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["You may call it a 'Poem' for it is no Drama-a 'Poem in Dialogue,' orPantomime,' if you will; anything but a green-room synonyme!"
Lord B. to Mr. Murray.]
"MANFRED" was begun in Switzerland, during the summer tour of 1816, and completed at Venice, in February, 1817. Lord Byron described it as "a poem in dialogue, of a very wild, metaphysical, and inexplicable kind," composed with an absolute horror of the stage, and with a view to render its representation impossible. "I have really and truly," he said, "no notion whether it is good or bad; and as this was not the case with the principal of my former publications, I am, therefore, inclined to rank it very humbly. The two first acts are the best, the third so-so; but I was blown with the first and second heats." In proof of the sincerity of his depreciatory language, he offered the copyright to Mr. Murray for 300 guineas, and added a permission to destroy the MS. if Mr. Gifford thought meanly of the piece. The critic did condemn unequivocally that final act which Lord Byron had composed with exhausted feelings. The sentence was faithfully transmitted by the publisher, and was received penitentially by the poet. "The speech," he replied, "of Manfred to the Sun, is the only part of the act I thought good myself; the rest is certainly as bad as bad can be, and I wonder what possessed me. Like the Archbishop of Grenada's homily (which savoured of the palsy) it has the dregs of my fever, during which it was written. I will try and reform it, or re-write it altogether; but the impulse is gone, and I have no chance of making anything out of it." He succeeded, however, in rekindling his imagination, and the conclusion of the poem is now in keeping with the preceding acts. The more he corrected, and the longer he considered his performance, the better he liked it, and he ended by calling" Manfred " "one of the best of his misbegotten." Galt goes further, and pronounces it indisputably the greatest of Lord Byron's works. This has not been the judgment of the world, though it is universally ranked in the first class, as being equally grand in conception and execution. "The hero," said the author, "is a kind of magician who is tormented by a species of remorse, the cause of which is left half unexplained." Yet the cause is not so dimly shadowed forth, but that the poet has made it obvious, that the hero and his sister
"Had loved each other as they should not love; " that this lawless affection had brought some unexplained, but dreadful
destruction upon Astarte, and that Manfred survives to be tortured by the retrospect of their guilty life and her bloody end. He stalks about, a lonely and mysterious figure, amid the tremendous desolation of the congenial Alps, giving vent to his wretchedness, and demanding in vain from the spirits of Earth, Air, and Water, over whom he has power, oblivion of the past; for all his passions are merged in the desire of forgetfulness, and he would welcome annihilation to be rid of his convulsive conscience. To this hell of a perturbed spirit he alone submits his otherwise unconquerable will; in all else he is haughtiness itself, is loftily defiant of physical suffering, and fears as little as he hopes. Nothing earthly has a hold upon his mind save the beauties of creation, which win his notice, and extort his homage in the worst paroxysms of his stern despair. The machinery is supernatural, and the hero is endowed with a terrible majesty beyond the might of mortality. It is plain, nevertheless, that he was merely a living original magnified to sublimity. "It is much," said the poet of his drama, "in my old style, but what could I do? Without exertion of some kind I should have sunk under my imagination and reality." The reality was, as usual, the soul which animated the fiction. The remorseful Manfred, seeking rest and finding none, is the poet's picture drawn with a Miltonic pencil, at the period when with "wandering steps and slow," he turned his back for ever upon his wife, his child, and his native land.