Alpine Orientalism in Manfred

Early reviewers of Byron's Manfred were troubled by one of the same features that has piqued the interest of readers and audiences from Byron's time to the present: its relentless and daring religious iconoclasm. Mingling references to Christian beliefs with figures and practices from many different traditions, among them Greek mythology, European witchcraft, and various "Oriental" religions, and seeming to treat them all with equal skepticism, Byron implicitly challenged one of the linchpins of English orthodoxy: the Established Church. In this essay, I pay special attention to the array of references to various Asian or "Oriental" motifs, including Zoroastrianism and Byron's debt to Montesquieu's representation of that religion in his Persian Letters. Manfred is not a work of literary Orientalism, yet its network of Orientalist references made a crucial aspect of its radical contemporary impact.

Alpine Orientalism in Manfred

1.        I begin with a little-known episode in the early reception history of Byron’s Manfred, an episode that reminds us that we can only assume so much about a book’s contemporary audience based on its pricing and print run. Readers, including lower-class readers, will at times show great persistence and ingenuity in getting their hands on a notorious poem or play. [1]  One such reader, the artisan, Chartist agitator, and self-educated writer, Thomas Cooper, records his first exposure to Byron’s poetry when, at age thirteen, he managed to get “only a few hours” access to a canto of Childe Harold and the poetic drama, Manfred, which would have been in print for only about a year. [2]  “I knew nothing of their noble author’s life or reputation,” he continues, “but they seemed to create almost a new sense within me. I wanted more poetry to read from that time; but could get hold of none that thrilled through my nature like Byron’s” (35).

2.         What accounts for this revolution in sensibility in an apprentice shoemaker brought about by a single exposure to a difficult, generically uncertain, and deliberately evasive work? Certainly, Manfred’s iconoclasm would have appealed to the future radical, not least (especially given his midlife period of freethinking and anti-clericalism) its religious iconoclasm, a feature that troubled more than one contemporary reviewer. The Literary Gazette noted Manfred’s “conversations with witches, spirits, deities, Nemesis, and Arimanes,” commenting: “truly a rather heterogeneous assemblage of mythology” (337-38). The Critical Review also mentions pointedly how Byron draws “at once from the Grecian, Persian, and Gothic mythology” (627). Meanwhile, the British Critic and Theological Review vents its anxieties over what it calls a “strange jumble of all the mythologies which ever existed” more overtly: “The fire worship of the Persians, the Nemesis of the Greeks, the fairy tales of our nursery, are brought into action, and what is worst of all, are combined with the appearance of Christianity,” all making for a veritable “Olla Podrida,” “execrable” in taste, “in execution absurd” (47). And that was after Byron cut the scene in which the near-Eastern demon, Ashtaroth, carries the Abbot of St. Maurice away to a time-out on the highest peak of the Shreckhorn.

3.         This olla or gumbo or pilaf, this mixture of local and exotic ingredients that is Manfred, seems most heterogeneous, not to say incoherent, in its brazen commingling of Alpine setting and Orientalist lexicon. John Wilson, writing in Blackwood’s, found the Alpine location central to the style and spirit of the poem: “The action is laid among the mountains of the Alps—the characters are all, more or less, formed and swayed by the operations of the magnificent scenery around them” (290). And yet he describes the majority of these characters as so many “Wild personifications,” making the usual remark about the heterogeneity of this Alpine cast: “the Prince of the Air, witches, demons, destinies, spirits, and all the tribes of immaterial existences” (290, 292). Tribes, perhaps, does double duty here, for Byron has not simply recruited his supernatural players from among a variety of ethereal species, but from a decidedly global array of cultural traditions as well.

4.         In his recent book on Romanticism, global war, and global culture, Jeffrey Cox argues that what Byron himself called a “mixed mythology of my own” in Manfred implies that “we too should reject any and all providential schemes, for none of them can contain the heterodox, heterological ‘nature of this world’” (BLJ V:195; 78). And I agree. But beyond this general point, I wish to devote the rest of this essay to examining the particular Orientalist flavors running so boldly through Byron’s heterodox mélange. These range from incidental similes and allusions—the dusty “Simoom” wind of the Arabian desert, the “Chaldean shepherds” of Mesopotamia, the Syrian philosopher and mystic Iamblichus, “he who from out their fountain” raised Eros and Anteros (III.i.128, III.ii.13, II.ii.73-4)—to a much more significant network of references to Zoroastrianism, comparatively neglected by modern criticism of the poem, though noted by those early reviewers who mention its “Persian” mythology. As Marilyn Butler argued in her important 1989 essay on “Romantic Manichaeism,” references to paganism in the early nineteenth century frequently involved either undermining or attempting to shore up the claims of orthodox Christianity, and Zoroastrianism in particular became the “thinking radical’s favorite form of paganism” (15). The Zoroastrian elements of Manfred go deeper than many of Byron’s readers have supposed.

