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Bruce Seaton
Prof. C. E. Robinson

The Immortal Mind: Manfred the Supreme Rejector

In his dramatic poem Manfred, Byron addresses a multitude of interrelated issues, including, but not limited to, the divided nature of man’s mortality and search for infinite knowledge, Man’s quest for psychological and emotional completion, and introduces ideas about what the mind and imagination truly are. One major theme that is repeated several times in the poem’s text is that of mankind’s defiance of external forces on the human will. To determine the method, purpose, and final lesson of this theme, it is first necessary to examine Manfred’s reactions to external forces within the poem and the purpose of his rejections of them in regard to the goals of his quest.

The poem opens with Manfred’s discussion of his past. He has already learned that “The tree of knowledge is not that of life” (I.i.12), and has already rejected the human constructions of Philosophy, science, philanthropy, and battle, for “they avail not” (I.i.13-21). He has, in a sense, risen above the desires of man, and is preparing to turn his attentions elsewhere for assistance from unearthly forces, saying, “I have no dread,/ And feel the curse to have no natural fear,/ Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes,/ Or lurking love of something on the earth.”

Despite his successful rejection of human goals, Manfred is, as noted by Charles Robinson, the victim of his own curse (57). He is victim to “a continuance of enduring thought” which he “can resist not” (I.i.4-5). Since his “eyes but close/ To look within,” and since no other characters have been introduced thus far, it appears that Manfred’s condition is self-imposed.

The Seventh Spirit’s later statement that “Nor to slumber, nor to die,/ Shall be in thy destiny” (I.i.254-5) appears then to be not a simple restatement of Manfred’s condition, but an unintentional redundancy on the part of the Spirit. The Spirit’s previous statement, “I call upon thee! and compel/ Thyself to be thy proper hell” (I.i.250-1) also appears redundant, since Manfred has opened the scene with a harrowing description of how hellish his solitary life already is. Despite the fact that it is the spirit which rules “The star which rules Manfred’s destiny” (I.i.110), and despite its lengthy incantation, the spirit is unable to present Manfred with any new miseries. The Spirit claims to have extended Manfred’s misery indefinitely since Manfred now supposedly cannot die, but he does eventually die, so even this claim is untrue. The most accurate statement of the Seventh Spirit, it seems, is that “In proving every poison known,/ I found the strongest was your own” (I.i.240-1)

Manfred rejects these spirits, sending them away almost casually, saying “The lightning of my being . . . shall not yield to yours, though cooped in clay!” (I.i.155-57), and only falls victim to them when the Seventh spirit appears as a “beautiful female figure” (I.i.187- stage note). This figure presumably, as noted by D. L. MacDonald, is at least similar in appearance to the late lady Astarte (31), who was “like Manfred in lineaments- her eyes,/ Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone/ Even of her voice, they said were like to Manfred’s” (I.ii.105-7), and who, as noted by Thorslev, shared with Manfred the blood “Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours/ When we were in our youth, and had one heart,/ And loved each other as we should not love” (II.i.25-7) (165). These descriptions suggest that Astarte is not only Manfred’s former lover, but his sister. When the Spirit appears as this external double of Manfred, the man attempts to embrace the figure in a gesture foreshadowing the relationship revealed later in the poem. Manfred “falls senseless” when the figure vanishes (“My embrace was fatal” {I.ii.87}), and Manfred is reminded of one of the few beings which has power over him--Astarte, and as she is his double--Manfred himself.

Manfred’s next rejection is of the Chamois Hunter. The two scenes which include the Hunter are crucial to the theme, because the Chamois Hunter is one of the two figures in the poem that Manfred is unable to repel. The Hunter, conversely, easily prevents Manfred from committing suicide, and thus has a certain power over Manfred. When Manfred attempts to send the Hunter away, saying he needs “no further guidance” (II.i.6), the Hunter completely ignores the statement and changes the subject. Later in the scene, when the Hunter offers his prayers for Manfred, the second man says he “needs them not, but can endure the Hunter’s pity (II.i.89-90). Manfred is unwilling to endure even the attention of a divine presence, but accepts the pity of the Chamois Hunter with thanks before paying the man for his help and departing.

These exchanges suggest that although Manfred has disdain for his fellow man (he later says, “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” {II.ii.76-8}), he also has a certain respect for their own independent will, and realizes that according to his own assertion of freewill, each man is free to do as he pleases. This facet of the theme of the defiance of external forces will be repeated in the scenes with the Abbot. In both of these scenarios (the two situations in which Manfred converses at length with a fellow man), it is Manfred who leaves, not the one to whom he speaks. In the same way that the various spirits and demons of the poem have no power of the mind and will of Manfred, he has no power over the wills of other men.

