On First Looking into…Manfred

By Julia Malykh
The enchanting sensuality of Lord Byron’s closet drama Manfred (1816) lies in its depiction of a power struggle. On encountering the text, it is easy to underappreciate Byron’s magnetic innovation by writing off Manfred as a fictionalized account of the poet’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh—in keeping with his personal reputation as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Upon a closer look, however, it becomes clear that Byron’s dramatic poem is a series of tableaux depicting power struggles between a Byronic hero, Manfred, and a Byronic heroine, Astarte.
While many critics have agreed that Manfred, who is a brooding, sardonic, enigmatic outcast with a troubled past and a desire for power, is a quintessential Byronic hero, not much critical writing has dealt with the fact that Astarte is a female version of a Byronic hero. Not only does she have an air of mystery and darkness around her, but her absence also makes her the most powerful character of the poem, in the tradition of the unseen character in the drama, who, although absent throughout most of the action, often motivates the entire dramatic plot. The combative relationship of Manfred’s two protagonists is evoked in the irreconcilable nature of their names. The Germanic origin of Manfred’s name means “man of peace,” while Astarte’s name comes from the Ancient Greek and means “goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war.” Manfred and Astarte are thus constantly depicted in a tension to overpower one another as they are bound not only by their love and desire for each other, but also “by blood” of their father, “The pure warm stream / Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours” (II. I. 24-5). The duality of this tension—ancestral and erotic at the same time—sustains the poem’s power struggle between these culturally antagonistic concepts.
The power scale tips in Astarte’s or Manfred’s favor in turn, never privileging one more than the other. As the poem opens, it seems that Manfred is the one who holds all the power, as he defies the seven spirits, “I call upon ye by the written charm/ Which gives me power upon you: rise, appear!” (I.I. 35-6) But the reader soon finds out Manfred’s powerlessness: he is imprisoned by his love for the departed Astarte. And when Astarte’s spirit does finally appear for the short (but arguably most effective) moment in the poem, Nemesis describes her as being more powerful than Manfred or anyone else, by saying, “She is not of our order, but belongs / To the other powers. Mortal, thy quest is vain, / And we are baffled also” (II. IV. 115-7). In distress throughout the entire poem, after seeing Astarte, Manfred finally finds a “calm,” “inexplicable stillness” (III. I. 7-8). In his final moment, Manfred finally lets go off his power struggle in a moment of peace and vulnerability when he says to the Abbot, “Give me thy hand” (III. IV. 148). Freed from his power quest, the Byronic hero is ready to meet his Byronic heroine. With Manfred, the seductive bad-boy of poetry has created an alluring interpretation of the battle of the sexes, a theme contemporary for all ages.
Julia Malykh is an undergraduate student in English literature at Columbia University. This post appears as part of the series, “On First Looking into…”