Voice in Manfred: Sign, Symbol, and Performance

Voice in Byron’s Manfred is a vehicle for authorial power, as well as representing an unstable force that may turn against those that wield it—and thus primarily against the protagonist. Placed at the nexus of the physical and the spiritual, the human and the non-human, voice is a structural theme in the play, relating to spiritual and transcendental issues on the one hand, and questions of theatrical performance typical of the Romantic-period stage on the other. Multiplying the forms and meanings of utterance, Manfred foregrounds, explores, and valorizes voice, which in turn oscillates between a deceivingly singular denotation and an unstoppable process of proliferating connotations. In Byron’s dramatic poem, voice and voicing delineate a field of contacts, overlaps, and tensions, concentrating its questions about identity, power, authority, and control, as well as transcendental and social forms of interconnection or separation. This essay demonstrates that the process of transiting on which Byron’s play is predicated is crucially rooted in the dual nature of voice, its function as an instrument for conjuring and materializing, and its problematic relevance in the theater of the time.

Voice in Manfred: Sign, Symbol, and Performance

1.        The earliest occurrence of “voice” in Manfred appears in Act I, scene one where it resonates through the protagonist’s own voice as he invokes the spirits who will be carrying out his “task” (I.i.28):

. . . Now by the voice of him
Who is the first among you—by this sign,
Which makes you tremble—by the claims of him
Who is undying,—Rise! appear!—Appear! (I.i.37-40)
Discussing this first mention of a “voice” in the text, Jerome McGann notes that: “This is one of Manfred’s keywords and should be tracked carefully through the poem. Ultimately, the ‘voice’ that ‘is the first among’ the spirits and the other characters in the poem, including Manfred himself, is Byron’s, the artificer of the entire imaginative work” (Byron Manfred note to l.37). As Manfred carries out his first act of conjuring, the iteration of “by” informs the invocation and its mantra-like tone, its incremental repetition awarding a more than human authority to the protagonist’s speech and language of power based on explicit lexis (“power upon you,” [I.i.36]), vocatives (“Mysterious Agency,” [I.i.28]), and imperatives (“Rise! appear!” [I.i.36]). Ironically, however, all this is turned against Manfred later in the same Act and scene by the “voice . . . heard in the Incantation” (CPW IV:60), which curses him in a similarly structured stanza (“By thy cold breast and serpent smile, / By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,” I.i.242-3). If voice stands for the power of authorship, it also represents an unstable force that may turn against those who wield it. At the same time, in both occurrences voice crucially functions as an interface between the physical and the spiritual, the human and the non-human.

2.        As James Mulholland suggests, a possible definition of “voice studies” pivots on their “use [of] voice as an analytic with which to understand the creation of literary texts and the process of reading in a sensate, aural world” (10-1), while their area of investigation focuses on forms of “textual virtualization” of voice that center on “the relationship among voice, self, and authority” (3, 13). Addressing these concerns, virtualizations of voice in Romantic-era literature function as a point of convergence of issues related to the production and reception of texts. In this respect, Susan Eilenberg has offered illuminating insights into Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetics by examining what happens “when a poet opens his mouth and somebody else’s voice comes out,” thus also raising questions about “the source of the poetic voice and the meaning of authorship” (3). Yet, questions of voice also present cultural implications that range beyond the perimeters of the text and bring into focus a whole range of issues of a corporeal, material, and ideological kind.

3.        In this light, the foregrounding of voice in Manfred points to another level of significance, one that is more prosaic than those listed so far, as well as a frequently overlooked one: voice is the highly problematic vehicle for theatrical performance in Romantic-period drama (Nuss 7-8). Indeed, it was a major concern for Joanna Baillie, the foremost dramatic and theatrical theorist of the age. In the “Introductory Discourse” to her first volume of Plays on the Passions (1798), she linked voice, power, and dramatic effectiveness by remarking that, when passions are made to “raise their voice, the power of distinguishing themselves has been taken away” (92). Later, in the Preface "To the Reader" to her third volume of Plays on the Passions (1812), she noted that: “The Public have now to choose between what we shall suppose are well-written and well-acted plays, the words of which are . . . heard but imperfectly . . . and splendid pantomime, or pieces whose chief object is to produce striking scenic effect” (Works 231). A playtext in which these preoccupations coalesced in remarkably effective ways was Coleridge’s Remorse, the most successful stage tragedy of the period, which Byron knew and appreciated, and which seems to have left some traces in his own output (Cochran 70-2). The “splendid pantomime” in Remorse was its celebrated conjuring scene, which mixed magic, pantomime, voice (through an incantation, as in Manfred), music, and a variety of visual effects. And this imbrication of voice inside a complex textual-performative continuum brings us back to Manfred, which presents a similar array of practices and devices borrowed from the contemporary stage (Martin 107-16). In Byron’s “dramatic poem,” however, voice is also a specifically pre-eminent textual item (one of its key-words, as McGann says), structuring the play’s construction of a transcendental reality that mirrors and questions material reality. [1]  In Manfred, Byron problematizes this connection and its liminal or transitional status by investing consistently in voice and voicing, which he knew to be major issues for playwrights, actors, and audiences owing to the enormous sizes of the main theaters and because of the increasing popularity and influence of melodrama, in which voice is constantly on the point of being submerged by silence or music.

