Manfred: Byron's Other Don Juan
Manfred and Don Juan represent antitheses of Byron’s poetic style. However, their overt differences with respect to poetic manner, content, and sensibility obscure their shared thematic material. Observing how the ending of Manfred strikingly resembles the ending of the Don Juan source material leads to an awareness of gender issues underlying both works. Despite the apparent extreme contrast between the personalities and experiences of the poems’ protagonists, both their tales embed a two-part structure, the first part focusing on heterosexual transgression, the culmination, an all-male scene of reckoning.
Manfred: Byron's Other Don Juan
1. Byron completed Manfred in the summer of 1817, just one year before beginning Don Juan, yet the contrast between Byron’s two most remarkable poetic achievements could not be more obvious. Byron, at least, saw it that way, declaring Manfred “too much in my old style,” while Don Juan is in the new “style and manner of Beppo” (BLJ V:185, VII:67). Who could seem more unlike one another than Don Juan and Manfred, and what two story lines could possibly be more dissimilar than theirs as Byron presents them? Loving one woman too much and to the exclusion of all others is ostensibly the fate of Byron’s solitary Alpine brooder; guilt haunts him, and forgetfulness is the one thing he longs for. The hyper-gregarious hero from sunny Spain that Byron adopts for Don Juan is defined by not loving any woman for more than a few fleeting moments; he seems utterly lacking a capacity for guilt, and forgetfulness is the wind beneath his wings. Yet the protagonists of Manfred and Don Juan and their life stories have much in common, as different as they appear to be at first glance. It’s not merely that the poems share a philosophical viewpoint, as one might expect to find in two works by a given author. Peel away a thin layer of their narrative surfaces and deconstruct Byron’s “mock” recasting of the Don Juan source material, and you will find that these two poems share a deep structure: the outline of a common story and central character. 
2. Because Byron’s ironic treatment of the Don Juan source material initially obscures the connection between Don Juan and Manfred, my point of departure is a consideration of Manfred alongside a more straightforward treatment of the Don Juan story well-known in Byron’s day and ever since: namely, Mozart’s incomparable opera Don Giovanni, with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Noting resemblances between the opera and Manfred helps illuminate the fact that, despite how different these poems appear to be, Manfred and Don Juan are two variations on the same plot and the same central character. Indeed, regarding these two poems almost as one continuous work helps illuminate important themes latent in both of them.
3. The culminating scene in Don Giovanni, the Commendatore scene, is one of the most musically thrilling and dramatically powerful scenes in opera. In this scene the Don locks hands with a statue that he has invited to dinner: the statue of the Commendatore whom (in Act I) Don Giovanni killed in a duel after the Commendatore intervened to prevent the Don’s seduction or rape (interpretations vary) of his daughter. The parallels between this scene in the opera and the final scene in Manfred with respect to action, character, imagery, and general atmosphere are immediately obvious. In the opera, the statue repeatedly demands—in a resonant basso profundo and more in anger than sorrow—the Don’s repentance for the dissolute ways of his life; the villain refuses to repent, and he is finally engulfed in the flames of hell, as his servant, Leporello, looks on in terror. In the final scene of Manfred, a larger-than-life, indeed otherworldly, male figure, identified as the Spirit, similarly booms forth his implacable taunts and demands, beckoning Manfred to his final doom, while the Abbot looks on, fearful for Manfred (though not, he claims, for himself). 
4. Thus, both scenes involve three male figures. At the center is the work’s hero (or anti-hero), a charismatic aristocrat, a sexual taboo breaker (if not actual criminal) who remains fearless and unrepentant in his final hour. Next is his antagonist, a supernaturally powerful, older, punishing, or at least challenging, male figure who demands something of the hero: the Commendatore demands the Don’s repentance; the Spirit demands that Manfred go with him. In Manfred, too, there is a plea for the hero’s repentance, which comes from the Abbot in Act III, scene one. The third man present in the scene—Leporello in the opera, the Abbot in Manfred—is an onlooker; lacking the stature both of the hero and of the supernatural figure, he is merely a human being with normal responses, registering, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the terrors that the audience must feel.
