Manfred by Byron: Analysis & Summary

Manfred by Byron: Analysis & Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

The title character of Lord Byron's dramatic poem 'Manfred' is pretty intense! In this lesson, we'll summarize the events of this drama and analyze the ways that Manfred fits into the literary tradition of unusual heroes.

Lord Byron, Manfred and the Byronic Hero

Today's dramas are full of rebellious loner characters with dark pasts who go up against the establishment and win. Just think of any number of action movies to come out over the past 20 years -- many of them have this archetype. But nearly 200 years ago, the poet Lord Byron perfected this type of character so well, it was actually named after him. And his dramatic poem Manfred (1816-1817) contains a perfect example of this Byronic Hero.

Summary of Manfred

Act I

In his castle, Count Manfred summons the seven nature spirits to him: Earth, Ocean, Air, Night, Mountain, Wind, and Star. They ask him what he wants, and he asks for forgetfulness. What does Manfred want to forget, you may ask? He doesn't say.

The spirits answer that death will give him forgetfulness. However, since they are immortal and cannot die themselves, they also cannot give death to Manfred. Before the spirits go, Manfred asks to see one of them. Since they don't have physical form, one of the spirits takes the form of a beautiful woman. Manfred seems to recognize her and excitedly tries to embrace her. She vanishes before he can. He shouts that his heart is crushed and falls unconscious.

We next see Manfred standing on top of a mountain high in the Alps. He is about to throw himself off a cliff but a chamois, or goat hunter, happens by and grabs Manfred just in time.

Act II

Back in the chamois hunter's cottage, the hunter offers Manfred a glass of wine to calm his nerves. Manfred, in a state of madness, thinks the glass is full of blood. He rants that all he wants is death. Even though he's younger than the hunter, Manfred feels like he has lived forever. The guilt for his unnamed crime makes time move too slowly. He pays the hunter for his trouble and leaves.

Now in a lower valley, Manfred summons the beautiful Witch of the Alps. Finally, we get to find out why he feels so cursed! Manfred tells the witch that he fell in love with a woman; although he doesn't say it outright, we understand it to be his sister. They loved each other, and that love led to her death. He asks the witch either to bring his sister back to life or else to help him die. She offers to help him as long as he swears to serve her. Manfred refuses.

Manfred's next attempt brings him to Arimanes, the Prince of Earth and Air, and his servants, the three Destinies. Manfred asks Arimanes to summon the spirit of his dead sister, Astarte. She appears looking as beautiful as in life. Manfred begs her to speak to him. She calls out his name and tells him that he will die tomorrow. Then she disappears.

Act III

The next day, the Abbot of St. Maurice visits Manfred's castle. He asks Manfred if the terrible rumors are true, if Manfred has really been conversing with evil spirits. The Abbot offers to help Manfred repent and save his soul, but Manfred rejects him. Nothing, says Manfred, can have more power over his own soul than his own sense of guilt, not even God.

The Abbot returns later that day to try again to save Manfred. While he is there, a spirit from Hell arises to take Manfred away. Manfred accepts his death but refuses to let the spirit take him to hell. He says the spirit has no power over him. Manfred's own guilt tortures him more than hell ever could. The demon disappears. The Abbot begs Manfred to use his final breath to repent, but Manfred refuses. 'Old man!' he says before expiring, tis not so difficult to die.'

Analysis -- Manfred as Byronic Hero

The Byronic Hero is a character archetype that existed in literature long before Lord Byron began writing. However, Byron perfected the character so completely both in his writing and in the way he lived his own life, that it ended up being named after him.

The Byronic Hero is a very complex character - so complex, that entire books have been written just to describe him. Here are three of the most important ways that Count Manfred is a Byronic Hero:

Outcast from Society

First, Manfred is an outcast from society by his own choice. As he tells the Witch of the Alps: 'From my youth upwards / My spirit walk'd not with the souls of men, / … / The aim of their existence was not mine; / My joys, my grief's, my passions, and my powers, / Made me a stranger.'

In other words, Manfred's personality makes him a loner. He feels special and set apart from other men, which is exemplified in the close relationship he feels with the natural world. This is one reason why many of the key scenes with Manfred occur in the Alps, a huge mountain range in Europe that inspired numerous writers during Lord Byron's time.

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