Manfred : Byronic Heroism and Romantic History


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Manfred : Byronic Heroism and Romantic History J. Morillo

Byron Manfred
First printed June 16, 1817
Contemporary reaction: “unintelligibility” & “offensiveness” but praise for the beauty and power of the poetry.

Shelley found it depressing.

Nietzche, as a teenager, remarked after reading it, “I am profoundly related to this work.” He also preferred it to Goethe’s Faust.

2 composers, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, were inspired to compose music for it.

Offensiveness: overt rejection of Christian absolution; coy but insistent use of a story of incestuous love, one that comes perilously close to being about Byron’s scandalous relationship with his half sister Augusta Leigh.

--Swiss Alps populated by Demons and spirits from Mideastern religious traditions.

--confusing array of spirits upon spirits

--repeated scenes of Manfred asking for assistance only to roundly reject it; a dramatic movement made up of frustrated actions

--unstageable as a play; most of the characters are mere voices
How to put it all together: a play that features 1) man tortured by his own quest for forbidden knowledge 2) a story of incest and secrecy 3) a hero who is aristocratic but also has strong overtones of Napoleon in a play that takes the decidedly unaristocratic opinion that the Congress of Vienna and the restoration of the monarchs in 1815 was the work of evil spirits 4) an overt rejection of Christian penance and salvation

Answer 1. Manfred is Byron. Had just been in Swiss Alps & his Faustian story of forbidden knowledge is his reply to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; his relationship with Augusta; his own bill against frame breakers in the House of Lords, his fascination with Napoleon and previous use of Napoleon’s career as a plot model for Childe Harold’s European journey. Atheism maybe just the latest in his unacceptable opinions as dangerous gadfly.



--my soul was scorched already My injuries came down on those

. . . I would not wrong thee, nor exchange who loved me--

My lot with living being: I can bear— … my embrace was fatal.

However wretchedly, ‘tis still to bear—

In life what others could not brook to dream

But perish in their slumber.

Still especially satisfying for this play.

Marchand –the real drama was within Byron’s mind; written to relieve guilt and despair

McGann – Byron playing with his own reputation

Elfenbein – dangerous to make his work synonymous with the author.

Byron-- in the journal that McGann uses as parallel text

Don’t confuse author and text: : "our guide full of Rousseau--whom he is eternally confounding with St. Preux--and mixing the man and the book”
But hints toward another answer throughout the play.
Key Questions:

  1. Why does Byron name Manfred’s lost love “Astarte”?

  2. Is the incest theme of Manfred and Astarte’s love there for shock value or is it integral to the plot?

  3. Why does he name the place of the spirits in Act II the Hall of Arimanes?

  4. Why does a play centered in personal, psychological issues of its hero’s malignant destiny, self-inflicted curse and inescapable remorse ally that psycho-dram with allegorical hints of European history from the French Revolution to the Congress of Vienna, the restoration of the European Monarchs and the established churches?

  5. If the play is so autobiographical, why does Byron’s description of the young Manfred in I.ii.62-75 sound more like the young Wordsworth than the young Byron?
  6. Why is the play so obsessed with the meaning and location of power?

combine answers

Why does Byron name Manfred’s lost love “Astarte”?
1) even he doesn’t dare write Augusta, so he hints with syllables
Incest or not:


Manuel:The sole companion of his wanderings

And watchings—her, whom of all earthly things

That lived, the only thing he seem’d to love,--

As he, indeed, by blood was bound to do,

The lady Astarte
Abbot: III.i.29

Rumors strange,

And of unholy nature are abroad,

And busy with thy name; a noble name

For centuries;


She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,

Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone

Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;


Away, away! There’s blood upon the brim

. . .

I say t’is blood, my blood

--perhaps a pun on star, since Manfred’s star or destiny is so tied to his tortured relation to Astarte.

The name has its most intriguing source, according to Alan Richardson, in Montesqieu’s Letteres Persanes (Persian Letters). Letter 67. Story of Persians Apheridon and Astarte. They are Zoroastrians and their story is one of incestuous, sibling love. Montesquie remarked: “according to the ancient custom of the Zoroastrians, marriage between siblings is not considered criminal.” In his story of Apheridon, brother marries sister and they live happily together. An incest story that is NOT reducible to autobiography.
Why choose something from Zoroastrian society?
  • Thomas Moore’s Lallah Rookh.

  • capitalize on existing tastes for Eastern Tales and exoticism.

  • Byron had already published a series of Eastern Tales.

  • Most important--daring idea from Montesquie of representing incest not as a crime but as a cultural variation.

Q3 Why does he name the place of the spirits in Act II the Hall of Arimanes?
Byron’s stage direction: “Based on Ahriman, the principle of Darkness in Zoroastrian dualism.” II.iv.

