews noted how he kept a wolf and a bear at Newstead, in separate rooms, and his friends dressed in monkish masquerade (Moore 142). Yet this appearance of wickedness concealed a passion for moral self-improvement: the villainous libertine and notorious womanizer, seducing the wives of his close friends, such as James Webster, joined a Masonic lodge in Ravenna and became the unlikely patron of Italian and Greek independence. Masonry seems a strange master ritual for Manfred, whose name connects him to the gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, but perhaps it is not so strange after all. Which side will Manfred join after evoking three sets of spirits, the Witch of the Alps, and the Abbot? Good or evil? What I hope to show in the pages that follow is that the play neither rejects Western dualism (man/nature; good/evil) nor critiques radical autonomy, but rather embraces Freemasonry as a unifying national and trans-national force, a vehicle for social improvement relatively free of cant.

3.        It might be helpful to begin with a definition: “Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that purports to ‘make good men better’ by teaching them a number of moral precepts through a complex and secret brand of symbolism and ritual” (Gunn 247). If Freemasonry is a form of theatre, then there is a theatrical aspect to Masonic initiation, alluded to explicitly in Act 3, that might be connected to Byron’s forays into mental theatre in Manfred. In Act 3 of Manfred, for example, the hero calls for a “casket” and a “key” (objects used in Masonic ceremonies) (III.i.5), but rejects magic, Manichaeism, the occult, the Witch of the Alps, and Arimanes; he accepts Freemasonry, which embraces all religions, repudiating the Abbot with his narrow notions of doctrinal religion, and returns his body to Nature by propelling himself off a mountain.

4.        Washington, Franklin, and other Enlightenment figures submitted themselves to a theatrics of self-improvement, as did Byron with the Carbonari in 1818. In most Masonic initiation ceremonies, such as Washington’s, the inductee is led into a room blindfolded (Hodapp 23). He utters a catechism. At the end of the ceremony, the blindfold is removed. Light symbolizes enlightenment. Various symbols are learned as mnemonic devices of the Mason’s rebirth. The tracing board and knotted rope become symbols of thorny problems that must be untied; the drinking from the skull of Christ, in the 32-degree ceremony, all demonstrate the power of moral edification through gesture, movement, and ceremony.

5.        According to the ceremony involved in becoming a Master Mason, the death of Hiram Abif, a murdered architect who helped build the temple of Solomon, is ritually re-enacted through the act of initiation. He knew the secret Mason’s word, died to be reborn, and his death reminds us that Freemasonry is connected with building not only pyramids, nations, and religions, but also moral human beings (Bullock 11). As Hiram prayed daily for guidance from his God before drawing the designs that would set the craftsmen to work, so must we. Each Master Mason becomes his own architect. Each supervises the building of that temple not made by hands, but by Yahweh (“I am that I am,” as he is known in the Hebrew bible). In Manfred, the hero actually repeats the Old Testament statement, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14), which has been adopted “in the higher Degrees of the York, American, and several other Rites” (Mackey II:326):

