Manfred by Lord Byron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm not sure I had heard of this play until I came across a reference to it in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is not mentioned by name, but here's the relevant bit:
" 'Now I know very little of English magicians. They have always seemed to me a parcel of dull, dusty old men — except for John Uskglass. He is quite another matter! The magician who tamed the Otherlanders! The only magician to defeat death! The magician whom Lucifer himself was forced to treat as an equal! Now whenever Strange compares himself to this sublime being — as he must from time to time — he sees himself for what he truly is: a plodding earthbound mediocrity! All his achievements — so praised in the desolate little isle — crumble to dust before him! That will bring on as fine a bout of despair as you could wish to see. This is to be mortal, and seek the things beyond mortality.'
Lord Byron paused for a moment, as if committing the last remark to memory in case he should want to put it in a poem…
'I am by chance writing a poem about a magician who wrestles with the Ineffable Spirits who rule his destiny. Of course, as a model for my magician Strange is far from perfect — he lacks the true heroic nature; for that I shall be obliged to put in something of myself.' "
Manfred is a verse drama published in 1817. Lord Byron started writing it a few months after the famous ghost-story sessions with Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley that provided the inspiration for Frankenstein. I've never read much of Byron before this, except for a few of his poems in anthologies. This is longer, but still fairly short, so it's a good one to read if you want to get a taste of Byron without reading the much longer Don Juan.
Count Manfred is a Swiss nobleman tortured by mysterious guilt for a sin that is somehow connected to the death of his beloved, Astarte. He summons seven spirits to grant him forgetfulness: the spirits of air, mountains, ocean, earth, winds, night, and of Manfred’s own guiding star. Most of the play is in blank verse, although the spirits have rhyming dialogue. I was completely captivated! I loved this mix of the Gothic and the Romantic. It probably draws some inspiration from Faust and/or from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, but it also feels like its own thing. (I read part 1 of Faust years ago; I just don't have it listed on GoodReads, since I haven't added most of the books I read before joining the site.)
Manfred really is a vivid character. He has contempt for most people, but he does not seek to dominate them; instead he seeks to separate himself from others.
"I could not tame my nature down; for he
Must serve who fain would sway—and soothe, and sue,
And watch all time, and pry into all place,
And be a living lie, who would become
A mighty thing amongst the mean, and such
The mass are; I disdain’d to mingle with
A herd, though to be leader—and of wolves.
The lion is alone, and so am I.
Abbot. And why not live and act with other men?
Man. Because my nature was averse from life;
And yet not cruel;"
I listened to the LibriVox audio recording after reading this. It's an excellent reading. Highly recommended!
Some of my favorite lines:
"Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life."
"The stars are forth, the moon above the tops
Of the snow-shining mountains.—Beautiful!
I linger yet with Nature, for the night
Hath been to me a more familiar face
Than that of man; and in her starry shade
Of dim and solitary loveliness,
I learn'd the language of another world."
"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; its innate sense,
When stripped of this mortality, derives
No colour from the fleeting things without,
But is absorb'd in sufferance or in joy,
Born from the knowledge of its own desert."
(I think the second quote is saying something like: self-knowledge is its own punishment -- or its own reward, depending on whether it leads to "sufferance" or "joy.")
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