After Manfred leaves the Chamois Hunter, he summons the confusingly named Witch of the Alps (who is, in fact, a spirit, not a witch). When the witch appears, Manfred is struck by her beauty, despite his earlier (and only partly true) claim that “there is no form on earth/ Hideous or beautiful” (I.i.184-5). Manfred has already been struck by the appearance of the Seventh Spirit, so it follows that if the Seventh Spirit’s appearance was at least similar to that of the dead Astarte, the form of this “Beautiful Spirit” with her “dazzling eyes of glory” (II.ii.13-4) is also like that of Manfred’s idealized double. Although since Astarte, being dead, is no longer of earth there is no “form on earth” which is beautiful to him, unearthly spirits residing here can still summon that form which most weakens and opens Manfred to suggestion.

It is the Witch’s appearance (coupled with her prodding of Manfred to keep his lengthy monologue on-topic) that reveals in the text several important facts of both Manfred and Astarte, although Astarte’s name is not revealed until later. Again, by assuming the form of a human, specifically of the only human to whom Manfred had any deep affection and, as Peter J. Manning notes, “his one link with humanity” (79), the Witch assumes a limited power over him. This power is broken, however, when the Witch tells Manfred she may be able to help him if he “Wilt swear obedience to her will, and do/ Her bidding” (II.ii.155-6). Manfred, suddenly snapping out of his lengthy trance of miserable memories, angrily responds, “I will not swear- Obey! and whom? the spirits/ Whose presence I command, and be the slave/ Of those who served me- Never!” (II.ii.157-9)

Although Manfred is once again frustrated in his goal of reunion with Astarte, his resolve does not waver, and he decides that he will “call the dead” (II.ii.177). One comment Manfred makes at the very end of this monologue has particular bearing on the idea of independence from domination by external forces. Manfred says he has “never shrunk to gaze/ On spirit, good or evil” (II.ii.200-1). The idea that Manfred must “shrink” in order to properly “gaze” upon a spirit suggests that Manfred is greater in stature, if not in power, to the spirits with whom he will soon commune.

Manfred next travels to the Hall of Arimanes, the Zoroastrian spirit of evil, akin to Christianity’s Satan. Manfred intrudes and immediately antagonizes the spirits gathered there, the Destinies, Nemesis, and several other spirits as well, refusing to bow to Arimanes, saying “I kneel not. . . . I sunk before my vain despair, and knelt/ To my own desolation” (II.iv.36-42). Manfred has only ever knelt to the tortures created by his own machinations, and is wholly unwilling to submit to Arimanes. As Peter L. Thorslev, Jr. notes, Manfred then suggests that Arimanes “bow down to that which is above him,/ The overruling Infinite- The Maker/ who made him not for worship- let him kneel,/ And we will kneel together” (II.iv.46-9) (173). Since he has already denied, and will continue to deny a need for aid from the Christian God, this must be taken as sarcasm on Manfred’s part. He is simply reminding Arimanes and his minions that they do not top the chain of cosmic command.

Arimanes and his crew are able to temporarily raise Astarte into a phantasmal life, but cannot force either Manfred or this Phantom to submit to their demonic will. Not even Arimanes can entice Astarte’s phantom to so much as speak. Only after Manfred himself has pled with the Phantom will it reply, finally speaking a total of eleven words to the still frustrated and ultimately unanswered Manfred. She does not forgive him, simply telling him that he will die. This death may or may not produce the resolution Manfred so greatly wishes, his reunion with his dead double, but since there is no hope of this fulfillment in mortal life, he will have to take what he can get.

Astarte, even in death, possesses a will which the spirits cannot reign, and she will only reply to Manfred, another mortal. Since she is an extension, or a double of Manfred, this further suggests Manfred’s indelible and unconquerable will. Her aloofness also is a major clue about Manfred’s actual goal. as Manning notes, although Manfred initially asks for forgetfulness or death from the seven spirits, these are merely “desperate substitutes for his true desire” (81). When the former lovers finally meet, Manfred’s request is not for death (which is, in fact, what he gets), but for forgiveness, and for Astarte’s admission of love for him. Manfred then exits the hall of Arimanes “a debtor” (II.iv.168) to Astarte for her answer of death to Manfred. This debt will be more fully discussed below.

The next act of the poem takes place in the castle of Manfred. Manfred converses at some length with the Abbot of St. Maurice, who is concerned that “Rumors strange/ And of unholy nature, are abroad” that Manfred “holdest converse with the things/ Which are forbidden to the search of man” (III.i.29-35). Manfred replies that “whate’er/ I may have been, or am, doth rest between/ Heaven and myself” (III.i.52-4), that “there is no power in holy men” (III.i.66), and finally that “there is no future pang/ Can deal that justice on the self-condemned/ He deals on his own soul” (III.i.76-8). He graciously refuses the Abbot’s aid, saying that if he is doomed, his doom is self-imposed and he will accept responsibility for his actions; it is too late for him to be redeemed.