Look upon me! for even of all these things
Have I partaken; and of all these things,
One were enough; then wonder not that I
Am what I am, but that I ever was,
Or having been, that I am still on earth. (I.iii.149-53)
Like Freemasons themselves, each unique Masonic apron (even Washington’s or Burns’s) is a testament to its owner’s belief in a life well lived in brotherhood with other like-minded men. Freemasonry is not a religion; the fraternity of Freemasonry embraces all religions. Alexander Pope, perhaps the greatest poetic influence on Byron and the figure he most often defended, spoke as an enlightened Mason when he published The Temple of Fame in 1715. He refers to Egyptian temples, suggesting that their columns, walls and altars exemplified architectural perfection. In the “Universal Prayer, completed in 1738, Pope suggests ethical views resembling those of Freemasonry. He maintains that humans utilize reason to develop their spiritual temples and are benevolent, just, and tolerant in their relations with others” (Weisberger 52). “Before the conclusion of the Master Mason Degree, the candidate was told to seek the lost word during his travels. Known only by Hiram, this word was associated with the Attributes of Deity. Symbolized by the All-Seeing Eye, the Supreme Architect was described to the candidate as being Omnipotent and Omniscient” (Weisberger 34). Traditionally, the movement of the mason is from darkness to light, symbolized by the blind-fold he wears and that is dramatically removed. “After ending his travels, the candidate was given an oath, had his blindfold removed, and was provided with light and with the teachings of the first degree. The candidate was informed that the lodge represents Nature and society and that his efforts should be devoted to understanding their laws and operations” (Weisberger 33). According to Margaret Jacob, “American orators spoke of the Copernican sun that unified and Enlightened’ the universe and bound it together `by the powerfully attractive influence of the Divine Principle of Friendship, Affection and Knowledge’” (146). Weisberger notes how “The Fellow Craft Degree especially embodied Enlightenment concepts and revealed the commitment of Modern Masonry to education. The Master of the lodge told the candidate that he was a fellow of the Masonic society, was expected to be benevolent and virtuous, and was to follow the light of knowledge” (34).

6.        Manfred reverses the conventional direction of the Masonic initiative. Manfred goes from light toward darkness and finally toward self-oblivion, as in Beckford’s Vathek, where Solomon’s temple becomes “Soliman’s” (Beckford 247-49). I see this not as a critique of “the radical autonomy of the Byronic hero in this dramatic poem’s exploration of isolation, incest, and irreligion” (Dan White, Broadview, back jacket) or even as a celebration of it (Hubbell 17), but more as a restaging of Masonic ceremonies of self-improvement in and through nature (something like Byron’s pantheistic poem, “The Prayer of Nature”) (Moore 89). The nature Byron alludes to in Manfred, however, is a nature radically un-Wordsworthian, as Timothy Morton has shown (Morton 158, 161). The problem with ecological readings of Byron’s play, beyond their presentism, however, is that they do not account for the direct engagement with forms of religion (Christian, Muslim, and Persian). Religion, after all, and the religious injunction against suicide, is what Byron’s mental drama is also, if not only, about. Here Madame de Staël’s “Essay on Suicide” might be more helpful than Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness,” especially since Madame de Staël was living across Lake Leman the very summer Byron wrote the play and Byron met her on more than one occasion (Morton 159). “She has made Copet as agreeable as society and talent can make any place on earth,” he told John Murray (Marchand 2:659). Even Hamlet, the work from which Byron borrows the play’s epigraph, might be more useful than either Hegel or De Staël, for it directly raises the existential question of whether to be or not to be, and how.

7.        Manfred sees beyond the narrow world of simple-minded friends who console him, the Chamois Hunter and the Abbot. “There is more in the world than is dreamt of in your philosophy,” the epigraph reads, echoing Hamlet’s address to Horatio. Building on Alan Richardson’s careful tracing of Byron’s debts to Macbeth and Paradise Lost in Manfred, I would like to argue for Hamlet’s relevance, since Hamlet treats the ghostly presence of a murdered father and explores how ghosts influence the hero (Mental Theatre 48, 56). Manfred’s counterpart to Hamlet’s father is Count Sigismund. The theme of magic recalls Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, one of Byron’s favorite books, and one that deals directly with the connection between spirits, melancholia, and the act of reading (Moore 81). Manfred thus shares alchemical and Rosicrucian, not to say Masonic, interests with the seventeenth century Scottish spy and alchemist, Robert Moray; Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” (1712); Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s Rosicrucian novel, The Sylph (1779), which quotes Pope in its epigraph and title; Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791); William Godwin’s St. Leon, or the Rosicrucian (1799); Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (1810), which was influenced by Godwin’s novel; and the opening scene from Goethe’s Faust, which was developed in three sections until finally published in 1806 (1772-1775; 1790; 1806). Manfred is very much a poem or play of its day and reflects these literary works that treat the importance of Freemasonry as a revolutionary political movement.