5.        Everyone notices, of course, the unexpected presence of Arimanes, that is, Ahriman or Angra Mainyu, the destructive spirit of Zoroaster’s antithetical cosmology, in the cast of Byron’s Alpine Gothic drama. Byron gives Arimanes lordship over all the various demons, sprites, witches, and lesser gods mentioned elsewhere in the play, whatever their provenance, though Arimanes himself seems ultimately subordinate to the “overruling Infinite,” presumably Ohrmazd or Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster’s supreme god and the source of all that is good (II.iv.47). But another Zoroastrian figure appears in Manfred’s list of dramatis personae as well, though she has rarely been recognized as such: Manfred’s sister, lover, victim, and object of perpetually frustrated desire, Astarte.

6.        Or, at least, Astarte’s name should be taken as Zoroastrian. Byron most likely did not connect the name Astarte with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, precisely because he introduces Ashtaroth, a corruption of the same name and a totally different character, in one of the excised passages of Act III. Then where did Byron find the name Astarte? As I noted back in 1991 in the Keats-Shelley Journal, Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes or Persian Letters contains an interpolated tale guaranteed to have drawn the attention of Byron, with its portrayal of political oppression, lovers separated by arbitrary religious codes, and even an escape from a harem (Richardson, “Astarté”). [3]  This tale concerns the history of a Zoroastrian brother and sister who fall in love as children, become separated on account of the invidious laws of their Muslim oppressors, and after various adventures and reverses reunite, marry, and live happily together. The incestuous brother, who recounts the story, is named Apheridon; his sister is named Astarté.

7.        Thanks to the greatly expanded electronic archive and ever more powerful search engines of the twenty-first century, I can now say that what I took, after duly diligent research and peer review, as an original scholarly discovery of my own was in fact my independent rediscovery of a connection made by Maurice Quinlan in an article on Manfred and Zoroastrianism published in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology in 1958, soon to disappear from Byron scholarship until quite recently (734). [4]  Quinlan also anticipates the point about Astarte and Ashtaroth made above, and I am happy for this chance to acknowledge his precedence (734). Quinlan brings in the connection to Montesquieu rather late in his article, however, almost as an afterthought, and I have in contrast come to believe that the story of Apheridon and Astarté plays a larger role in Manfred than either Quinlan or I myself initially believed.

8.        To begin with, Montesquieu seems to go out of his way to make representations of Zoroastrianism attractive for later writers in the radical and skeptical traditions such as Byron and Shelley. Islam (or what the text, in John Ozell’s 1722 translation, terms “Mahometism”), functions as a state-sanctioned, established church under whose “Yoke” the Zoroastrians, or Guebres, live (245, 237). [5]  In his conversations with Astarté, after she has been forcibly converted to Islam, Apheridon relativizes the truth claims of her new religion by noting the antiquity of their original creed (“the ancientest in the whole world”) and the historical contingency that has made Persia a Muslim state: “it was chance alone that introduced Mahometism” (245). Naturally, much the same could be said of the historical rise of Christianity and its chance spread to Europe and Great Britain. Lamenting his sister’s captivity behind harem walls, Apheridon associates Zoroastrianism with both “sweet Liberty” and female “Equality,” while Islam becomes linked instead with slavery and the oppression of women (244). At last convinced to return to her childhood faith, Astarté thanks her brother for finding a “way to break the Chains which my mind had forg’d to it self,” a remarkable anticipation of Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” (247). [6] 

9.        In one of their dialogues, Apheridon tells Astarté that, should Persia somehow manage to return to Zoroastrian rule, she “would again see the morality of the ancient Magi predominate,” returning to a time when Persia was “all Magism” (245). In Act II, scene two of Manfred, Byron’s occultist hero explicitly equates himself to the “Magi,” whose eyes, like his own, grew “familiar with Eternity”; in the Hall of Arimanes, the second spirit calls Manfred a “Magian of great power,” an identification repeated by the spirit who appears at the end of the play in an attempt to carry Manfred away (II.ii.89-91, II.iv.31, III.ii.105). The spirits, in other words, seem to identify Manfred as a Zoroastrian (since they could easily have used the more general term “magician”), and Manfred himself invites the identification.