5. In addition to the male triangle that structures these scenes, they share other features. Both heroes verbally communicate death’s taking hold of them: Don Giovanni cries out, “What strange tremor now assails my spirits!”;  Manfred observes, “I feel my soul / Is ebbing from me” (III.iv.99-100). Death-related coldness is invoked in both scenes: when Don Giovanni takes the Statue’s hand, he shudderingly exclaims, “Che gelo e questo mai!”; the Abbot, taking the hand of Manfred in his dying moment, observes: “Cold—cold—even to the heart” (III.iv.149). Thus, too, a male handclasp occurs in both scenes. Both works culminate in a terrifying glimpse of the afterlife, and both heroes (or are they villains?) expire supernaturally: that is, from no known bodily cause. Also worth considering is the Abbot’s reference to the Spirit as one of Manfred’s “guests” (III.iii.73). While Manfred does not appear to extend an invitation to the Spirit in the way that Don Giovanni famously invites his “stone guest” to dinner, the verbal echo is resonant: the protagonists’ fate is one they themselves invite—one might say desire. 
6. But the most striking thematic and dramatic similarity between the final scenes of the opera and the play is their emphasis on the hero’s defiance in the face of supernatural threats and conventional moral or religious claims. It’s true that, consistent with the original story and audience tastes, the opera affirms Christian beliefs by presenting a horrified and groaning Don Giovanni swallowed by the terrors of hell, followed by the happy moralizing of the finale (“heaven has avenged us all,” etc.). In this respect the opera presents a distinct contrast with Manfred, whose hero finds it “not so difficult to die,” having denied all supernatural powers, infernal or otherwise, external to the human mind (III.iv.151). Yet the brief display of hellfire at the end of the Commendatore scene (often an occasion for hokey stage effects) feels like an afterthought compared to the thrilling power of the scene leading up to that point. Dramatically and musically, the force of the scene derives from the sudden appearance of the Commendatore, his threatening commands, and the defiance of a fearless man who, even in the face of death and the terrors of hell, refuses to repent:
- Repent; change your ways:It is the ultimate moment.
- DON GIOVANNI
- No, no, For me there is no repentance;Avaunt! away from me.
- Repent, villain.
- DON GIOVANNI
- No, you old fool!
- DON GIOVANNI
- DON GIOVANNI
- COMMENDATORE AND LEPORELLO
- DON GIOVANNI
- No! NO!
- . . . Come! ‘tis time.
- I . . . denyThe power which summons me.
- . . . Come! come!
- . . . Get thee hence!
- Mortal! thine hour is come—Away! I say.
- . . . Away! I’ll die as I have lived—alone.
[Other Spirits rise up.]
- Once more I summon him—Away! away!
- I do defy ye . . .. . . I do defy ye . . .. . . I do defy—deny—Spurn back, and scorn ye!. . . Thou never shalt possess me. . . Back, ye baffled fiends! (III.iv.81-140)
7. That the ending of Don Giovanni—in other words, the classic ending of the Don Juan dramatizations ubiquitous in early nineteenth-century Europe—should bear such striking resemblance to the ending of Manfred might surprise us. After all, in all other respects, as I noted at the outset, the tone and content of Manfred could not seem more unrelated to that of Mozart’s dramma giocosa. Yet since Byron did, as we well know, write a poem utilizing the Don Juan story, observing the classic Don Juan ending in Manfred immediately suggests the possibility of a connection between Byron’s metaphysical drama and his mock epic. The line of connection may be easily discovered by recalling the source for the many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, French, English, and Italian adaptations of the Don Juan tale, El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, the early seventeenth-century play by Tirso de Molina. As its two-part title suggests, Tirso’s drama was very likely an engrafting of two legends: the escapades of a libertine and the story of a statue who comes to dinner and drags the sinner off to hell (Waxman 189). Thus, it’s easy to see how Byron’s Don Juan bears reference to the first part of Tirso’s play, and Manfred to the denouement, which the uncompleted Don Juan does not arrive at (though Candace Tate, in her psychological reading of Don Juan, suggests that Juan’s encounter with the Black Friar, aka the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, at the close of the sixteenth canto, is indeed relatable to Tirso’s and Mozart’s scene of the avenging stone guest ). But the material common to Manfred and Don Juan, as highlighted by their connection to the Don Juan story, is found not merely in the way one work corresponds to the first part of the Don’s adventures, the other to his demise, but in fact is found more broadly throughout both works.
8. To begin with, the heroes of both poems, indeed the poems themselves, represent challenges to authority, religious authority in particular. This is something both works have in common with the Don Juan source material. Tirso’s title identifies Don Juan not as a lover, but as a burlador, a word commonly connoting “seducer,” but, as its etymological relation to burlesque suggests, more literally meaning mocker or trickster. Tirso de Molina was a monk, and his play was intended to ridicule the hypocritical, cheaply purchased repentance that allowed wealthy immoralists to misbehave. Later interpretations have seen in Don Juan’s libertinism and mockery a challenge not merely to a corrupt clergy, but to the taboos themselves, and in some cases to religion itself, when set against human drives and rational understanding. Now, the mocking element is certainly just as strong in Manfred as it is in Don Juan; both works take up cudgels against “cant moral” and “cant religious” (The Works of Lord Byron, V:542). While a comic turn to the satire is overt in Don Juan, the burlesque element of the original version of the third act of Manfred  —as it takes aim at an Abbot who demands, along with Manfred’s repentance, a “gift of all [his] lands / To the Monastery” (CPW IV:468)—reveals a kinship between the spirit of Byron’s somber drama and his “merry” poem (Don Juan IV.39).