8.         In 1819-1820, when he became involved with the Masonic lodge of the “’mericani” and the Carbonari (Eisler 670), Byron embarked on a course of Masonic “do-gooding,” which had begun in the House of Lords, continued in Italy, and ended in Greece (Gross, “A Poetic Revolutionary” 217, 227). At this time, Byron began to deliberately misspell his publisher’s name, changing Murray to Moray. The allusion, unremarked upon in footnotes to Leslie Marchand’s letters, can be traced thanks to David Stevenson’s The Origins of Freemasonry. Byron’s deliberate misspelling of Murray’s name most likely alludes to Robert Moray, Scottish occultist, diplomat, and spy for Charles II (1667), the royal family for whom Byron’s ancestors had fought. Moray is a Scottish Faust. As Stevenson notes, his interest in Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, alchemy, and symbols typifies the sort of late Renaissance influences which had given birth to Scottish freemasonry in the era of William Schaw (102). This era folded occult studies into Christianity and recognized that esoteric knowledge could augment and explain Christian scripture, though its meanings should not be made accessible to everyone.

9.         Robert Moray reads the pentacle as an anagram spelling “Agapa” (Stevenson 173). “This character of Hyeroglyphick, which I call agapa, is famous amongst the Egyptians and Grecians,” Moray explains. “For the Egyptian part of it I remit you to Kircherus books…The Greekes accounted it the symbol of health and tranquillity.” Having explained “Agapa’s relationship to the pentacle, Moray then used that word as the basis for an acrostic which he wrote out for his correspondent:

Agapa (“he loves” or “love thou”)
Gnothi (an imperative “know” or “gain knowledge”)
Anecho (“remain constant” or “endure”)
Pisteuei (“he puts his trust in” or “he has faith in”)
Apecho (“Abstain” or “exercise restraint”)” (Stevenson 174)
Moray thought that his pentacle was a sign of health that exhibited God’s love (Agapa, or Agape). Henry Cornelius Agrippa illustrated the pentacle with five Greek letters round it in his famous De Occulta Philosophia of 1533. That Manfred would also make use of imagery in his evocation of the spirits (Astarte as star) and in the opening of Act III seems fitting, since Manfred connects Astarte to another five-letter word, “Kalon” (III.i.13). The same summer that Byron started Manfred, Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, which makes much use of the Faust legend, Rosicrucianism, Agrippa’s writings, and other aspects of the occult explored by her father’s Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon (1799).

10.        For Masons, the pentagram recalls the five points of fellowship:

[T]he figure five, often expressed as a pentacle, was widely regarded symbolically as referring to man by depicting his five extremities (head and limbs), and could also stand for the five wounds of Christ—connotations that may well account for the fact that the points of fellowship in freemasonry number five… Moray expounded the pentacle as a personal symbol standing for Agapa, but he also accepted other levels of symbolic meaning, as when it was equated to stars. (Stevenson 175)
Moray thought that his pentacle was a sign of health that exhibited God’s love (Agapa, or Agape), but there is nothing healthy about Astarte, the star that rules Manfred’s destiny. Astarte, “thy star,” appears to Manfred in the form of a pentagram, a star with occult significance (I.i.134). The reference is ambiguous: the stage direction tell us that “a star is seen at the darker end of the gallery” (51); we do not know by whom (the audience, Manfred?) and later we are told that “The star which rules thy destiny / Was ruled, ere earth began, by me” (a spirit, that rules a star) (I.i.110-1). Inverted, this pentagram, connected with Astarte, can be an Eden, in pre-lapsarian terms, or hell, a sign of the devil. The “lovelier star,” the seventh spirit’s words (which rules over this spirit of Astarte), becomes a comet and then the “monster of the upper sky!” (I.i.115-23). In Moray’s life “the star is Moray’s dead wife, now in the heavens, the seal a declaration of his continuing love” (Stevenson 178).