A variation of Ahrimanes or Ahriman

Ahriman the principle or spirit of evil in the universe. In the dualistic, Manichean theology of Zoroastrianism, his counterpart spirit of good is often Ahura Mazda.
More than coincidence.
Zarathustra. He’s the prophet of Zoroastrianism. He’s also best known to us now via Nietzsche’s Also Spake Zarathustra, part of his Beyond Good and Evil. Recall who really liked this play which many disliked.
Story of Zarathustra
Superhuman, dangerous, Promethan knowledge + temptation by fiends in 2 forms: 1) an offer of the highest eartly power--kingship 2) temptation by malevolent female spirits + heroic exile.
The parts of Byron’s play that are otherwise so hard to reconcile without attaching them to George Gordon’s life are all here in one Zoroastrian sacred tradition.

Nietzsche, probably mediating his knowledge of Zarathustra through Byron's Manfred, formulates his Zarathustran ideal in ways that even more closely match Byron's play:

“the ideal of a spirit who plays naievely—that is, not deliberately but from overflowing power and abundance—with all that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine; for whom those supreme things that people naturally accept as their value standards, signify danger, decay, debasement, or at least recreation, blindness, and temporary self-oblivion; the idea of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often appear inhuman”

With this, Nietzsche says, tragedy begins”—or we might add, Manfred ends.
N also adds the language of this prophet is the dithyramb, poetry but also tragedy
Return to Q2
Is Manfred’s incestuous love for Astarte significant or incidental? Is this a play merely "decorated with Iranian demonology" and exotic Persian characters?

  • The 2nd temptation of Zarathustra by means of a female fiend.

  • As Martin Corbett has noticed, "it may not be farfetched to read the whole of the quest for Astarte as a strategy of his superhuman torturers" (37)

  • same paired set of temptations, love and power, as in Zarathustra

Byron finds in the Zorastrian's tale of Zarathustra's a truly unusual link between a story of incest as totem rather than taboo, and a story of principled rejection of kingship and monarchs. In modern day Zoroastrianism, members of that faith are prohibited from marrying outside of that faith. It seems that Byron takes this cultural preference for matching like with like to an extreme. As we've seen via Montesquieu, earlier visions of that culture had already emphasized its rejection of the incest taboo.

Refusing to abandon his incestuous love for Astarte seems to empower Manfred's rejection of kingship.

Why does the play feature a weird mixture of psychological and political drama?

If Manfred is Byron’s translation of Zarathustra what in the world is Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna doing it?

They are both represented as puppets and agents of Ahrimanes, the spirit of evil.

--One of Ahrimanes’ conquests was King Vadhagana, a “ruler of a nation” and “evil tyrant”
Cf. Manfred:

The Captive Usurper etc. p. 295 in book

Manfred as “strong enough to compel, but powerless to control his own destiny”

Napoleon esp. as Byron represented him.

But also strong allusions to Satan, especially Milton’s version.

  • If the evil temptation that’s hardest for Zarathustra to resist is Kingship, it makes sense that the triumph of this evil in the world would be the RESTORATION of kings. Congress of Vienna in 1815. Cf. Manfred

Nemesis: p. 296 II.iii.62-72 (read from book)


a myth more capable of explaining is place in history, including the whole arc of the Revolution from Bastille to Napoleon.

  • spirits and Romantic history

  • from Spirit of a Place (Witch of Alps scene) to Spirit of the Age

  • Hazlitt

  • apt fit with Hazlitt's belief that the spirit of this age was one of the presence of opposites

  • One of H’s examples of this is Wordsworth, and Byron.

This version of a “spirit of the age” can fit well with dualistic, and apparently contradictory elements of Byron’s spirit-filled play of 1816. Also, as Richardson noted, “the poem’s pervasive dualism (deity/dust) seems reason enough for Byron to have introduced Zoroastrianism into Manfred.”

But what is the play’s attitude to this dualism? Is it proof that Byron had found his philosophy and that’s why Manfred as latter day Zarathustra rejects Christianity for Zoroastrianism?

2 Big Problems

play IS NOT successfully dualistic or purely Zoroastrian, because there is no clear Spirit of Good blalancing Ahrimanes as Spirit of Evil.

--The version of Napoleon-as-Satan being too close to Southey and conservatives
Byron’s opinions inside the play on dualism .

II.ii.93. Manfred is compared to the Magi Iamblicus. He raised twin spirits Eros & Anteros (love and not love) As he says of his love of Astarte, “I loved her and destroyed her.”

not opposites as much as one is transformed seamlessly into the other.

Pausanias, a Spartan king who slew that which he loved and died unpardoned.

dualism, real opposition, always seems to breakdown in this play.

Play as Revision of Zoroastrianism

directly tied to this skeptical attitude toward all forms of dualism..

Byron's model of history

  • closer to that of Greek tragedy.

  • hard fate in which Hubris inevitably brings on Nemesis. Nemesis is not simply the opposite of the hero or his desires.

Nemesis always embodies a punishment beautifully tailored to the crime. Prometheus steals fire from the gods and is punished by having his liver eternally eaten by eagles. His nemesis emphasizes a frail, mortal body because that's what keeps him from being a real god. If Astarte is Manfred's nemesis, Napoleon is the nemesis of the Revolution because the very principles of Enlightenment created Napoleon as world historical figure.

