A Byronic Hero Refresher

George Gordon, Lord Byron wrote memorable and influential heroes in art and literature known as the Byronic hero. In Major British Writers published in 1954, Northrop Frye described the Byronic hero as “the arch-romantic of modern literature” (159). Fifty-five years later in 2008, in a paper published in The Gothic Byron titled Manfred, The Brontës and the Byronic Gothic Hero, Christina Ceron described the Byronic hero as “the alternative hero, the one who disowns every characteristic of the classical model” (167). These are startling and dark descriptions of a character that was created over two hundred years ago. Not only has the description of Byron’s character not altered over time, the Byronic hero is the standard by which alternative or anti-heroes are measured.

Byron’s play Manfred introduces a character who personifies the concept of the Byronic hero. A review of his defining character traits will bring to mind heroes who have appeared in art, literature and film around the globe over the centuries up to and including current day. In his book The Byronic Hero, Peter Thorslev describes the Byronic hero as “bigger than life; he must be above the common level, with greater powers, greater dignity, and a greater soul. He must have the qualities of an ordinary mortal so that we can see ourselves in him, but he is an idealization, a man whose capacities have been multiplied and enlarged so as to make him a giant among men” (186). His attitudes reflect “a contempt of conventional morality, alienation, burning inward torment, and a heroic defiance of fate” from an essay titled “Manfred” And Its Time, The Byronic Hero appearing in The Longman Anthology of British Literature (747). His defining characteristics are that he is intelligent and mysterious, isolated from his fellow man, carries guilt like a dark shadow, and cursed by an inner torment. Manfred is ego-centric, unlucky in love, and believes there is no redemption for his sins.

Manfred sets himself apart from all humanity by due to an internal conflict that will not let him rest. The reader feels Manfred’s sense of isolation and his intelligence as he conveys his inability to sleep due to his active mind and keeps a solitary vigil throughout the night.
My slumbers – if I slumber – are not sleep,
But a continuance of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not: in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within; and yet I live, and bear
The aspect and the form of breathing men (I i 3-8).

Manfred finds himself in a state of limbo and is “haunted by a spiritual burden that will not let [him] rest” (Ceron 168). While he is alive, he is in a place other than that of living, breathing men.

Manfred reflects on his interactions with others and despairs that he is cursed to find any lasting connection. He is “self-exiled, . . . inherently different from [his] fellow beings, and therefore [is] doomed to isolation” (Ceron 169).

Good, or evil, life
Powers, passions, all I see in other beings,
Have been to me as rain unto the sands . . .
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 (I i 21-27).

Although a loner, Manfred did have a strong connection to a woman whom he loved. He does not identify her by name, indicate if they were related, friends or married, only that they enjoyed similar pursuits and spent time together. Evidently something happened for which Manfred blames himself:

My injuries came down on those who loved me –
On those whom I best loved . . .
My wrongs were all on those I should have cherished
But my embrace was fatal (II ii 84-88).

The lady’s identity is not revealed by Manfred, but a gossiping guard, Manuel, names the Lady Astarte, and indicates that she was related to Manfred in some form.

The sole companion of his wanderings
And watchings – her, whom of all earthly things
That lived, the only thing he seem’d to love –
As he, indeed, by blood was bound to do (III iv 43-46).

Manuel’s conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the Abbot, so we never receive explicit information as to the nature of Manfred’s and Astarte’s relationship (III iv 47). Manfred’s torment and Manuel’s suggestive gossip indicates that there was some sort of incest involved in the relationship, which is supported to Manfred’s description.

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;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty; . . .(II ii 106-109).

Her faults were mine – her virtues were her own –
I loved her, and destroy’d her! (II ii 116-117).

This is all the information Manfred provides to us. He does not indicate whether this woman died, whether he killed this person, injured her physically, emotionally or even socially. What he does indicate is that this incident is “the core of my heart’s grief” (II ii 99).

“An air of mystery is his dominant trait, and characteristic of all his acts” (Thorslev 54). Manfred demonstrates his magical power as he conjures elemental spirits to appear before him: air, mountains, ocean, earth, wind, night and destiny, from whom he demands redemption for the overwhelming sins he has committed.

I call upon ye by the written charm
Which gives me power upon you – Rise! appear!. . . (I I 35-36).

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! (I i 47-49).

Manfred does not reveal the exact nature of his sin and expects the elements to divine it “Of that which is within me; read it there – / Ye know it, and I cannot utter it” (I i 137-138). His inability to face his sin and the spirits’ inability to grant redemption increase Manfred’s internal torment and curse his soul. “He is not remorseful for his sinful seeking after forbidden knowledge or for his pride, but only because his passion has caused the death of the one thing in life which he loved” (Thorslev 168).

Throughout the play, Manfred demonstrates ego-centric behaviors and attitudes. “Manfred’s conception of his soul and his feelings is so excessive and inordinate, his faculty of conveying all his existential drives onto one single thought is so absolute and sublime that it forces the mind to exclude the world and revolve around its inner universe” (Ceron 172). The only resolution for him is self-destruction “with the fierce thirst of death” (II i 48). On two occasions, characters appear in the play who reach out to Manfred to offer him help. First is a hunter who prevents Manfred from jumping off a cliff to end his life. The hunter goes out of his way to bring Manfred to his cottage and offer his assistance even though he realizes “Alas! He’s mad – but yet I must not leave him” (II i 59). Although the hunter believes Manfred can recover from his troubles, Manfred refuses the hunter’s offer of help and prayers.

The second champion on Manfred’s behalf is an Abbot who offers “penitence and pardon” which Manfred declines (III i 58). The Abbot joins him to battle demons who try to steal Manfred’s soul. “Manfred, in a crisp incisive speech . . . announces that he has made no bargain with [the demons], that whatever he has done, they can go to hell, and he will not go with them” (Harrison and Frye 156). Manfred maintains a firm belief that he knows better than anyone that although he believes he is beyond redemption he will defy any greater beings who try to influence him. The Abbot and Manfred battle the demons together “linked in a common bond of humanity which enables Manfred to die and to triumph at the same time” (Harrison and Frye 157). Manfred displays his ultimate egotism when he defies God and declares “Old man! ‘tis not so difficult to die” (III iv 151).

Evidence of Manfred’s characteristics can be found in anti-heroes that have appeared in art, literature and film over the past two centuries. “The Byronic hero, for whom, as for Manfred, pride, lack of sympathy with humanity and a destructive influence even in love are inseparable from genius, dramatizes this new conception of art and life alike more vividly than anything else in the culture at the time. Hence it is no exaggeration to say that Byron released a mainspring of creative energy in modern culture” (Harrison and Frye, p. 159).

Works Cited

Brown, Ford Madox. Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1840 https://www.google.com/search?q=manfred+on+the+jungfrau&client=firefox-b-1-ab&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjdtPjK9IvfAhVIPawKHTGZDkkQsAR6BAgAEAE&biw=1349&bih=690#imgrc=PjIOo8HE5h0WSM:.

Gordon, George, Lord Byron. “Manfred.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2A. New York: Pearson, 2012. 712-747.

Harrison, G. B. and Northrop Frye, Major British Writers. Vol. II. New York: Harcourt, 1954.

Thorslev, Jr., Peter L. The Byronic Hero, Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.