4.        In tracing the connections between Manfred and the contemporary stage, Philip Martin defined the play as an attempt at “modernizing the Gothic drama” (107), whereas more recently Jeffrey Cox has interpreted it as a critical revision of melodrama, Gothic or otherwise (76-8). Cox pointedly reads Manfred as “a response to the melodrama and its evocation of perpetual war” (60), the latter being his phrase for the state of continued tension in Europe and the world following the peace ostensibly decreed by Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna. A reaction to melodrama’s reactionary endorsement of a “restoration of order” (60), Manfred is “an after-war play that challenges the main form of post-war drama, the melodrama, in order to suggest a quite different response to the post-Waterloo world” (67). Accordingly, from Cox’s perspective, Byron’s play was “the serious drama of the post-Waterloo moment that was missing from the 1815-1816 season” (67). As such, Manfred adopts and at the same time contests the distinctive features of melodrama, one of which is voice, since, as Peter Brooks remarks, the melodramatic mode is typically informed by a “desire to express all” (4). In melodrama, “nothing is left unsaid” as “characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings” (4).

5.        Reworking these various premises and contexts, Manfred multiplies the potential and import of utterance and, in doing so, foregrounds, explores, and valorizes them. In turn, voice and voicing take on a complex series of meanings that oscillate between a deceivingly singular denotation and an unstoppable process of proliferating connotations.

6.        After Manfred’s act of conjuring, “a voice is heard singing” (CPW IV:54), a voice that echoes and answers his own voice, yet is a bodiless and unlocated sound. As McGann highlights, this voice is unattributed (it is unclear whose voice it is) and unplaced (we do not know where it comes from). These complications are then compounded by the fact that “the stage direction signals that a social space exists in a dimension not explicitly present to the named characters,” so that the stage direction itself “emerges as a character who is aware of that social space, and who plays a major role in the action of Manfred” (Byron Manfred note to ll.191-2). In addition, this bodiless and unlocated voice is a nod to the onstage/offstage dynamic typical of Romantic-period drama and especially Gothic drama, which constituted a major “location of in/visible actions and meanings” that “reinforce[d] and expand[ed] the tendency of Gothic theater to transgress the divide between on- and offstage, visible and invisible, real and imaginary” (Saglia “Theater” 362). A linking element shuttling between stage direction and dramatic text, voice in Manfred contributes to creating trans-dimensional interconnections, a process which is the play’s central textual concern as well as its distinctive performative trait.

7.        The connective function carried out by voice takes a variety of shapes from the outset. In the opening scene, it combines and contrasts sweetness and harshness, when Manfred blandishes the Spirits by saying: “‘I hear / Your voices, sweet and melancholy sounds, / As music on the waters’” (I.i.175-7). However, later in the same scene, the “voice . . . heard in the Incantation” adopts a very different tone, the angry invective of a curse, which encapsulates other, far from soothing, voices:

And a magic voice and verse
Hath baptized thee with a curse;
And a spirit of the air
Hath begirt thee with a snare;
In the wind there is a voice
Shall forbid thee to rejoice;
And to thee shall Night deny
All the quiet of her sky (I.i.222-9)
Because the planes connected by voice are also those of power and disempowerment, Manfred’s use of voice as an instrument of authority in Act I, scene one is significantly short-lived, since it is immediately turned against him in this revision of the balance between the human and super-human.