11.         In Goethe’s Faust, a folded pentagram allowed Mephistopheles to enter and leave Faust’s study, in order to tempt him (I.1063-70). Like the five-lettered “Agape,” Astarte also works numerically. Both Astarte and Augusta are words with 7 letters (IV:1.1.110-31), a number with magical significance (“Seven”). Though Manfred naively assumes that all seven spirits are under his control, he comes to realize that six of the male spirits—Manfred addresses each as “him”—are subordinate to the seventh, that of woman; in fact, “mountain” and “night” are added as spirits for no other reason than to complete the anagram of woman (White and Beazel 18-9). The first letters of “ocean, air, night, mountains, winds” when re-arranged spell “w-o-m-a-n,” and “earth” and “star” are left over. Woman’s power is shown by the fact that the Witch of the Alps bargains with Manfred’s soul to lead him to Arimanes: not unlike Caliph Vathek’s arrival at the Hall of Eblis in Beckford’s Vathek.

12.        Masons believe that geometry represents the craft and that all six arts are subordinate to this all-important principle of measurement: geometry. “The seven liberal sciences or arts, as defined by classical authors, were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy…all seven sciences were founded on one science, that of geometry,” as Stevenson explains (20). That Byron’s wife was an “amiable mathematician”—the “Princess of Parallelograms”– explains why this seventh spirit in the form of a woman is so powerful (February 6, 1814, BLJ IV:47). On October 28, 1816 Byron described Annabella as “formed for my destruction”; in a letter to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, she is like Manfred’s “comet” (Augusta becomes Annabella, and finally a kind of sky-“monster”) (BLJ V:119). He had finished Manfred only a few months before. “I loved her, and destroy’d her” could be said of both Augusta and Annabella (II.ii.117). Though he claims he has polluted Astarte, he also suggests why this is not so. One man’s incest is another man’s religion, as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters shows, the text where the names Astarte and Aspheridon are first employed.

13.        Montesquieu’s Persian Letters encouraged Byron to think about ethics deontologically: that is to say, not in terms of consequences but in terms of the acts themselves. In Manfred, Byron uses the religion of the Gabars, as Montesquieu had done in Persian Letters, to view incest not as a taboo, but as a cultural practice. “What can you expect from a religion which makes you unhappy in this world and gives you no hope for the next?” Astarte’s brother asks Aspheridon in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. He continues to suggest that Magism precedes Islam and thus has a greater authority:

Songez que la nôtre est la plus ancienne qui soit au monde ; qu'elle a toujours fleuri dans la Perse, et n'a pas d'autre origine que cet empire, dont les commencements ne sont point connus ; que ce n'est que le hasard qui y a introduit le mahométisme ; que cette secte y a été établie, non par la voie de la persuasion, mais de la conquête. Si nos princes naturels n'avaient pas été faibles, vous verriez régner encore le culte de ces anciens mages. Transportez−vous dans ces siècles reculés : tout vous parlera du magisme, et rien de la secte mahométane, qui, plusieurs milliers d'années après, n'était pas même dans son enfance. (Ibben to Usbek, Letter LXVII, p. 232)
Remember that ours (Magism, or Zoroastrianism) is the oldest religion in the world, that it has never ceased to flourish in Persia, and that it originated with the Persian empire, the beginnings of which are unknown; that it was only by chance that the religion of Mohammed was introduced, and that his sect established itself not by persuasion, but by conquest. If it were not for the weakness of our rightful princes, you would see the religion of the ancient magi still in force. If you go far back into the past, what you will hear everywhere is the voice of Magism, not of the Islamic sect, which several thousand years later was not even in its infancy. (Ibben to Usbek, Letter LXVII, p. 139)
According to this reading, Byron’s exploration of Magism in Manfred allows him to transvalue Christian morality, as he had done in Hebrew Melodies, and as Beckford does in Vathek. Byron does not critique “Western Dualism” (my italics) in Manfred, for the play locates Manichaeism in Eastern religions as well (Hubbell 11). Manfred shows Byron emancipating his hero from institutionalized religion altogether, as he hoped to do through his activity with the Carbonari and in Manfred’s rejection of the Abbott’s consolations. “For some, and Moray [see below] was evidently among them, the social bond provided by membership of a masonic lodge, provided a substitute bond to that of organised religion, with strong ethical overtones and ritual to replace, or more than replace, that present in protestant public religion” (Stevenson 186). Byron held this emancipated position as early as 1811, five years after he had penned “The Prayer of Nature” (Moore 88). “I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all,” he wrote to the amiable Francis Hodgson on September 3, 1811, “but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean . . . Zoroastrian, than one of the seventy-two villainous sects who are tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other” (BLJ II:89). Without proclaiming himself a “stupid atheist” or “irreligious libertine” (to use the language of the Masonic “Charges” that dated from 1723, chapter one, p. 48), Byron refuses to subscribe to one religious sect, for he sees Zoroastrianism as pre-dating them all (Manfred is later dubbed “A Magian of great power” [II. iv.31]). “Let me live well if possible, and die without pain,” he concluded in his letter to Hodgson; “The rest is with God” (BLJ II:89). Byron’s refusal to engage in religious dissension in his letters with Hodgson is strikingly Masonic. As James Anderson’s “Constitution of the Freemasons” (1723) states, “But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ‘tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinion to themselves, that is, to be good Men and true . . . by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d” (“The Charges of a Freemason”). Benjamin Franklin published this volume in 1734 in the United States.

