The scene in Byron’s “Manfred” in which the spirit of Astarte, the protagonist’s dead love, rises from the mist is one of the drama’s focal points and features classic tropes associated with Romantic literature. The themes present in the scene focus on defiance of authority, the nature of law and the capacity for a human individual to transcend the limitations of mortality. Crucially, the scene places Manfred at the centre of an antagonism between his own desire for redemption and his refusal to accept the limits of his life. It is this antagonism which fuels the scene, along with Manfred’s refusal to bow to a finite authority. As such, in order to understand the complexity of the scene it is necessary to view both its poetic structures and alongside its status as a work of Romantic literature. If one does this, it is clear that the core of the scene’s drama revolves around Manfred’s defiance of law and authority and the power of human love to, at least potentially, overcome finitiude.
The scene opens with a traditional hymn of praise given in blank verse to a supreme power. This power, named Arimanes, is positioned as having control over all human life and is depicted as being the focal point of nature. His power is positioned as being explicitly destructive. Through a series of metaphors, Arimanes is positioned as possessing dominion over natural causality itself. Byron writes: “He speaketh – and the clouds reply in thunder; / He gazeth – from his glance the sunnbeams flee; / He moveth – earthquakes rend the world asunder” (2008, 283) The combination and repetition of these metaphors, in which each line beings with the word “He” and ends with a description of natural force or aspect of natural beauty, places Arimanes as having complete control over nature, but also as some way in being bound to it for the sake of praise. Byron suggests that Ariames controls through particular elements of nature, and that he is, as such, unable to grasp the total harmony of the world outside of these particular kinds of action. In this way, Arimanes is presented as as tyrant who despite being extraordinarily powerful is existentially dependent upon the praise of those whom he rules.
It is this aspect of the lord that leads to Manfred’s defiance of him. When the former enters the scene he is explicitly positioned as mortal by the spirits that surround Arimanes, and this mortality is described in explicit images of matter and of corruptibility. The spirits demand that Manfred “porstrate” himself and his “condemned clay” (283). The use of alliteration in this latter case draws attention to the natural limitations within which Manfred lives as a mortal, and as someone destined to die and be buried. The Romantic content of the scene is revealed in Manfred’s defiance of the command to bow to Arimanes, and this defiance is predicated on the fact that the latter is equally dependent upon mortality. Manfred insists that his opponent is not capable of grasping the totality of the universe, and states: “Bid him [Arimanes] bow down to that which is above him, / The overruling Infinite, the Maker / who made him not for worship…” (284). Arimanes is not an infinite, as he remains bound to the praise of his subjects, rather Manfred manifests defiance by suggesting that he is capable of understanding a power above his brute force; one which is not bound to its creations, or that has not made them simply for the sake of “worship.” By insisting that Arimanes is bound to the same limitations as himself, Manfred simultaneously identifies a limit on his power, and suggests that there is a force beyond this limit. As such, his defiance is predicated on the fact that the authority with which he is faced is an impure, alloyed version of an actual infinite power.
This defiance is further qualified by the Spirits’ recognition that Manfred himself is a being with an inherent contradiction. They notes that Manfred’s sufferings have “been of an immortal nature, like / Our own; his knowledge and his powers and will / As far as is compatible with clay, /…have bee such / As clay has seldom borne” (284). Manfred in this image is depicted as an individual who rages against the reality of his own mortal limitations, despite the evident fact that he can never overcome. It is this refusal to resign to one’s limitations at the same moment that one remains bound to them, that marks Manfred as an archetypal Byronic, Romantic hero,, contradistinction to Arimanes who remains unconscious of the fact that his power is compromized.
The climax of the scene manifests Byron’s belief that a higher mode of power may be accessed through earthly love, another common theme in Romantic literature. By calling on the spirit of Astarte and asking for forgiveness alongside asking her to tell him that she loves him, Manfred makes it clear that his own desire is bound to the physical world, but that this very physical world, when approached from the perspective of a Romantic view of love, is capable of generating a sense of the infinite that is unbound to the laws of destruction and creation.
To conclude, it is this contradiction between mortality and the infinite accessed, and potentially lost, through true human love, that manifests both Manfred’s heroic status and his ultimate failure. It is also this contradiction which marks the scene as an archetypal Romantic portrayal of morality and defiance.
- Byorn. George Gordon. Lord Byron: The Major Works. London: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.