As Manfred glimpses “the last infirmity of evil” from his position on the Jungfrau, he confronts a post-moral order dependent on a particular kind of relinquishment, the obverse of the forgiveness that Shelley’s Prometheus attains at the outset of his play. He claims prematurely, “I have ceased / To justify my deeds unto myself,” and his pursuit of such a mental and moral state in fact determines the action of the remainder of the play, just as his initial voiced desire for “forgetfulness” and “self-oblivion” must be achieved. At this early point in the play, Manfred’s solitude is “peopled with the furies,” just as Shelley’s Prometheus is tortured on his rock by Jupiter’s “hounds of hell.” Both heroes have something to get over: Prometheus, his vengeance and Manfred, his conscience. Going (like Nietzsche) beyond good and evil, Manfred represents an existential Romantic heroism in sharp contrast to Shelley’s messianic version; his humor is the golden laughter of a careless god.
Dark Prometheus: Manfred and the Last Infirmity of Evil
1. I want to begin with Manfred on the Jungfrau, one of the poem’s key moments of reckoning in which Byron’s hero struggles to apprehend the trajectory of his own fall and end, literally and figuratively. Contemplating a leap from the precipice to his death on the rocks below, he also meditates Satanically on the vector of his moral degeneration and the death-in-life that it has entailed:
2. So, to begin: how do we gloss these lines? The interpretive problem starts with the quadruple negative, further destabilized by one of Byron’s ambiguous dashes: “I have ceased / To justify my deeds unto myself— / The last infirmity of evil.” Two primary questions arise. First, is it the justification of one’s ill deeds, or the cessation of that justification, that Byron intends as “the last infirmity of evil”? The dash makes it possible for the final phrase to govern either the infinitive (“To justify my deeds unto myself”) or the entire preceding clause (“I have ceased to justify my deeds unto myself”). Second, by “the last infirmity of evil,” does Byron mean the ultimate stage of evil, or the last remaining flaw in evil’s otherwise-perfect constitution?
3. Maybe Milton can help. Byron’s “last infirmity” phrasing adapts a passage from “Lycidas”:
4. We are left with two options so far: whatever the phrase “the last infirmity of evil” modifies, that thing is either the last grace, the final scrap of goodness that mitigates evil (a “last infirmity” in the mode of Milton and Tacitus), or the last step on the ladder of degeneracy, the ultimate state of sin. So, what does the phrase modify? Well, again we have two primary opposing choices: either the claim “I have ceased to justify my deeds unto myself” or the infinitive “to justify my deeds unto myself”—that is, either self-justification or the cessation of it. These oppositions, then, ultimately resolve into two primary interpretive choices, once you cancel out the positives and negatives: self-justification is either the worst thing or the last hope in the moral vision of Byron’s play.
5. Jerome McGann has indicated that he sees Manfred as a critique of hypocrisies and an exposure of self-deceptions. He writes in Byron and Romanticism: “We are sinners who want to cover our sins, to mitigate their depth. This desire is precisely ‘the last infirmity of evil’ that Byron wrote his play to engage” (92). In this view, self-justification arises from a guilty conscience, and manifests itself in a dangerous sense of righteousness. Plenty of evidence suggests that this was Byron’s view, particularly around the time of the composition of Manfred, when he was angry at Lady Byron and her allies and raging over the hypocrisies of English society. The “Incantation” from Manfred is precisely an “In-cant-tation,” a curse on cant and an excoriation of the “false tears,” “serpent smile,” “unfathomed gulfs of guile,” and the “shut soul’s hypocrisy” that were at once Annabella’s, her maid Mary Jane Clermont’s, and Byron’s own—not to mention those of Castlereagh and Romilly, whom he hated (I.i.201-71). Those who justify their deeds unto themselves adopt an essentially Satanic moral posture, reversing the polarities of good and evil—“Evil be thou my Good” (Paradise Lost IV.110)—something like James Hogg’s Justified Sinner, who is far more dangerous, far more evil, because of his sense of righteousness. Robespierre and the Terror stand somewhere in the near distance. As Alan Liu writes of the French Revolution,
6. The problem with this reading, of course, is that Manfred hardly appears redeemed on the Jungfrau. Quite the contrary, he feels a “barrenness of spirit” as if he has become his “own soul’s sepulchre” (I.ii.26-7). The general thrust of the passage suggests a state of dejection and acedia, as if Manfred has yielded up moral questions in despair. He has ceased to justify his deeds, ceased to provide morally or ethically inflected accounts of his actions, even to himself, and thus attained the summit of evil, having given in to the “last infirmity” in “this long disease my life,”—to allude to the title of McGann’s keynote address, and to Pope (Pope, “Epistle” 132). In such a state, Manfred hears no voice of conscience, not even a perjured one: he just gives up and does what he wants—except he only wants what he can’t have: forgetfulness, oblivion, forgiveness, Astarte. In this view, self-justification is the last grace, and its abandonment signifies a descent into the slough of sin’s infirmity. Yet Manfred still glimpses evil from where he stands: he has not yet moved to a place where “evil” as such ceases to exist—his conscience is not totally gone. Making this statement, he voices a judgment on himself, meaning he has not stepped beyond moral calculation, even though he finds himself on the dizzy brink of complete amorality. He still wants to forget, which means he still remembers; and he will soon plead Astarte for forgiveness, which means he still feels guilt and remorse. It’s not over yet: on the Jungfrau, Manfred is not yet beyond good and evil.