14.        Taking this deontological and deistic stance a step further, following Franklin and other Masons, Manfred visits Arimanes. The play moves from the Christian gothic setting that opens the play to another hell, a Persian one, the Hall of Eblis, to use the term William Beckford employs (and from which Byron borrows). The stage direction at the beginning of Act II, scene iv states: “The Hall of Arimanes–Arimanes on his throne, a Globe of Fire, surrounded by the Spirits” (CPW II.iv.473). Yet, when all is said and done, Manfred’s shocking journey, like Vathek’s, resembles nothing so much as a tedious lodge ceremony; worse still, the Eastern mysteries appear to be nothing more than a kind of Christian baptism. More unites these fellowship ceremonies than divides them. As Matthews notes of Newstead Abbey, Byron’s friends engaged in unspeakable acts, which involved little more than nibbling on sandwiches and reading books (Moore 142).

15.        In Act II, Manfred visits a pre-historic (in fact, Persian) hell connected with stars and the sky, a mental theatre or Masonic embracing of all religions, though in inverted, Persian form. Byron borrows allusions to Arimanes and the Hall of Eblis from Beckford’s Vathek, just as he borrowed the name Manfred from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, who was an excommunicated (1254) King of Sicily (1258-1266) (Montague 23). In Vathek, characters who worship the pre-Adamite Sultans wander around with hearts on fire in their chests, like the somewhat variable iconography of the Rosicrucians, from which Freemasonry was an outgrowth. “The Rosicrucians took their name from the supposed founder of their order or brotherhood, Christian Rosenkreutz, or `Rosy Cross’ . . . It would also immediately recall the coat of arms adopted by Martin Luther, a rose with a cross emerging from it, thus specifying that the movement was a Protestant one which strove for religious reform in the tradition of Luther—though it was not narrowly and exclusively bound to Lutheranism” (Stevenson 97). From ancient times, the rose was also a symbol of Aphrodite or Venus, and all acts of love that are sub rosa or hidden (Stevenson 97). In Manfred, these Masonic allusions are to Persia, Germany, and Greece, Englished, as it were. Arimanes “derives his name from Ahriman, the Principle of Darkness and Evil” in Zoroastrian mythology (McGann , CPW IV:473). Having chosen to remove the “H” from Arimanes for example, Byron dabbles in orientalist themes, as portrayed by the freemason Montesquieu, without committing himself to the Persian religion, German Lutheranism, or the Greek worship of Aphrodite. Manfred is not a Christian but a “Magian of great power” (II.iv.31); “Aphridon,” as Richardson points out, describes his religion as Magisme, “le culte de ces anciens Mages” (Richardson 143). “Although the poem’s pervasive dualism ("half-dust, half-deity” [1.ii.40]) seems reason enough for Byron to have introduced Zoroastrianism into Manfred, it is nevertheless helpful to have in Montesquieu’s connection of sibling incest with “Magisme” another ground for the initially startling appearance of a Persian deity set mainly in the Alps” (22). Since Manfred has also addressed Roman gods in the Coliseum passage, and the Greek term “Kalon” earlier in the play (another pentagram type word with five letters), I would argue that there is nothing startling at all in these allusions when we consider the thoroughly Masonic symbolism of the play, which has not been remarked upon before (III.i.13). Manfred’s interest is in “Kalon,” the Greek ideal of perfection and beauty (Broadview 49n2): “leaving that beautiful which still was so,” he says of the Roman Coliseum, “till the place / Became religion, and the heart ran o’er / With silent worship of the great of old” (III.iv.37-39). As Masons suggest, places can “Bec[o]me religion”: there is a direct analogy between the Masonic art of building beautiful buildings and the keeping of secrets necessary for the production of such architecture as pyramids, the Second temple, and the Coliseum.