Although the Abbot says “It can never be too late/ To reconcile thyself with thy own soul/ And thy soul with heaven” (III.i.98-100), Manfred sides with Rome’s sixth emperor, Nero, and says his time is passed. It is interesting to note that Nero was an emperor who was considered unusually sexually deviant and cruel even in his day. This is further evidence of Manfred’s own sexual deviance, and suggests that he is, despite his refusal to confess, attempting to tell the Abbot about his true sin. As Gottlieb notes, this sin is not, as the Abbot believes, his communion with unholy spirits, but the soul-pact of incest, and the defiance such a pact requires of all other forces.

Although Manfred attempts to send the Abbot away, the Abbot will not go, showing his own indomitable will, and returns to Manfred’s side in scene four for Manfred’s confrontation with the Infernal Spirit. Like the Chamois Hunter, the Abbot is not subject to Manfred’s will, although the Abbot is similarly unable to convince Manfred to pray.

Manfred may, in the end, be unable to pray. His final rejection of authority is directed at the Infernal Spirit who comes to claim his soul, and whose description by the Abbot in lines 62-5 of the scene is descriptive of the Christian figure of Satan. Although the Spirit is persistent and even summons other spirits to aid him, Manfred repeatedly refutes the Spirit’s claim to his soul, telling the spirit he has “commanded/ Things of an essence greater far than thine,/ And striven with thy masters” (III.iv.84-86).

In sending away the spirit which has come to collect him, however, Manfred is also rejecting the entire cosmic hierarchy which gives the spirit power, as suggested by Erika Gottlieb (105). He is, in short, rejecting the power of the Christian God over his “mind which is immortal” (III.iv.129). More extreme even than his rejection of the cosmic hierarchy’s power, Manfred lays the blame of sin upon God himself, by first claiming that the tree of knowledge is his birthright (“my past power/ Was purchased. . . by superior science. . . in knowledge of our fathers- when the earth/ Saw men and spirits walking side by side/ And gave ye no supremacy” III.iv.113-9), and by then accusing God as the greatest criminal of all, saying “Must crimes be punished but by other crimes,/ And greater criminals?” (III.iv.123-4). As Gottlieb asserts, Manfred has denied the power of God on his own will and blames man’s fall into sin on God, therefore he cannot then pray to God for forgiveness, as the Abbot entreats him to do (105).

Finally, Manfred may want specifically not to go to heaven, as it has already been demonstrated by Astarte’s raised spirit in the hall of Arimanes and by Manfred’s reference to her as “one without a tomb” (II.iv.82) that Astarte, the goal of his ordeals, is not in heaven. If he truly wishes to be reunited with her, he would certainly not desire to spend eternity in a place she cannot enter. In any case, Manfred does successfully send the spirits away, and soon afterwards exclaims “’tis not so difficult to die” (III.iv.151). Manfred has rejected both heaven and hell. As Gottlieb suggests, Manfred has sent the minions of hell away, and no angel appears to take his soul. There can be no fulfillment of his goals in this life, so there is nothing left for him to do but die. Death is not only not difficult, it is necessary (105). Manfred is, as noted by W. Paul Elledge, “affirming, through his terminal defiant act, the immunity of human will to inferior powers” (82).

There are clear lines of similarity that can be drawn between each of Manfred’s rejections. First, even at his most scathing, Manfred never denies the existence of the person, spirit, or deity he is rejecting, nor that the entity in question may have great power--in fact, Manfred even travels to the halls of Arimanes specifically because the demon has the power to raise the dead. In each situation, Manfred merely denies that the being has power over him.

Second, he is able to deny any obligation to any external force, because, as he says to the Infernal Spirit, “Thou didst not tempt me, and thou couldst not tempt me,/ I have not been thy dupe, nor am thy prey--/ But was my own destroyer, and will be/ My own hereafter” (III.iv.137-40). He owes no debts to these characters, and has made no “pact with the devil.” As Gottlieb suggests, unlike Faust, which Manfred’s first and last scenes parallel, no bargain is made with supernatural forces, and the spirits in Manfred are ultimately thwarted in their attempt to claim Manfred’s soul (98). Manfred may not merely be disinclined to make a pact with these external forces; he may be unable to do so because he has already made a pact which precludes all others--with Astarte.