10.        Manfred even seems, at least at one moment in the play, to be “practicing Zoroastrianism,” a point made by Quinlan over half a century ago and one that comparison with the Persian Letters makes stronger (733). When, not yet convinced to abjure Islam, Astarté contrasts the monotheism of her imposed faith to her brother’s polytheism—“you likewise worship the Sun, the Stars, Fire, and even the Elements”—Apheridon defends the religion of their ancestors: “they only paid the sort of Religious Reverence, due to the Works of the Creator, and the Manifestations of the Deity” (246). Manfred’s striking apostrophe to the setting sun in Act III, shortly before his death, proceeds very much in the spirit of Apheridon’s apologia:

Most glorious orb! that wert a worship, ere
The mystery of thy making was reveal'd!
Thou earliest minister of the Almighty,
Which gladden'd, on their mountain tops, the hearts
Of the Chaldean shepherds, till they pour'd
Themselves in orisons! Thou material God!
And representative of the Unknown—
Who chose thee for his shadow! (III.ii.9-16)
Manfred’s rhetorical exchange with Nemesis and Arimanes also implies that, at the very least, Manfred understands the Zoroastrian faith in a sophisticated manner that contrasts with its popular reputation for sun-worship or, as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (published only some weeks before Byron’s dramatic poem), fire-worship. [7]  It would be too much to follow the spirits in claiming Manfred for the Zoroastrian faith. For one thing, Manfred’s evident sense of the forbidden nature of his incestuous relation to Astarte—“though it were / The deadliest sin to love as we have loved”—contrasts markedly with Apheridon’s assurance that, according to their inherited religious beliefs, he and his sister Astarté should feel entirely free to love, marry, and have children together (II.iv.123-4; 237). More importantly, the corrosive power of Byron’s iconoclastic poem emerges precisely from his commingling, leveling, and fusing of any number of religious and mythological traditions, not from reasserting the claims of one of the more ancient religions. But Manfred certainly comes closer to professing Zoroastrianism than he does to Christianity, Greek paganism, or anything else.

11.        Zoroastrianism plays only a minor role in William Beckford’s Vathek, one of Byron’s favorite Orientalist fictions: we discover midway through the narrative that Dilara, Vathek’s favorite before meeting Nouronihar, “had been brought up amongst the magi,” and “cherished the idea of the Caliph’s devoting himself to the worship of fire” (138). But the Caliph himself deserves a prominent position among the many literary forebears—Faust, Faustus, Macbeth, Hamlet, Milton’s Satan, Godwin’s Falkland, Byron’s own earlier heroes, and still more—that Byron weaves into his thickly textualized characterization of Manfred. [8]  The multiple resonances with Vathek, then, represent still another aspect of the Orientalism of Manfred, whose hero displays various characteristics of Beckford’s parodically inflated Oriental despot. For one thing, both Vathek and Manfred reign supreme in their respective domains, though the former is a caliph of the Abbasid empire and the latter the lord of a feudal holding in a Swiss region apparently lacking any form of centralized government. Both have passed through a Faustian pursuit of knowledge—Vathek had “wished to know everything; even sciences that did not exist,” and both resort to the study of occult knowledge, Manfred in the company of his sister, Vathek in the company of his mother, Carathis, with whom he has an unnaturally close if not outright incestuous relation (82). Like Manfred, however, Vathek does pursue an illicit sexual connection, not to his sister, but to Nouronihar, whom he seduces in violation of her prior betrothal to her cousin and of the sacred “rights of hospitality” claimed in vain by her father (128). Both spurn the advice and scorn the intervention of the orthodox religious figures who alone might check their unbridled power—Manfred in relation to the Abbot, and Vathek in relation to a series of Muslim divines—and in the cancelled Ashtoroth episode from Act III, Manfred, like Vathek before him, goes so far as to mock and abuse his would-be religious sponsor.