16.        After the Hall of Arimanes scene with its “Globe of Fire” borrowed from Beckford (II.ii), Manfred continues its parade of Masonic symbols: pentagrams, anagrams, and magical invocations, culminating in “one of the most important symbols of Freemasonry,” the key (Mackey II:384). Herman presents Manfred with the key and casket, symbols of rebirth. The key and the casket are connected not only to the effort to summon Astarte’s spirit, but also with having “a tongue of good report and to abstain from the debasing vices of slander and defamation” (perhaps that is why Astarte, like Annabella, says so little!) (Mackey II:384). Byron’s language resembles a Masonic ceremony: “the Worshipful Master raps his gavel a second time, looks to the candidate and says, `Brother Junior Warden, what is the hour?’ The candidate stands up, but he is usually very confused at this point, because he has no idea what the meaning of the question is. The Worshipful Master raps his gavel again and repeats, `Brother Junior Warden, what is the hour?’” (“Death, Burial and Resurrection”). In his play, Byron uses the language of the Master Mason ceremony in the following exchange to provide a new context for baptism and rebirth:

What is the hour?
It wants but one till sunset,
And promises a lovely twilight
Are all things so disposed of in the tower
As I directed?
All, my lord, are ready
Here is the key and casket. (III.i.1-10)
Casket, key, hour: all are Masonic symbols used in initiation rights, where the apprentice dies (like Manfred will die) to be reborn. Even the position of the sun has Masonic overtones, for the Masonic ceremony makes reference to “a stranger in the South" and also the “stranger to the East."

17.        Furthermore, Byron relies on words (“key,” “casket”), and even rhetorical questions (“what is the hour?”) borrowed from Freemasonry. In the ceremonies of the Masters Degree in the Adonhiramite Rite, for example, the following catechism appears:

What do you conceal?
All the secrets which have been intrusted to me.
Where do you conceal them?
In the heart.
Have you a key to gain entrance there?
Yes, Right Worshipful.
Where do you keep it?
In a box of coral which opens and shuts only with ivory teeth.
Of what metal is it composed?
Of none. It is a tongue obedient to reason, which knows only how to speak well of those of whom it speaks in their absence as in their presence. (Mackey 384)
Speaking well of people is not something Manfred does, per se. Yet his effort to learn such a recalling of his own curses, to borrow the language of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, aligns well with his project of self-annihilation and self-silencing.

18.         In the same way that Moray played with pentagrams, Manfred makes reference to another magical word, “Kalon,” that is also mentioned in Byron’s letters as a youth in the years 1806 and 1807. “If I did not know Philosophy / To be of all our vanities the motliest, / The merest word that ever fooled the ear / From out the Schoolman’s jargon, I should deem / The golden secret, the sought ‘Kalon’ found / And seated in my soul” (III.i.9-14). This Kalon, “seated in my soul,” is almost identical to the secrets that the Master Mason holds in his heart, symbolized by the key Manfred asks for at the opening of Act III and the casket, which symbolizes his rebirth through such secret knowledge. If Philosophy is a “Schoolman’s jargon,” however, where does that leave Freemasonry? In the land of allegory, or mental theater, and self-improvement. Like Hiram Abif’s secret password to build Solomon’s temple, Manfred’s use of key and casket serves to write (or make legible) this five-lettered word “Kalon,” the good, in his soul. Kalon is the key, both literally and figuratively, to the Good 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” (III.i.14-8). Kalon is feeling of Masonic fraternity, something that cannot be noted down, though Manfred intends to do just that; it must be memorized.

