Lord Byron's Manfred
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Lord Byron's Manfred
George Gordon, otherwise known as Lord Byron, was the most controversial poet of his
time. As one of the “second-generation” romantics, Byron fused together high romance with
a love of nature and tragic loss. He virtually invented the idea of romantic irony, or the idea of
the hero as a tragic figure who is born to “desire a transcendence that can never be achieved”
(Hogle, March 21 Lecture). Byron perfected this technique through the creation of what is now
called the Byronic hero. In his dramatic poem, Manfred, Byron makes ample use of the “Byronic
hero” in the figure of Manfred, a nobleman who aspires to create an identity for himself through
an almost divine sense of nature and knowledge. At the time the poem was written, the philo-
sophy of empiricism was rampantly influencing literary works from England all the way to the
newly formed United States. The basic premise of empiricism, that one gains a sense of identity
and knowledge about the world through sensory experiences had led to a thirst to unlock the
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instead seek to push the boundaries of what human knowledge should be. The empirical idea of
achieving transcendence and being one with nature is portrayed as an impossibility in Byron’s
Manfred. In having his character fail, a character that fully embodies the empirical ideas about
knowledge and identity, Byron is clearly criticizing those ideas. The consequences of empiricism
may not be as dire as Manfred portrays, but it serves to prove his point that achieving true
identity through empiricism is simply impossible.
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