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Something Borrowed by Byron

It seems that the same ghost story session that led Mary Shelley to create the story of Victor Frankenstein inspired Lord Byron to create his closet drama
“Manfred.”
I do hope to be pardoned for finding this piece of verse to be a remarkably unoriginal work. What might seem most surprising is one of the sources that I would suggest for it.

Having just read and written about Walpole’s Castle of Otranto sent me to this piece of Byron, a work I hadn’t read since Professor Shannon’s British Literature II course during my undergrad program. Dr. Shannon so loved the Romantics that she dedicated more than half of our sixteen weeks together to the six principal poets before flying through the Victorians, skipping the PreRaphaelites (if memory serves), and the Moderns. No time was spent on fiction or drama. All of this is not particularly relevant to our consideration of “Manfred,” but I did want to vent this frustration after hanging onto it for nearly 30 years.

What led me from Otranto to “Manfred” was the name Manfred, which, of course, figured significantly in Walpole’s archetypal gothic novel. Certainly Byron’s Manfred is not the same character as Walpole’s Manfred, yet the similarities should be noted. Just as the Count of Otranto finds himself something of a prisoner in his own castle, haunted by his past misdeeds, Byron’s Manfred is simply a bundle of regrets who finds himself increasingly imprisoned in his own tower, meeting a semi-supernatural fate at the work’s close.

At the same time, the Faust myth, specifically Goethe’s version, supplies echoes in Byron’s poem. There is no deal with the devil in “Manfred,” yet the invocation of supernatural forces figures significantly. Interestingly, Manfred neither repents (like Goethe’s Faust) nor finds himself hauled off to perdition by slavering demons (like Marlowe’s Faustus). Instead, he dismisses his demonic escort, proclaiming that they possess no power over him.

What are they to such as thee?
Must crimes be punish’d but by other crimes,
And greater criminals?– 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; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine.

Who knew that hellish minions could be discharged with a proclamation of feelings? And to what effect does this pseudo-heroic speech rise? Manfred dies ten lines later, the Abbot shuddering at the idea of his destination.

This brings me around to the other sources that I would suggest for this work, both of which are anachronistic. Did Byron somehow possess knowledge, 200 years ahead of time, of David Caruso’s Horatio character from CSI: Miami? Like Horatio (a name that appears in the epigraph for “Manfred.” Coincidence? Almost certainly.) Manfred spends a revolting portion of his time on earth brooding.

And while on his time-traveling source mission, perhaps Byron also stopped by a bookstore and purchased the Twilight books. Like the angst-ridden teens of Stephanie Myers’ works, Manfred seems intent on telling everyone, earthly or otherwise, just how tortured, misunderstood, and wholly different he is. Like those characters, Manfred makes me want to break into a slapfest. Just what has this guy done that makes him so awful? Apparently it had something to do with his lost love, Astarte, whom he conjures but then resists speaking to. Perhaps the true reason that Manfred dies at the end of Act IV is that he had so terribly annoyed everyone in the spiritual realm.

The heart of Manfred’s problem, it seems lies in the earliest lines of the work.

The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
Philosophy and science, and the springs
Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world,
I have essay’d, and in my mind there is
A power to make these subject to itself–
But they avail not: I have done men good,
And I have met with good even among men–
But this avail’d not: I have had my foes,
And none have baffled, many fallen before me–
But this avail’d not:

Essentially, Manfred notes that the world is fallen and no work of man can fix it or even mitigate the pain associated with life in a sinful world. Byron is never described as a Christian poet, yet in this theme, he seems to have come to the center of life as described by Genesis 3 and beyond.

Posted in English Literature, Romanticism.

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