By JMula - Posted on 22 March 2010


Jaclyn Mula

Romantic Literature

Professor Cronin

November 24, 2009


Existentialism in Byron’s “Manfred”


            Individualism, existence, anguish, despair and the subjectivity of freedom are but a few of the core thoughts among existential philosophers and thinkers. Lord Byron’s dramatic poem “Manfred” questions the distinction between what is natural and supernatural, what is human and what is divine, and what the nature of evil is from an existentialist point of view without ever necessarily answering these questions but rather leaving it up to the reader to discern meaning. By letting the reader determine whether or not Manfred will be saved or if he can be redeemed from his secret sin resonates the overall feeling within the poem that only an individual can judge what is good or evil; salvation can only be obtained through the power of the mind of the individual. Manfred is a spirit with a secret sin, possessing the qualities of alienation, isolation, experience of choice, and most importantly despair. By interacting with the natural world as well as the supernatural, Manfred is able to decipher what he has the power to do within his own life as a mortal being, which gives him the freedom to judge his actions. Because the things we choose to act upon affect others, intended or not, freedom to judge poses a problem concerning responsibility and values in regards to our interactions. By consciously judging and evaluating the self, Manfred can be seen as both human and divine. He can only be saved if he grants himself the mercy to do so, or else he will remain condemned for eternity. Manfred was ultimately alienated from life because he saw death as his master. Until death stops being the master of our actions, only then can we accept that the universe is not an intelligent system and we can die peacefully. By facing death as something to be overcome within the self, Manfred overcomes the dreadfulness of life and saves himself.

            Written in the form of a play, the first scene opens with Manfred conjuring up and speaking to seven spirits of the natural world: “By the strong curse which is upon my soul,/The thought which is within me and around me,/I do compel ye to my will – Appear!” (1:1, 47-49) Several things must be noted in that brief statement. First, Manfred discloses the fact that his soul has had a curse placed upon it, which takes over all of his thoughts. Secondly, because he makes the distinction that it is his soul which is cursed, the question of mortality arises: If Manfred’s body dies, is his soul still cursed? Or do the soul and the curse die along with the body?  Manfred perceives his soul as damned and thus perceives himself as immortal. Thirdly, he has power over the spirits of the natural world and can call them up according to his will; this blurs the distinction between what is human and what is divine. After the seven spirits rise up, they mockingly ask their conjurer, this “child of clay” (1:1, 131), “what wouldst thou with us?” (1:1, 135) Manfred asks for “Oblivion, self-oblivion” (1:1, 145). The forgetfulness of self which Manfred desires negates his existence as an individual. It is our own self-consciousness that sets us apart from others and thus impossible for others to help us forget ourselves. Manfred is living in despair;

Kierkegaard calls despair the “sickness unto death”: It is not a disease from which one could die, but is precisely the agony of not being able to die because of being an eternal self. The individual is in despair over himself, tormented by the inability to get rid of himself. (Patrik 164)


Manfred’s eternal self lives on in his curse and his secret sin, and only when he rids of himself can the immortal despair be broken. 

            Because the spirits cannot grant him self-oblivion, Manfred once again realizes he is alone. In an effort to rid himself of himself, he stands on a cliff and tries consciously to kill himself, yet he does not act; “I feel the impulse – yet I do not plunge;/I see the peril – yet do not recede.” (1:2, 20-21) A characteristic of existentialism is the inability to act due to the overwhelming consciousness of the truth of the world. Manfred can be compared to Dostoyevsky’s underground man who “claims that too much consciousness is a sickness and that a symptom of this sickness is an inability to act.” (Patrik 3) Manfred is overtly conscious of his secret sin, but because “they who know the most/Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,” (1:1, 10-11) he is unable to kill himself. The fatal truth is that unless he forgives himself before he dies, the eternal despair tormenting him now will continue to be eternal. Although Manfred has the freedom to kill himself, he knows it will accomplish nothing because he has ceased to justify his own deeds unto himself (1:2, 27-28). This returns to the fact that Manfred’s life characterized by despair cannot be overcome, but rather torments him.