12.        Most strikingly, perhaps, both inherit the inner hell of Milton’s Satan, Vathek ending more or less where Manfred begins. Each refuses a final offer of mediation, repentance, and perhaps redemption, on the grounds that the hour of redemption has long passed by. Manfred refuses, of course, in his rousing, yet oddly derivative, response to the Abbot in Act III:

Old man! there is no power in holy men,
Nor charm in prayer—nor purifying form
Of penitence— nor outward look— nor fast—
Nor agony—nor, greater than all these,
The innate tortures of that deep despair,
Which is remorse without the fear of hell,
But all in all sufficient to itself
Would make a hell of heaven—can exorcise
From out the unbounded spirit, the quick sense
Of its own sins, wrongs, sufferance, and revenge
Upon itself; there is no future pang
Can deal that justice on the self condemn'd
He deals on his own soul. (III.i.66-78)
The echoes we cannot help but hear emanate from Milton’s Satan, yet Beckford’s Vathek makes a similar claim when offered a final chance to repent by a well-meaning Genius in the guise of a devout shepherd: “If what I have done be so criminal, as thou pretendest, there remains not for me a moment of grace. I have traversed a sea of blood . . .” (148). Less memorable, much less poetic, but no less definitive. Vathek’s end, as I have already suggested, instills in him the same state of inner torment, the same Satanic mind, that Manfred already endures at the play’s beginning. Finding himself at last in the subterranean realm of Eblis, the Muslim Satan, Vathek learns from Soliman precisely what sort of eternal torment to expect when his brief period of infernal enjoyment has ended: “I am in torments, ineffable torments! an unrelenting fire preys on my heart” (154). In other words, “myself am hell.” And this is the inner hell that, as the Seventh Spirit makes clear in the drama’s very first scene, Manfred suffers from beginning to end: “I call upon thee! and compel / Thyself to be thy proper Hell!” (I.i.250-1). This curse resonates throughout the play, most audibly, perhaps, in Manfred’s final exchange with the demon or “genius”—this one anything but devout—who comes to fetch him off to some indeterminate underworld, Christian or pagan or neither: “I bear within / A torture that could nothing gain from thine” (III.iv.137-8).

13.         A final parallel between Vathek and Manfred concerns the towers that constitute key settings in both works. Beckford’s tower, a Babel-like monument to Vathek’s self-infatuation, becomes the scene of a grisly combination of necromancy and human “sacrifice” (102). Manfred’s tower, featured in Act III, seems to have been the scene of another human sacrifice of sorts, the mysterious death of Astarte, who, according to the servant Manuel, was with Manfred “within his tower” at the time of an “event” still “darkly” spoken of, an event the reader cannot help relating to the “all-nameless hour” mentioned in Manfred’s opening speech (III.iii.32-41, I.i.24). Peter Cochran, following McGann’s notes, seeks to differentiate the two works, consigning the “stupid” Vathek to a “monomaniac level” of “mother-fixation” and shared guilt that contrasts starkly with Manfred’s “dignity” and autonomous status as “his own tempter” and “his own Nemesis” (CPW IV:474; Manfred 202-4). Yet when one looks closely at Manfred’s relevant speeches, one finds not autonomy but a tissue of allusion and quotation, especially in relation to Milton’s Satan, but, as we have noticed, with a secondary echo of Vathek as well. Manfred’s—and Byron’s—ironic reliance on prior texts and voices precisely at the moment of claiming a sovereign, self-determining “mind” remains, for me, crucial to understanding the self-cancelling, self-critical nature of Manfred’s wishfully autonomous stance (III.iv.129). [9] 

14.         In concluding, let me stress that I have not attempted to build a case for regarding Manfred as a work of literary Orientalism. Had Byron wished to write an Orientalist poem, he knew exactly how to do so, having revived and all but patented that form in The Giaour and the other “Turkish Tales” that followed. Rather, in Manfred, Byron gave a pronounced Orientalist edge to an Alpine Gothic play that programmatically refuses to declare its allegiances, religious, mythological, geographical, literary, or generic. This studied and, for its time, shocking eclecticism, this iconoclastic resistance to categorization, does indeed risk being taken for comedy, as more than one reviewer and critic has noted, and does invite parody, as Gilbert Abbot à Beckett’s Man-Fred so memorably attests. Yet it also inspires the sort of iconoclastic “thrill” that Thomas Cooper recalled in the early nineteenth century and that, I believe, remains available to us in the early twenty-first. To borrow a key term from Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud’s recent and excellent study, Radical Orientalism, in its heterodox and skeptical treatment of religion, in its hero’s resistance to all forms of authority, in its implicit idealization of an illicit sexual relation, and even in its generic ambiguity, Manfred embodies in its own way what Cohen-Vrignaud calls, in relation to the Turkish Tales, Byron’s “infidelity” (178-217). We scholars continue to interrogate Manfred, as indeed we should and as the other essays in this Praxis volume eloquently attest. And, in a time of renewed hostility between West and East, a time of borders and walls and reactionary nationalistic nostalgia worthy of Castlereagh, we might do well to let Manfred interrogate us.