Part of what Manfred rejects in Act II may be an overly Manichean, Ahrimanic version of history. The play instead presents troubling transformations of love into death, Englightenment into Tyrany, and Revolution into Reaction, and Manfred's mind into historical time.
Why does young Manfred sound more like young Wordsworth?

  • one opposition that B knew his readers felt they could count on

  • 1817 John Wilson Croker saw the whole play as a poetic unseating of Wordsworth by the power of Byron's totally different poetics and aesthetics.

  • But in one unbroken speech that represents Manfred's life story, young Wordsworthian Manfred turns inexorably into an older Byronic Manfred.

II.ii.62 Wordsworth Byron (read me)

The play teases with what seem uniquely Byron-based characterstics yet remains not merely autobiographical. As life and fiction come under the plays power of removing barriers between apparent opposites, the play both is and isn't about Byron, and Astarte both is and isn't Augusta Leigh. It instead follows Byron's own warnings in his Swiss journal about taking characters for their authors. In many ways, however, mixing man and book, love and hate, fiction and fact, language and life, and all ready opposites is what Manfred most successfully performs.

Nietzsche provides an especially useful gloss of the play
Power of Zarathustra’s words: “In every word he contradicts, this most Yes-saying of all spirits; in him all opposites are blended into a new unity.”

Q5 Why is the play so full of lyric poetry?

Manfred’s power is his command over language, especially the metaphors that invigorate lyric poetry.


Byron's critical revisions of Zoroastrian dualism into a dynamic of transformation and a theory of history may owe something to the history of that religion proclaimed by Zarathustra.

Zoroastrianism's most striking presence in Byron's play comes in the form of its rich and strange collection of powerful and malevolent spirits. It turns out that these evil spirits themselves were created when the good deities of the Veda and one Indian religion were transformed into the evil spirits of Zoroastrianism.

Nb I didn’t answer Q6!
Story of Zarathustra

--Palla Ichaporia

Zarathushtra communed in Heaven with Ahura Mazda and Amesha Spentas for ten years. The Revelation is complete. He carries with him the supreme knowledge contained in the Avesta and the most sacred Ahuna Vairya,
At the departure he is warned Amesha Spentas to guard against the enticements of Ahriman and his fiends who will plague his paths as he returns back to corporeal world among men. The spirit of Zarathushtra is made strong to withstand any false step and to prevent him from falter and ruin and damnation for he is now not mere man but a perfect man, nay he is the "YAZATA" in the human garb who now walks the earth.

The Ahrimanic forces with their full power of evil, gathered for massive attacks on


The demon 'Buuiti' (Pahlv. Buut) is sent by Ahriman to tempt, and deceive Zarathushtra, and overthrow the blessed messenger, but Zarathushtra is armed with truth and spiritual weapons of veracious revelation and divine Laws . Zarathushtra is protected by the shield of righteousness. He defeats his Ahrimanic enemies and put them to flight.

The Avesta vividly portrays such encounters of enticements and


'To Zarathushtra, howled back Anghra Mainyu, the Prince of Evil creations, "Do not destroy my creatures, O righteous Zarathushtra, ...... Renounce the good Religion of Mazda worshippers so too obtain boons the way 'Vadhaghana' obtained them and become a ruler of a nation'

Zarathushtra answered him," No! I shall not renounce the Good Religion of Mazda, even if my life, limbs and soul should part asunder"
Prince of Evil Creations, howled back: "By whose word will you defeat us?

By whose word will you withstand our assaults? Which is the weapon that good creations will withstand and defeat my (evil) creations?

Zarathushtra Spitamid replied, " With the sacred mortar and the sacred cup, with the Word proclaimed by Mazda and my own weapon which is the best one. With this

Word I will defeat and withstand (you), with this weapon the good creations will withstand and

defeat you

With that Zarathushtra recited aloud the Ahuna Vairya"
Each subsequent louder recitation drove all the fiends (daevas) of

Ahriman making them to hide under the earth, all these daevas being unworthy of being praised."

Another enticement, about which Zarathushtra was forewarned, is described. A female fiend in the form of well endowed beautiful woman declaring herself as

Spenta Armaity approached to tempt and seduce Zarathushtra.. She desired his companionship. But Zarathushtra discovered the fiend's disguise and prayed loudly and the fiend was completely annihilated.

Having rejected the enticing offers including the kingship and the

seduction of a female fiend, Zarathushtra went forth to declare the Message of Ahura Mazda. He underwent many hardships, which a common man can never withstand, but he was the Prophet, the chosen one of Ahura Mazda. For ten years he went from place to place having been ostracized by the family, community and tribe. He complains to Ahura Mazda: "Where and which part of land shall I go to succeed? The community I wish to join does not

gratify me, how can I gratify you, O Mazda Ahura.
His only follower at that time was one man and that was his cousin But his

Message spreads like a wild fire and changes the world forever.

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