9. But beyond the poems’ challenges to religion and traditional mores, reading Manfred in its relation to Don Juan illuminates significant embedded themes that they share. Such a reading begins with the observation that the two-part structure of Tirso’s drama, of its various literary and operatic descendants, and of Manfred is noticeably gendered: women define the content of the first part of the narrative, men the second.  The life of taboo-breaking pleasure focuses on women (or a woman); the scene of fear, threat, punishment and/or triumph is a homosocial scene. An Oedipal triangle? The law of the father? A scene of male bonding? However one interprets it, the legendary Don Juan and Manfred, the first part of whose stories centers on heteroerotics, reach their tragic apotheosis in an all-male world. (Here, by the way, is a distinct departure from Faust, which bears certain resemblances to the legend of Don Juan as it does to Manfred, but which culminates in the lure of the Eternal Feminine.)
10. The contest between men, the agon of son and father, is implicit throughout Don Juan’s escapades with women, not just in the final scene of reckoning. While women are the Don’s obvious target, his misbehavior with them mocks, in the most direct and personal way, the authority of their lovers, husbands, and fathers, the power and laws of men.  Thus, in Don Juan, Juan’s lovemaking first cuckolds an old husband, then undermines a tyrant father, then outwits a sultan, and then takes aim at the English country gentry. Peter Manning, discussing “the ubiquitous and decisive presence of fathers, father figures, and ancestors” in Manfred, observes that “Byron’s pattern of setting Manfred in relief against other male figures culminates in the soliloquy which opens the last scene of the play” (906). In that soliloquy, Manfred recalls standing “within the Coliseum’s wall, / ‘Midst the chief relics of almighty Rome” (III.iv.10-1):
11. To whatever extent Oedipal antagonism underlies the Don’s famed philandering or Manfred’s fateful fidelity, reading any of the Don Juan literature or Manfred without considering how they thematize anxiety about heterosexual love is scarcely possible. Some critics have suggested, in fact, that the mysterious taboo relationship in Manfred—“the deadliest sin to love as we have loved”—is not incest but homosexuality (II.iv.123).  This is an idea worth pursuing in the present context, even if ultimately one prefers not to translate the poem’s mysteries and destabilizing ambiguities into a fixed code with specific references. Astarte is, after all, an obvious mirroring, Manfred’s feminized version of himself:
12. And what is the cause of Astarte’s death? Suicide—presumably over guilt or despair at her incest—is hinted at, and many readers have accepted suicide as the cause of her death and, therefore, of Manfred’s guilt.  But what is Manfred’s—and Manfred’s—explanation of Astarte’s death?
13. Of course, we all know what caused the death of Astarte. It was Byron who caused the death of Astarte, in his dream that he called Manfred. If farewells to women are part of the recurrent imagery in the male fantasy known as Don Juan, they are certainly also a recurrent motif in the poetry of Lord Byron. From "Maid of Athens, Ere We Part" to "So, We’ll go No More A-Roving," Byron’s lyrics repeatedly suggest that pleasure, when it comes to his relationships with women, is ever at its lips bidding adieu.  While Byron is hardly the only poet to have made sweet sorrow of lovers’ farewells, in Byron’s case, not only his poetry but his life was a perpetual illustration of the principle he confided to Hobhouse within three months after beginning his love affair with Teresa Guiccioli: “that a man should not consume his life at the side and on the bosom—of a woman” (BLJ VI:214). Thus, while Manfred self-identifies as the abandoned lover, and readers identify Don Juan as the one who abandons, the outcome for these heroes—one might say the desired outcome— is the same.