7. In his opening soliloquy, Manfred asserts a post-mortal perspective, claiming that
8. In admitting that other spirits rule his spirit, Manfred edges closer to the final renunciation the drama requires. Despite the ostensible defiance and willfulness of the last scene, he undergoes his final relinquishment: essentially, he gets over himself. And his last gesture—to reach for the hand of another human (either Manuel or the Abbot, depending on the version)—suggests a last abandonment of his walled interior stronghold. Perhaps now finally, truly giving up on self-justification, he moves past evil to another order—and I am thinking here of Nemesis saying of Astarte, “She is not of our order” (II.iv.115). In an entry on “applause” in The Gay Science, Nietzsche has occasion to quote the Tacitus passage on the desire for glory:
9. As I suggested at the outset of this talk, much of Manfred might be understood as the record of a panic attack or nervous breakdown, with the last lines as aftermath. The same thing happens to Prometheus in the first act of Shelley’s drama: one of the Furies says to him, “we will rend thee . . . nerve from nerve, working like fire within” (I.475-6) before she and her sisters torment him with scenes of his worst fears and causes for despair. To triumph over these attacks, Prometheus and Manfred both have to let it go: the past, the struggle, the violently-defended self. For Manfred, this means a move from the murky Gothic “witch-drama” he has been inhabiting towards the high equipoise of classical tragedy. As the play progresses, Manfred seems less of a Shakespearean and more of a Sophoclean or Senecan protagonist, quoting the last words of Nero to the Abbot—“It is too late” (III.i.98)—and thinking of the Roman Coliseum shortly before his death.  His final words, “Tis not so difficult to die” (III.iv.151), strike a distinctly classical note, the culmination of this trend. In partial confirmation, a contemporary reader of Manfred made marginal pencil notes in Greek in an 1817 copy of the second edition (Figure 1). The lines are from Sophocles’ Ajax, which our reader heard echoed in Manfred’s farewell address to the sun in Act III, scene two:
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Manfred. The Complete Poetical Works, edited by Jerome J. McGann, vol. 4, Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 50-102.
Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 1824. Edited by Adrian Hunter, Broadview Press, 2001.
Liu, Alan. Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford UP, 1989.
McGann, Jerome. Byron and Romanticism. Cambridge UP, 1999.
Milton, John. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. Edited by William Kerrigan et al. , New York: Penguin / Modern Library, 2007.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Translated by Thomas Common, Dover Philosophical Classics, 2006.
Pope, Alexander. "An Epistle to Arbuthnot." Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry, edited by Pat Rogers, Oxford UP, 1994, pp. 93-105.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Prometheus Unbound. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002, pp. 202-86.
Tacitus. Histories. Perseus Project. Tufts University. Available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0080%3Abook%3D4%3Achapter%3D6
 As McGann notes, Byron “applies Suetonius’ account of the death of Nero (Lives of the Caesars, VI. Chapter 49) to the suicide of Otho, Rome’s sixth emperor,” in Manfred’s conversation with the Abbot (III.i). Manfred’s self-identification with the stoic suicide of a noble Roman indicates an affinity with Classical tragic heroism. His famous meditation on the Roman Coliseum occurs at the beginning of Act III, scene four. BACK