8.        That the voice “in the Incantation” is one of the outstanding enigmatic features in Byron’s text is immediately visible from the very phrase “in the Incantation,” seemingly intimating that the voice is inside the incantation it is uttering, that it not so much its source but rather an attribute or a feature of it. McGann sees Manfred as “a crucial work in Byron’s career” and his ongoing contention with the Romantic imagination, since it “fully objectifies the self-destructiveness of this [betraying and betrayed] imagination” and promotes “the deconstruction of the self-deceived and self-destructive Romantic imagination” and its treacherously solipsistic propensities (“Brain” 64). McGann reads this process of deconstruction as deeply embedded in the Incantation, where the voice that “speaks the truth over the unconscious Manfred” is in fact “the silenced voice of Astarte,” a kind of audible absence conveying “her spectrous form of libido” as well as unveiling the betrayals of the imagination (64-5). From another perspective, Timothy Morton has drawn attention to the “offstage” quality of the voice “in the Incantation,” which “emanates from a hidden source” and constitutes what he terms an “acousmatic voice” (161). This mysterious voice works to convey “a sense of space that fills the auditorium” and is thus “necessarily synaesthetic”—a bridge between the play’s phantasmatic dimensions and its physical and material conditions of production, on the one hand, and its impact on reader or spectator, on the other (160).

9.        Although they pursue different interpretative agendas, these critical insights share an interest in how voice in Manfred connects the material and the immaterial, functioning as a lynchpin between bodied and disembodied states. Aptly, therefore, Act I, scene two features a reference to voice, as Manfred expresses a wish to escape his own body:

. . . Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony,
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me! (I.ii.52-6)
Here Byron explores the liminal zone between physical presence and evanescence through the imagery and medium of voice. On one side, this vision relates to the theme of physical dissolution that runs through the play and emerges in such potent formulations as “Earth! take these atoms!” (I.ii.109). On the other, it unveils the text’s connections with contemporary stage Gothic, which was a crucial cultural site for the elaboration of ideas of embodiment, as well as reflections on corporeality and its links to selfhood. Multiform and constantly renovating itself, stretching all the way from the 1760s to the 1820s and beyond (if we take Horace Walpole’s 1768 The Mysterious Mother as its starting point), stage Gothic developed a complex series of engagements with physicality, ranging from the overwhelmingly material body of the villain to the dissolving body of the specter (Saglia “Staging” 166-7).

10.        Surfacing several times in the text, this doubleness is in full view in the Abbot’s description of Manfred’s confused condition in Act III: “an awful chaos—light and darkness— / And mind and dust—and passions and pure thoughts / Mix’d, and contending without end or order” (III.i.164-6). Yet, Byron most effectively translates this binary couple of “excessively bodied” and “hauntingly disembodied” conditions through the couple Manfred-Astarte; and when the text awards a voice to the latter, it complicates further the already problematic status of the ghost in Gothic drama and its knot of aesthetic, cultural, and ideological stumbling blocks, such as how it should move, speak, and be dressed, or whether it should be represented on stage at all (Gamer 131-4; Saggini 166-7). Oscillating between presence and absence, the ghostly utterance in Manfred bestows a whole new range of meanings on voice, placing it as a point of convergence between existence and non-existence.

11.        These preoccupations appear, in subtly allusive form, during Manfred’s exchange with the Chamois Hunter in Act II:

Away, away! There’s blood upon the brim!
Will it then never—never sink in the earth?
What dost thou mean? thy senses wander from thee.
I say ’tis blood—my blood! the pure warm stream
Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours
When we were in our youth, and had one heart,
And loved each other as we should not love,
And this was shed: but still it rises up,
Colouring the clouds, that shut me out from heaven,
Where thou art not—and I shall never be. (II.i.21-30)
As the Chamois Hunter reacts by calling Manfred a “Man of strange words” and inviting him to show “patience,” Manfred replies: “Patience and patience! Hence—that word was made / For brutes of burthen, not for birds of prey!” (II.i.31-6).

12.        Manfred has just been rescued from jumping off the edge of the Jungfrau. He has been removed from a position of liminality and oscillation between solidity and dissolution (he was “in act to spring from the cliff” [ CPW IV:66]), his atoms on the point of returning to the great whirlpool of cosmic matter. Through language and voice, however, he continues to exist within a state of oscillation between different dimensions. The Chamois Hunter interprets this uncertain condition prosaically, telling him bluntly “thy senses wander from thee” (II.i.23), and thus positing a dissociation between body and mind, the material and immaterial components of the human. Manfred, instead, reinforces the oscillation by expanding on the implications of “blood,” the prime substance of physical and physiological life, which immediately becomes a reference to the consanguinity between him and Astarte that caused their passion (also associated with blood) to become criminal. In all this, the blood that was “shed” and the blood “[c]olouring the clouds” are the visible as well as symbolic signs of the sin that excludes him from “heaven.” Finally, the sense of liminality is summed up in Manfred’s description of heaven as the place “[w]here thou art not—and I shall never be,” a sentence that conjures up Byron’s distinctive preoccupation with “not being” somewhere, which complements what Stephen Cheeke has identified as Byron’s triadic concern with “[b]eing there, being in-between, having been there” (14).