19.        Manfred has “One chamber where none enter” (III.iii.7). Count Sigismund kept fellowship in this room, but he differed from his son:

Count Sigismund was proud, but gay and free—
a warrior and a reveler; he dwelt not
With books and solitude nor made the night
a gloomy vigil, but a festal time
Merrier than day; he did not walk the rocks
and forests like a wolf, nor turn aside
From men and their delights. (III.iii.19-24)
The wolf recalls the creature Charles Skinner Matthews encountered when he visited Newstead Abbey, along with a bear, and a group of friends dressed up in masquerade outfits as monks (Moore 143). All separate rooms made Newstead Abbey an inverted Masonic lodge, complete with rituals that recalled the Medmenham Monks of Sir Francis Dashwood, who another Mason, Benjamin Franklin, had visited in 1762. Matthews even called Byron “Abbot” during his visit in 1806. Unlike the tenets of these eighteenth-century fraternal organizations, however, Manfred is decidedly misanthropic: he turns “aside from men and their delights” (III.iii.24) Having rejected science “as but an exchange of ignorance for that / Which is another kind of ignorance,” Manfred embraces no single religion—neither Persian nor Catholic—because Masonry insists on pluralism (II.iv.62-3). Does the G of Freemasonry stand for “God” or geometry? Even this is not specified. “Aye-father! I have had those early visions /And noble aspirations in my youth, / To make my own the mind of other men, the enlightener of nations” (III.i.104-7). Enlightener is the key word, and recalls Byron’s “The Prayer to Nature,” his “Father of light” as well as Masonry’s effort to make the “tongue obedient to reason,” and free of slander (Mackey II:384).

20.         By casting Manfred’s death as a literal suicide, rather than a symbolic one, Byron could well be satirizing the doctrines of Freemasonry (spirits, casket, key) and rebirth. This facetiousness is in keeping with attitudes towards Masonry that appear in The Vision of Judgment and Don Juan. When Byron did join the Americani in Ravenna in 1820—Teresa’s family were already members of the Carbonari, a branch of Freemasonry—he turned what he had once burlesqued, Freemasonry, into something more romantic, reversing the logic of Canto IV of Don Juan (to turn what was once romantic to burlesque) (Eisler 670).

21.         And yet, by seeing the Abbot in Manfred as a self-reference, an inside joke, we can merge the intentions of the cancelled third act, which satirized religion in a heavy-handed way, with the final product that Gifford approved: a more lightly veiled satiric, or comparativist work drawing on Masonic rituals that Franklin, Montesquieu and others would have understood. Byron’s use of Masonic symbols is evident in Matthews’s remembrance of a visit to Newstead Abbey as early as 1806, when Byron first earned the sobriquet of “Abbot.” He wrote: “I must not omit the custom of handing round, after dinner, on the removal of the cloth, a human skull filled with burgundy. After revelling on choice viands, and the finest wines of France, we adjourned to tea, where we amused ourselves with reading, or improving conversation—each, according to his fancy,—and, after sandwiches, &c. retired to rest” (Moore 143). Were “the evening diversions” that Matthews describes edifying and “improving” or debauched? What does seem clear is that Byron, like Sir Francis Dashwood, converted Newstead Abbey into a parody of a Masonic lodge:

Ascend, then, with me the hall steps that I may introduce you to my Lord and his visitants. But have a care how you proceed; be mindful to go there in broad daylight, and with your eyes about you. For, should you make any blunder,--should you go to the right of the hall steps, you are laid hold of by a ear; and should you go to the left, your case is still worse, for you run full against a wolf!—Nor, when you have attained the door, is your danger over; for the hall being decayed, and therefore standing in need of repair, a bevy of inmates are very probably banging at one end of it with their pistols; so that if you enter without giving loud notice of your approach, you have only escaped the wolf and the bear to expire by the pistol-shots of the merry monks of Newstead. (Moore 142)
These merry monks, drinking out of skulls, recall the drinking songs Robert Burns composed (Mackey I:285) and Thomas Jefferson recorded in his scrapbooks (Alderman, mss. 5948): songs of liberty, secret societies that brought about the American and French revolutions according to Bernard Fay, Margaret Jacobs and Stephen Bullock. Matthews walked 25 miles home, recording a memorable, transformative initiation at Newstead Abbey (Moore 142).

22.        Masonry received a more burlesque treatment five years after Manfred was published, in Byron’s The Vision of Judgment. After describing George III’s raucous entry into heaven, singing the 131st Psalm, for example, Byron describes the “damn’d souls” who can move freely about, returning to the “keys” and afterlife imagery he explored in Manfred’s suicide/rebirth:

They are proud of this—as very well they may,
It being a sort of knighthood, or gilt key
Stuck in their loins; or like to an “entre”
Up the backstairs, or such free-masonry:
I borrow my comparisons from clay,
Being clay myself. Let not those spirits be
Offended with such base low likenesses;
We know their posts are nobler far than these (LIV)
Byron’s reference to “back stairs” recalls the fact that Freemasonry lodges in London were often held in taverns which required back stairs to enter. At the same time, his great uncle, Grand Master of Freemasonry, whose name was William Byron, the fifth Lord, met William Chaworth on a back stair, according to court transcripts, and it was this confrontation that led to their duel (Walker 131). That great uncle, “the wicked Lord Byron” (William Byron, the fifth Lord) was perceived as damned despite his Freemasonry. By 1740, the original impetus of speculative Freemasonry within London had worn off, symbolized by the leadership of William, fifth Lord Byron. Elected grand master in 1747 at the age of twenty-five, he attended only three meetings during his five years at the head of the grand lodge—once to be installed, once to suggest a successor, and once to install him” (Bullock 89). Byron recalls his ancestor, specifically his murder of his neighbour on a backstair, in his poem Don Juan. “Such freemasonry,” signaled by the metonym of “backstairs” (or secret societies and clandestine meetings) provides a glancing reference to the fraternity of brothers which is reinforced through enjambment and a preposition (“entre / Up the back stairs”). “Back stairs,” like other double entendres bandied about by Byron’s narrator in Don Juan (Gross, Byron: the Erotic Liberal 129-30), may refer to their reputation as sodomites, preferring male to female companionship. Certainly the “gilt key” they hold resembles the one Manfred asks for in his Masonic ceremony that closes the play. Though he attacks George III and Robert Southey, Byron’s narrator in The Vision of Judgment does not exempt himself from his own satire, for he is a little facetious upon everything: aristocracy, Calvinism, knighthood, and the masonry of his own uncle, William the fifth Lord Byron. St. Peter still holds the rusty keys to the kingdom, after all, and Byron delights in punning on what passes for virtue in a world in which some poets are hubristic enough to imagine that they can praise a King into heaven. After all, the American revolution showed George III as well as the colonies that blind obedience to tyranny never ends well (Bullock 89). Manfred’s suicide, perhaps the least religious or masonic thing he could have done, occurs in a play replete with masonic symbolism. Manfred articulates his existential beliefs, rather than those of any revolutionary brotherhood. “The mind which is immortal makes itself,” as Manfred puts it, “Requital for its good or evil thoughts” (III.iv.130).

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[1]This essay is dedicated to J.B. Yount, former President of the Byron Society of America. My thanks to Jerome McGann for focusing my attention on the casket and key in Act III of Manfred. Special thanks, as well, to Omar F. Miranda for his helpful editing of this essay. BACK