Bicentenary Symposium on Lord Byron’s Manfred
Keynote Address @ New York University
April 21, 2017
Manfred is a very strange work as Nietzsche, perhaps more than anyone, so well understood. Partly it’s strange because it’s a genre mashup, “A Dramatic Poem” that, like Goethe’s Faust, cultivates a medley of tones that constantly shift from grave and exacting reflection to satire and comedy.  Like Oscar Wilde’s Salome, it is a work easier to illustrate than to stage, as Virgil Burnett’s wonderfully sly drawing for Manfred—done in the manner of Beardsley—shows.
Manfred, a Play of Language; or, Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Erring Manhood
1. 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. 
2. 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
– Alan Davies, "Private Enigma in the Opened Text"
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
– Charles Bernstein, "Thought’s Measure"
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. So let’s look closely at Manfred. Consider three famous passages—first, this reflection on Astarte:
6. 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 avouchThe wishes of this mortal?
- Whom wouldst thouUncharnel?
- One without a tomb—call upAstarte. (II.iv.78-83)
7. 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?
8. 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.
9. 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?
10. 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”?
11. Let’s run through some further provoking passages:
- Hast thou further questionOf 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 accordedI now depart a debtor. Fare ye well! (II.iv.162-167)
12. 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.
13. 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).
14. In its most obvious register the Incantation is a curse laid upon Manfred by Manfred himself, as the astonishing sixth stanza makes clear:
15. “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:
- C. HUNTER
- 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)
16. 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.  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).
17. 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: mineHave 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)
- What I have done is done; I bear withinA torture which could nothing gain from thine:The mind which is immortal makes itselfRequital for its good or evil thoughts, —Is its own origin of ill and endAnd its own place and time; its innate sense,When stripped of this mortality, derivesNo 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 beMy own hereafter.— (III.iv.127-40)
18. 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.
19. 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.
- Oh, that I wereThe viewless spirit of a lovely sound,A living voice, a breathing harmony,A bodiless enjoyment— born and dyingWith the blest tone which made me! (I.i.52-5)
20. As if anticipating a reader’s puzzlement, Byron added an explanatory note to clarify the second of those exempla:
21. 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.
22. 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”!
23. 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).
24. 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.
25. Goethe begins with fulsome praise for what he calls the “wonderful phenomenon” of Manfred, “Byron’s tragedy”:
26. 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
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
30. 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 coilHe was vouchsafed exemption;"Whoever strives in ceaseless toil,Him we may grant redemption."
And when on high, transfigured loveHas added intercession,The blessed will throng to him aboveWith welcoming compassion. (I.1934-41)
31. 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).”  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.
32. 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 resourceStill 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.
33. 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?
34. 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.”
35. 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.
36. 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”!
37. 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.
Bernstein, Charles. "Thoughts Measure." Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, Sun & Moon Press, 1986.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome McGann, vol. 4, Clarendon Press, 1986.
---. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie A. Marchand, vol. 5, London: John Murray, 1976.
---. The Works of Lord Byron. Edited by E. H. Coleridge and R. E. Prothero, 13 vols., London: John Murray, 1904.
Davies, Alan. "Private Enigma in the Opened Text." Signage, New York: Roof Books, 1987.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust : a tragedy : backgrounds and sources, the author on the drama, contemporary reactions, modern criticism. Edited by Cyrus Hamlin, translated by Walter Arndt, Norton, 1976.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, 2nd ed., Basil Blackwood, 1958.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: 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
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
 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