13.        With a subsequent move, the text brings these locational shifts back into the fold of language and voicing. The Chamois Hunter associates Manfred with unusual language (“strange words”), a remark that doubles as an assessment of his uttering and voicing: Manfred’s words are strange both semantically (they do not make sense according to customary logic) as well as performatively (they are emphatic, overcharged). The hunter reacts to Manfred with a word, “patience,” that invites him to curb his semantic and performative unruliness alike, and which Manfred scornfully rejects by conjuring up another dissociation (“brutes of burthen” as opposed to “birds of prey”) mirroring the oscillation between material and immaterial, or lofty and mundane, that informs the entire play.

14.        Astarte is, of course, central to this fraught exchange between Manfred and the Chamois Hunter. She is present in that “ours” (II.i.25) which is then developed into the image of the “one heart” (II.i.26) and the observation that they “loved each other as we should not love” (II.i.27). Astarte is a figure—perhaps the figure—of oscillation in the play, and her spectral status is once again linked to voice in Act II. There, in the soliloquy following his fruitless interview with the Witch of the Alps, Manfred announces: “I have one resource / Still in my science—I can call the dead, / And ask them what it is we dread to be” (II.ii.177-9). “Calling” reprises one of Manfred’s distinctive uses of voice—the invocation, the act of conjuring up, and the naming that makes entities appear. Significantly, when Astarte appears in Act II, scene four, her phantom voice utters Manfred’s name, and this new connection between material and immaterial, human and non-human, reactivates his desire, while also inverting the pattern since Astarte calls Manfred from the world of immateriality. He implores the apparition: “Say on, say on—/ I live but in the sound—it is thy voice!” (II.iv.150-1). Yet, these words read as, or indeed, sound heavily, tragically ironic. They represent yet another of those moments when the play mocks its own High Romantic discourse and unmasks the traps and pitfalls of the imagination. For Astarte’s voice is in reality Manfred’s own voice, since he has just told the Witch of Alps that “[Astarte] was like me [ . . . ] to the very tone / Even of her voice” (II.ii.105-7). Inevitably, Manfred’s use of voice as a way of escaping his own body into Astarte’s disembodied presence cruelly, and humorously, collides with the hampering presence of himself, his own voice, and body.

15.        Unlike Acts I and II, the third act does not feature voice as a separate lexical element, yet presents a wide range of forms of uttering and speaking from the outset. It significantly begins with a serried list of references to language and acts of voicing: the Abbot wants to “confer” with Manfred (III.i.24); he informs him that “Rumours [ . . . ] are abroad” (III.i.29-30); tells him that the populace believe “thou holdest converse with the things / Which are forbidden to the search of man” (III.i.34-5); and yet he does not seek out Manfred to “speak of punishment” but “penitence and pardon” (III.i.57). Uniformly pertinent to the semantic field of sound and verbal communication, this list designs a crescendo that culminates in Manfred’s death in scene four. Aptly, the final scene also contains the protagonist’s last act of voicing—the tirade against the spirit and other demons, which constitutes his greatest, most movingly tragic expression of that free will and power which the voice in the incantation temporarily took away from him at the beginning and which have been constantly under threat from the other antagonistic forces in the play. At the start of this act of “unconjuring,” Manfred tells the main spirit:

. . . Back to thy hell!
Thou hast no power upon me, that I feel;
Thou never shalt possess me, that I know:
What I have done is done (III.iv.124-7)
The expression “What I have done” doubles implicitly as “What I have said,” since, as should be clear by now, Byron in Manfred makes doing and saying, or being and uttering, inextricable. Moreover, any temptation to read this last speech in a purely transcendental key, that is one which sees voice losing its oscillatory status between material and immaterial in favor of disembodiment and dissolution, is interrupted and belied by the insistent materiality of voice.