According to tradition, witches were given their magical powers by sealing a diabolic pact through sexual intercourse with the devil. As stated by MacDonald, this carnal pact is represented in Manfred not as demonality, but as a hinted-at incestuous relationship between Manfred and Astarte (31). Because he has bound himself to her through incestuous love and their shared heart, he is unable to ally himself with any other being (32). This explains her power over him--only to Astarte does Manfred lower himself to pleading, and her image is used to influence him by both the Seventh Spirit and the Witch of the Alps. Since she can be seen as an extension of Manfred, however, his pact is really with himself, and this internal pact is what really precludes all others and causes his constant defiance of external forces.

His debt to Astarte, as mentioned above, is for her declaration of Manfred’s impending death, which he considers a “grace accorded” by her (II.iv.167). This death supplies no guarantees, however, that he will be reunited with her and be allowed to find peace. There is merely hope that his immortal mind will go on living after his body has died and will be reunited with Astarte’s spirit in another life.

There is some hope for this reunion, however, and it comes from an unlikely source--the Abbot of St. Maurice. While delivering his long monologue at the summit of the Mountain of the Jungfrau, Manfred refers to man as “Half dust, half deity” (I.ii.40). The Abbot, on the other hand, refers to the “elements” of Manfred’s being which have become an “awful chaos” as “mind and dust” (III.i.165). These two “dusty” references to the duality of man seem to equate mind and deity. Byron is implying that the human mind, the source of will, is not only eternal, but divine, and there can through this immortal mind be a hope for redemption. By his assertion of independence, and by rejecting the authority of external forces over his own will, Manfred may have assured himself of everlasting mental/spiritual life, and Manfred himself at least has, as noted by Robinson, “a confidence in the immortality of his mind” (55).

This mental life may be a two-edged sword, however. An independent and everlasting life of the mind would suggest a life of infinite knowledge. Manfred opens the poem’s dialogue by stating that “Sorrow is knowledge. . . The tree of knowledge is not that of life” (I.i.10-2). An eternal life of infinite sorrow seems like an awful existence, an idea reinforced in the assertion by Nemesis that freedom is “the forbidden fruit” (II.iii.71). Since Genesis tells that knowledge is the forbidden fruit, it can be assumed that knowledge and freedom amount to the same thing. The eating of the fruit of knowledge resulted in the fall from Paradise, which would make Manfred’s desired outcome a state of perpetual and miserable freefall. He may be reunited with Astarte, but what happens when he does may not be all that he hopes.

There is a further complication in Manfred’s desire for reunion with Astarte--it would preclude his independence. As Robinson suggests, Astarte is an idealized double, “a second self without whom he cannot be complete” (44). Although Manfred (and the reader) may see Astarte as an extension of Manfred himself, however, she is in fact, a separate and individual entity. His dependance and reliance on her, excusable enough if she were merely his doppelgänger, is destructive to his claim of self-reliance since she is, as noted by Robinson, an antitype--a real and (formerly) living, albeit unattainable being (50).

Manfred then suggests that there are several possible conclusions to human life, none of which seem particularly likable. One can repent one’s sins and go to a heaven where one will, as suggested by Thorslev, be not only dependent on a largely absent God-figure, but separated from the ones most dear in life (175). Alternately, one can submit to evil and be taken to hell, where submission to an anti-God figure will be coupled with eternal misery. Finally, one can reject both outcomes, where one may gain true and eternal independence (while being separated from loved ones), or one may become complete and therefore dependent on an external force, sacrificing freedom for completion--but neither outcome is sure in this third option.

Any of these conclusions suggest that we are incomplete beings, broken by our inability to eat of both the fruits of life and knowledge, fractured machinations of the greatest of “criminals.” Elledge notes of the theme of Manfred that the “cumulative effect” of the poem is to “produce the desired effect of inescapable damnation” (87), and that we are men “wracked by the incompatibility of body and soul” (10). Despite Elledge’s conclusion that “In the vacuum of Manfred’s selfhood, our traditional interpretations of ‘triumph’ and ‘defeat’ are altogether meaningless” (94), however, the options open to mankind would appear to be more akin to defeat than to triumph. We are victims of contrary and mutually exclusive inclinations, signified in the poem by knowledge/independence on the one hand and Astarte/life/love on the other, which Manning calls “Titanic aspiration and idealized harmony” (71), and are doomed by our mortal bodies and our infinite thirst for knowledge.


Elledge, W. Paul. Byron and the Dynamics of Metaphor. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1968.
Gottlieb, Erika. Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise: Themes of Cosmic Strife in Romantic Tragedy. Victoria, BC: Sono Nis, 1981.
MacDonald, D. L. “Incest, Narcissism, and Demonality in Byron’s Manfred.” Mosaic 25/2 (1992): 25-38.
Manning, Peter J. Byron and his Fictions. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1978.
Robinson, Charles E. The Snake and the Eagle Wreathed in Fight. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Thorslev, Jr., Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: U of MN Press, 1962.

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