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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

secrets of the scientific world. Byron’s character, Manfred is caught up in this world in an

exceptionally bad way. His journey is one of anti-self discovery: he sets out not to find himself,

his true self, but to bury it and forget. As a romantic ironist, Lord Byron uses the character of

Manfred to illustrate the problems with the ideas of empiricism, specifically the idea of man as

an almost divine creator of his own identity. Because Manfred considers himself above other

humans and seeks to construct himself out of divine knowledge, he is destined to fail in his own

quest for identity.

Manfred's actions from the ...

... middle of paper ...

... of the false

identity that he has chosen for himself than accept the boundaries that come with his true mortal


Likening oneself to the abilities of God is a rejection of true human identity. By nature,

humans are mortal, limited. Manfred, and the empiricists, refuse to accept these limitations and

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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