14. Citing several references to Manfred’s preoccupation with male power—with serving and swaying—and to his alternating guilt over inadequacy and pride in triumph, Manning concludes that “it may seem strange to suggest that one current of the action is Manfred’s struggle to earn a place in the world of men” (906). Strange or not, that assessment certainly rings true. About "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Karen Swann observed: “We tend to assume that the knight sincerely wants to capture the lady. . . . Focusing on his loss, we fail to notice what he gains at the end of the poem—accession to an all-male community. Could this community, and not the ideal or even the fatal woman, be the true object of his quest?”(90). Focusing on what Manfred identifies as his life-consuming loss, we may fail to notice that his identity is achieved not as a woman’s lover, but in the fantasy of a triumphant contest with powerful male authority figures. In discussing Romantic triangles, Sonia Hofkosh noted that the “male relation, like the masculine subject, is the primary and prior one; the feminine, empty or derivative,” quoting Mary Jacobus’ explanation that “this triangle characteristically invokes its third (female) term only in the interests of the original rivalry and works finally to get rid of the woman” (Hofkosh 102; Jacobus 119). The tales of both Don Juan and Manfred do indeed “get rid of the woman,” and these heroes achieve their end by enormous self-assertion amidst powerful male figures. We might note in passing that the word “love” or “loved” occurs nineteen times in Manfred while “power” or “powers” occurs thirty-nine times.
15. Laurence Lipking has quipped that the “true moral of Don Giovanni, as a libertine might see it, seems far from instructive: raping a daughter is permissible, so long as one does not also kill her father” (46). In fact, the heterosexual misbehavior of the legendary Don Juan should be considered in light of the denouement: an anxiety dream about male identity, performance, and the laws and power of men. Although Byron presents different surface treatments of this theme in Manfred and Don Juan, its outline is visible in both works.
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In this paper Don Juan, italicized, refers to Byron’s poem, pronounced Don Joo-an, while when not italicized, Don Juan should be read as Don Hwan, the protagonist of numerous European works. The relation of the character of Manfred to that of Don Juan, despite their antithetical personalities and life stories, has not gone entirely unnoticed. Romantic literary and musical interpretations of Don Juan in fact show more of an influence of Manfred than of Don Juan. Thus, Svetlana Klimova points out that the hero of A. K. Tolstoy’s Don Juan (1862) “is much closer to the ‘classical Byronic hero’ than to Byron’s Don Juan . . . [and] reveals Tolstoy’s debt not only to Goethe . . . but also to Byron’s Manfred” (344). Thomas Gray, writing about the figure of Don Giovanni in Romantic music, notes “the overwhelming impact of Lord Byron’s literary oeuvre and persona on the collective cultural imagination of Europe in the 1810s and twenties,” but offers the caveat that Byron’s “own epic-satiric poem, Don Juan,” is “one of his few major works entirely unsusceptible to dramatic or operatic adaptation.” Rather, Gray explains, the “unbridled, hedonistic exuberance” of Mozart’s character” is in Romantic works tempered “with new Byronic shadows . . . is suffused with a newly Romantic chiaroscuro,” so that Richard Wagner “carries the brooding Byronization of the Don Juan figure to an extreme in the person of the Flying Dutchman, the doom-driven spectral seducer in search of redemptive quiescence” (78-79). BACK
Despite the obvious and significant similarity between the final scene in Manfred and the Commendatore scene in Don Giovanni, I have found only one reference to it, in Schumann by Eric Frederick Jensen (50). Whether Byron had ever seen Mozart’s Don Giovanni is an open question. The short answer is probably not. Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague in 1787 and had its Italian premier in Rome in 1811, did not receive its London premiere until 1817, after Byron had left England, and was not performed in Venice until 1833 (strange though that seems for an enormously popular opera that, in the first fifty years since its premiere “made its way all around Europe, and as far afield as New York and Calcutta”) (Parakilas 253). That said, Byron revised Act III of Manfred in April and May of 1817, during which time he had left Venice for Rome, traveling through Ferrara, Bologna, and Florence. Regular operagoer that he was, he could possibly have caught a performance of Mozart’s opera while on his travels. It should be noted that the first version of Act III, written in Switzerland, has none of the Don Giovanni elements: no Abbott or Spirit, no scene of Manfred’s repeated rejection and denial. Regardless of whether Byron had seen a complete production in a major opera house of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, he would undoubtedly have been familiar with some version of the statue scene, elements of which found its way into Manfred’s revised third act. For one thing, Da Ponte’s libretto borrowed heavily from a libretto by Giovanni Bertati, which was used in two other Don Giovanni operas frequently performed in Venice. Furthermore, the ubiquity, both in England prior to Byron’s departure and in Italy, of theatrical, balletic, and amateur operatic performances of scenes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, as well as of other Don Juan dramas, make it highly unlikely that Byron would not, at some point, have seen something very much like the Commendatore scene familiar to most of us through Mozart’s opera. As Byron noted of the hero of Don Juan, he is known to us from “plays in five, and operas in three acts,” and “We all have seen him in the pantomime / Sent to the devil, somewhat ere his time” (I: ll. 1620, 7-8). BACK