            It is not until act two that we begin to get a sense of who Manfred actually is, with a little bit of a background story concerning his youth as well as what is truly tormenting him. Manfred claims not to be “of thine order” (2:1, 37), the order of mankind, when speaking to the Chamois Hunter who pulls him away from the edge of the cliff at the end of act one. He then goes on to explain to the Witch of the Alps, another spirit he conjured up, how his

Spirit walked not with the souls of men,/Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;/The thirst of their ambition was not mine, The aim of their existence was not mine;/My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers,/Made me a stranger;/[…]These were my pastimes, and to be alone;/For if the beings, of whom I was one, -/Hating to be so,- crossed me in my path,/I felt myself degraded back to them,/And was all clay again. And then I dived,/In my lone wanderings, to the caves of death,/Searching its cause in its effect. (2:2, 51-56 and 75-81)


The isolation and alienation that is central to existential thinking is shown explicitly here; “Primarily it is the inevitability of death that makes us strangers in the universe.” (Patrik 43) In his lonesomeness, Manfred began to study the cause of death in its effect – perhaps alluding to murder of another. His thirst for knowledge allowed him to transcend earthly desires yet bound him in anguish, an existential mood which reveals the groundlessness of his actions (42), to his actions as a mortal being that will inevitably die along with the rest of mankind. After disclosing some of his history, Manfred explains to the Witch of the Alps what, or rather who, he wants to forget: Astarte.

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;/[…]She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,/The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind/To comprehend the universe:/[…]I loved her, and destroyed her!/[…]Not with my hand, but heart – which/broke her heart;/It gazed on mine, and withered. I have shed/Blood, but not hers – and yet her blood was shed;/I saw – and could not stanch it. (2:2, 105-121)


It is ambiguous as to who Astarte is in relation to Manfred, and all the reader can seem to understand is that he either killed her, someone she loved or did something to or within himself which caused her heart to wither. Because death can only be recognized by the other, Manfred realizes his fate as a mortal being as well as his immortality created by his sin, which leaves him to dwell in his despair, and live forever (2:2, 148-149). Here the “mixed essence” (1:2, 41) of Manfred being both human and divine, mortal and immortal, gives cause to understand his grief. Perhaps Astarte’s death was not supposed to occur when it did, leaving Manfred with a sense of absurdity regarding the universe; the universe is not an intelligent design and there are no causes for the outcome of actions besides us. Without causal interaction, moral responsibility flies out the window and leaves the individual bewildered. Manfred has to either take responsibility for what he has done, or peril in an abyss of misunderstanding.

            According to Patrik, “being free means that no other cause…determines our actions. We are each responsible for our choices and our actions.” (41) Because Manfred cannot attribute another cause besides his own to Astarte’s death, he is conflicted between the responsibility of his action as well as the value of his own character. According to Manfred, “actions are our epochs” (2:1, 53) and “We are the fools of time and terror./Days/Steal on us, and steal from us; yet we live,/Loathing our life, and dreading still to die.” (2:2, 163-166) We believe that we only have so much time to live a life we hate so we perform meaningless tasks to take our minds off of the brute fact that we will die regardless of our actions. Manfred attributes her death causally to his life:

If I had never lived, what which I love/Had still been living; had I never loved,/That which I love would still be beautiful,/Happy and giving happiness. What is she?/What is she now? – a sufferer for my sins -/A thing I dare not think upon – or nothing. (2:2, 192-197)


If it weren’t for his life and love, Astarte would have lived. Instead, she is reduced to nothing. Manfred’s existence does not necessitate that Astarte would have lived happily and continued to give happiness had he not existed, because no one escapes death. The reason Manfred lives in despair is because “the main source of absurdity is death…death makes human aspirations irrational because anything we achieve will be negated by death.” (Patrik 55) Perhaps Manfred aspired to be with Astarte as her lover, and as a product of his actions, her death made him realize the irrationality of the world. “Death equalizes all individuals’ lives to the same level: nothingness,” (55) so even if Astarte had lived and brought more happiness, she still would have died eventually and still become nothing. If all becomes nothing, then can the product of our actions be labeled as good or evil? The answer would appear to be no.

            The value Manfred places on his own life is also threatened by the death of Astarte. As a man with a refusal to submit, one who “shall not yield” (1:1, 156) and will “kneel not” (2:4, 35) before the spirits of the supernatural world, Manfred asserts himself as a powerful agent in charge of his own actions. Having the gift of a rational mind, Manfred knows his power over the spirits because of his ability to conjure them up at will, yet because of his absence of a rational understanding of the universe, his knowledge of why things happen is not fulfilled, thus perpetuating his anguish and despair.