Works Cited

Beckford, William. Vathek. Three Oriental Tales, edited by Alan Richardson, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and Experience. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford UP, 1970.

Brandl, Alois. “Die Herkunst von Manfreds Astarte.” Anglia, vol. 60, 1936, pp. 197-202.

Butler, Marilyn. “Romantic Manichaeism: Shelley’s ‘On the Devil, and Devils’ and Byron’s Mythological Dramas.” The Sun Is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century, edited by J. B. Bullen, Oxford, 1989, pp. 13-37.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie A. Marchand, vol. 5, John Murray, 1976.

---. The Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome McGann, vol. 4, Clarendon Press, 1986.

Cochran, Peter. “Byron and the Dualists.” Byron’s Religions, edited by Cochran, Cambridge Scholars, 2011, pp. 274-85.

---. Manfred; An Edition of Byron’s Manuscript and a Collection of Essays. Cambridge Scholars, 2015, pp. 136-43.

Cohen-Vrignaud, Gerard. Radical Orientalism: Rights, Reform, and Romanticism. Cambridge UP, 2015.

Cooper, Thomas. The Life of Thomas Cooper. Leicester UP, 1971.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Romanticism in the Shadow of War: Literary Culture in the Napoleonic War Years. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Lettres Persanes. Edited by Paul Vernière, Garnier, 1975.

---. Persian Letters. Translated by John Ozell. 2nd ed., 2 vols., J. Tonson, 1730.

Moore, Thomas. Thomas Moore’s Complete Poetical Works. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1895.

Quinlan, Maurice J. “’Manfred’ and Zoroastrianism.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 27, no. 4, Oct. 1958, pp. 726-38.

Review of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, by Lord Byron. The British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, vol. 8, Jul. 1817, pp. 38-47.

Review of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, by Lord Byron Critical Review, vol. 5, no. 6, Jun. 1817, pp. 622-29.

Review of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, by Lord Byron. Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, no. 22, 21 Jun. 1817, pp. 337-38.

Richardson, Alan. “Astarté: Byron’s Manfred and Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 40, 1991, pp. 19-22.

---. Literature, Education and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice. Cambridge UP, 1994.

---. A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age. Penn State UP, 1988.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Yale UP, 2002.

St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge UP, 2007.

Thorslev, Peter L., Jr. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. U of Minnesota P, 1962.

Wilson, John. Review of Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, by Lord Byron. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3, Jun. 1817, pp. 289-95.


[1] For an influential study of the importance of pricing, print runs, and copyright status in understanding reception history, see St Clair. For the special case of nineteenth-century British working class readers, see Rose. BACK

[2] For an introduction to Cooper and other Romantic-era self-educated readers, see Richardson, Literature, pp. 232-47. BACK

[3] See Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes, pp. 137-48 (numbered letter LXVII in modern French editions). BACK

[4] Quinlan in turn cites a still earlier link between Byron’s Astarte and Montesquieu’s Astarté made by Alois Brandl in an article published in 1936. For more recent studies, see Cochran, “Byron and the Dualists,” and Cochran, Manfred, pp. 136-43 (“Manfred and Zoroastrianism”). BACK

[5] Ozell’s 1722 English translation numbers the letter in question “Letter LXV” (vol. 1, pp. 234-55). BACK

[6] Compare Blake’s “London” in Songs, plate 46. BACK

[7] Moore’s text disagrees on this point with his own critical apparatus. In a footnote, Moore absolves the Zorastrians or “Ghebers” of both sun worship and fire worship, calling these “false charges” advanced by their “Mussalman tyrants” (p. 436, f.n. #2). Yet Moore not only calls this section of Lalla Rookh “The Fire-Worshippers” but frequently alludes to fire worship as well, as when the Zoroastrian hero, Hafed, immolates himself on a shrine dedicated to the “Fire divine” (p. 459). BACK

[8] The classic study remains Thorslev, The Byronic Hero. BACK

[9] As I first argued in 1988: see A Mental Theater, pp. 55-8. BACK