 Da qual tremore insolito sento assalir gli spiriti! Quotations from Don Giovanni are from the libretto accompanying the CD recording by the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, Paris (CBS, 1979), English translation by Lionel Salter. I have occasionally provided a more literal translation than Salter’s, which was made to correspond to the Italian verse line. BACK
“Stone guest,” the common epithet for the statue in Don Giovanni, derives from El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, the early seventeenth-century play by Tirso de Molina that was the source for later Don Juan dramatizations. BACK
After John Gifford criticized the original third act of Manfred, Byron rewrote it sometime between 25 April and 5 May 1817. It is this revised third act that has been transmitted through all printed editions of the poem. For the original version of Act III, see CPW IV.67-71. BACK
In Don Giovanni, the intense maleness of the Commendatore scene, following the opera’s series of girl-chasing episodes, is hard not to notice, if only with respect to the vocal element. A comment posted at a YouTube recording of the Commendatore scene goes as follows: “There is not a tenor or soprano on that stage. It’s two basses and a baritone going at it. I love this. . . .” BACK
As Marina Warner points out: “In Don Giovanni, as in earlier, Spanish versions of the Don Juan story, women are the immediate objects of the hero’s desire, but the ultimate targets of his exploits are men, the men who hold the women in their keeping: fathers, husbands, fiancés . . . [W]omen are prizes at stake in a struggle for power between men” (94-95). BACK
Bernard Williams writes: “[Don Giovanni] is dependent, dialectically, on social institutions which he rejects—wealth, and the liberty given by class.” Williams quotes Ernst Bloch’s description: “a strangely ambiguous titanism . . . Does he belong fully to the society of the Ancien Régime, as its most ruthless representative, or do we detect in him, in the erotic explosive rebellion, part of a return to nature?” (113). BACK
On Mozart’s ambivalence towards the towering figure of his father and its influence on Don Giovanni, the final scene in particular, see Peter Gay, “The Father’s Revenge.” See also Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life, p. 246. BACK
See Crompton, pages 369-70, notes. G. Wilson Knight considered the “incest motif” in Byron’s life “a red herring” and “that a more important and more consistently motivating secret of Byron’s life lay somewhere within the area of homosexuality” (Lord Byron’s Marriage, as discussed in Elfenbein, 39). We recall, too, that the first appearance of Astarte in the poem comes when a male spirit (“him, / Who is most powerful of ye”) appears “in the shape of a beautiful female figure” (I.i.185ff). BACK
For example, Jerome McGann notes that “some have argued that Byron deliberately left the nature of [his secret] sin vague and mystified. But this is by no means the case, as various early readers show. Reviewing the play in Blackwood’s, John Wilson . . . had no difficulty at all in understanding Manfred’s guilt: ‘. . . Manfred had conceived a mad and insane passion for his sister, named Astarte, and . . . she had, in consequence of their mutual guilt, committed suicide.’ The play is not at all equivocal on these matters” (McGann 15). Elsewhere, however, McGann has written, “Astarte of the play is not Augusta . . . [it] is Manfred’s Fate understood as his destined and inmost Self, his epipsyche,” thus veering away from “not at all equivocal” with respect to the play’s references to incest and his lover’s suicide (CPW 4:467). BACK
An exception is Andrew Elfenbein, who notes that readers “have been tempted to invent histories” for Astarte’s death, and that “[t]he issue is not what happened, but what [Manfred] thinks happened. According to him the cause of her death was not incest but her gazing upon his heart” (39). BACK
The following lines and titles are among Byron’s numerous farewells to women: “Then fare thee well, deceitful maid” ("To—" ["Oh! had my Fate been join’d with thine"], 1807); “Your lover should bid you a lasting adieu” ("To Anne," 1807); “Mary, adieu! I must away” ("Well! Thou Art Happy," 1808); “In flight I shall be surely wise / Escaping from temptation’s snare” ("The Farewell to a Lady," 1808); “And though I bid thee now farewell” ("To Florence," 1809); "On Parting" (1811); “Adieu, dear maid!” ("Love and Gold," 1813); “I only know we loved in vain— / I only feel—Farewell!—Farewell!" ("Farewell! If ever fondest prayer," 1813); "Fare Thee Well!" (1816). The subject of love’s passing is a related topic: "Love’s Last Adieu" (1807); "They Say That Hope Is Happiness" (1814); "Could Love for ever" (1819); "January 22nd 1824. Messalonghi. On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year." Peter Cochran stated it flatly: “The Byronic Hero has no time for women" (Byron and Women [and Men] xlv). BACK