            Eventually Manfred moves from wanting self-oblivion to wanting to confront Astarte, as he tells the spirit Arimanes to “call up Astarte.” (2:3, 86) Once the phantom of Astarte rises, Manfred begins to bargain with her:

Forgive me or condemn me./[…]Say that thou loath’st me not – that I do bear/This punishment for both – that thou wilt be/One of the blessed – and that I shall die;/For hitherto all hateful things conspire/To bind me in existence – in a life/Which makes me shrink from immortality –/A future like the past. I cannot rest. (2:4, 105-131)


Manfred is searching for judgment through Astarte; he now hopes that Astarte belongs to the blessed though he may never be. All he gets in return is, “Manfred! Tomorrow ends thine earthly ills.” (2:4, 152) Astarte does not forgive or condemn him, but rather proclaims that the despair that is characterizing his life will end tomorrow. Astarte grants neither of Manfred’s two wishes because it is not in her power. Only when Manfred chooses to judge his actions himself as forgivable or condemnable will he be able to break free from the bonds of existence and die peacefully. Even the Abbot, a messenger of God, can’t save Manfred:

Old man! There is no power in holy men,/Nor charm in prayer, nor purifying form/Of penitence, nor outward look, nor fast,/Nor agony – nor, greater than all these,/The innate tortures of that deep despair,/Which is remorse without the fear of hell,/But all in all sufficient to itself/Would make a hell of heaven – can exorcise/From out the unbounded spirit the quick sense/Of its own sins, wrongs, sufferance, and revenge/Upon itself; there is no future pang/Can deal that justice on the self-condemned/He deals on his own soul. (3:1, 66-77)


Manfred lives in dread with himself, and finally realizes that mortal or immortal, no other being can mediate between him and Heaven, except himself. As an unbounded spirit, it is his fate to be self-condemned and to deal the cards of justice and mercy on his own soul accordingly with the power of his mind. Manfred must overcome the despair that has taken hold of him within an irrational world in order to create value and responsibility, to rationalize his existence as separate and individual from others.

            The last scene of Byron’s dramatic poem makes clear the power of the mind of the individual as being able to reject dying seen through the eyes of another in order to accept death within him. The “awful figure” that rose “like an infernal god, from out the earth” (3:4, 63-64) was “the genius” (3:4, 82) of Manfred; Manfred was facing the death of himself, his own hell, his despair. As the spirit summoned Manfred, he continued to shun it: “Away! I’ll die as I have lived – alone…I do defy ye…The hand of death is on me – but not yours” (3:4, 90, 99, 141). Manfred overcomes his dread of becoming nothing through the absurdity of death and understands that there is life in despair; to try and escape yourself and have value placed on your life from another is what is absurd: “The mind which is immortal makes itself/Requital for its good or evil thoughts,-/Is its own origin of ill and end -/And its own place and time.” (3:4, 129-132) Manfred’s submission can only be to himself, because his death creates all else to be nothingness as well. By refusing to let death be his master, Manfred saves himself; “I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey-/But was my own destroyer, and will be/My own hereafter.” (3:4, 138-140). As judge of his own actions to be good or evil, he condemned himself for all eternity. His condemnation was his freedom. Manfred’s last words, “Old man! ‘tis not so difficult to die,” (3:4, 151) is profound because it shows that he now as the ability to act and overcome despair. He does not die because of despair, but dies because the torments of despair no longer hold him slave to the dread of death.

            Byron’s “Manfred” is deeply existential, nihilistic, ambiguous and contradictory with regards to life and death, human and divine, good and evil. Although Manfred’s death as something definite has been discussed to great lengths, it is Dostoyevsky’s existentialist theory of the burden of freedom that characterizes Manfred’s death and legitimizes it; “The concept of the burden of freedom became the claim that individuals are condemned to be free. Whether or not we acknowledge our freedom, we are free; we are not free to choose not to be free.” (Patrik 179) Once Manfred realizes that he alone has the choice to save or damn himself, and accepts his own freedom, can he freely die. Death cannot be given by another, nor can the individual live in fear of or succumb to the inevitability of death. Instead, one must accept the freedom that comes with death – freedom from the burden of freedom. It takes Manfred so long to discover this because “Even though it is a gift from God, freedom demands too much of us: the ability to decide for ourselves what is good and evil, the readiness to follow God or to abjure, and the power to resist or succumb to the temptations of materialism, religious servility, and political solutions” (179) Manfred’s inability to act when he attempted his own suicide reflects his power to resist and succumb to temptations. Also, his refusal to submit to the spirits and his rejection of the Abbot’s system reflect his power to resist. The actions we do in our lifetime immortalize us by characterizing us as a certain individual; “an individual is the sum total of his actions” (69), no more and no less. It is only when Manfred accepts his mortal fate and can succumb to death that he overcomes death.










Works Cited

"George Gorden, Lord Byron." English Romantic Writers. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College,

            1995. 877-96. Print.

Patrik, Linda E. Existential Literature An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000. Print.




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