16.        As Manfred concludes his speech and the demons vanish, the Abbot addresses the protagonist and notes:

Alas! how pale thou art—thy lips are white—
And thy breast heaves—and in thy gasping throat
The accents rattle—Give thy prayers to heaven— (III.iv.143-4)
With their charged language and staccato rhythm, these lines highlight the bleakly physiological materiality of Manfred’s final act of voicing. The reference to the protagonist’s “gasping throat” in which his “accents rattle” signals primarily the dissolution of his body: voice intimates an impending disembodiment. But they also hark back to the question of voice on the Romantic stage, as they refer to and make manifest, in metatheatrical fashion, the actual delivery of sound by the actor playing Manfred. In other words, the play’s conclusion returns to voicing as utterance and as a material, stage-bound act. The attention to tone and delivery in the Abbot’s remark, which resembles a stage direction embedded in the dialogue, reminds readers that this dramatic poem is a play, a textual artifact aimed at a performance that thrives on voice, its nuances, and effects.

17.        In Manfred voice delineates a transitional space—between the physical and the evanescent, the material and the spiritual—that is also a field of contacts, overlaps, and tensions. It is a site of problems and questions about identity (who is speaking? who is the listener?); power, authority, and control (also, and especially, in terms of the text’s pivotal theme of “resistance to power—or the network of power that situates and subjugates self and freedom” [An. 107]); and forms of interconnection or separation between dimensions and characters, from transcendental as well as social perspectives, as with the complex mediated verbal interactions in Act II between Manfred and the Chamois Hunter or Manfred and Arimanes. These shifts between dimensions and exchanges among the dramatis personae ground the process of transiting on which the play is predicated and are rooted in the dual nature of voice, its ritual function as an instrument for conjuring and materializing, as well as the dual status of voice in the theater of the time. A significant portion of the meaning of Manfred lies on the cusp between the written and the spoken word, the latter to be understood not just as the word vicariously uttered in the printed text, but also actually and physically uttered by voices on a stage.

18.        If Byron’s dramatic poem is unusual in problematizing voice to this extreme of complication and resonance, in this respect it is also recognizably Romantic. As a hybrid construct, Manfred reflects the question of voice as a recurrent concern in theater, but also more generally in the poetry of the period, as is visible in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Hemans, among others. Melynda Nuss has examined how, “[t]hrough his experiments with theatre, Wordsworth learns to position himself as both actor and spectator to create a unique and all-encompassing public voice” (11). Christopher Stokes explores in detail the “subtle, interesting, and intellectually challenging” features of Coleridge’s problematizing of voice in his output (10). And John Anderson has read Hemans’s The Forest Sanctuary (1825) as “a prolonged meditation on the idea of voice” (56) that “suggests destabilizing alternative approaches to established epic” (56) through “a chorus of male and female, dead and living voices together, dialogically creating worlds for those who have ears to hear” (73). These poets’ productions offer endless variations on voicing and utterance that contribute to delineating a complex metapoetic and metaliterary discourse within Romantic-period verse. In their works, voice variously functions as an interface between body and spirit, or thing and essence; a correlative of the “correspondent breeze” or the “Eolian harp;” or a locus of cultural identity and historical agency, as in the German Romantic notion, coined by Johann Gottfried Herder, of poetry as a powerful manifestation of the Volkstimme, the “voice of the people.” Byron in Manfred partly subscribes to and partly deviates from investments in voice by contemporary poets, as well as contemporary playwrights. Most peculiarly, by multiplying and intersecting the various meanings of voice, he places it at center stage so that his dramatic poem about a “Child of Clay” (I.i.131), who is “[h]alf dust, half deity” (I.ii.40), ultimately stands out as one of the major Romantic texts on the power and meaning of uttering words.

Works Cited

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———. The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie. London: Longman, 1851.

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———. Manfred: A Dramatic Poem. Edited by Jerome J. McGann. http://covecollective.org/

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

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Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge UP, 2000.

McGann, Jerome. "‘My brain is feminine’: Byron and the Poetry of Deception." Byron and Romanticism, edited by James Soderholm, Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 53-76.

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Saggini, Francesca. "Contextual Hauntings: Shakespearean Ghosts on the Gothic Stage." Shakespeare and the Culture of Romanticism, edited by Joseph M. Ortiz, Ashgate, 2013, pp. 161-82.

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[1] On the “spiritual” nature of Manfred, see Byron’s letter to Thomas Moore of 25 March 1817, where he humorously calls it a “mad Drama” and a “Bedlam tragedy” in which, he exaggeratedly adds, “all the dram. pers. are spirits, ghosts, or magicians” (BLJ V:188). BACK