The Love Poems of Lord Byron : A Romantic's Passion
By George Gordon Byron, David Stanford Burr
Have to write a paper in the next week on Romanticism. I've spent the semester sitting in a room learning nothing about Romanticism, and now I get the pleasure of writing 15 pages on it. Great.
Since I was very young I've enjoyed Byron. He's got a certain bombast that has always appealed to me, and he uses words that just sink into me, unlike so many other poets. When I read him, I usually think that if I were a poet, those are the words I'd use.
But I really think his Manfred, the work we read in my Romanticism class, is pretty poor. It's bombastic fluff - all bombast, all striking images, with nothing to rest on. Of course there is the fairly unique "tortured villain/hero" that apparently is attributed to Byron, so it has that going for it, but beyond that it is fairly empty... I often felt that anyone could string a bunch of demonic images together for kicks and then laugh when people actually take them seriously. Surely no one can really take Manfred seriously as anything other than a prototype?
I've been reading Aristotle's poetics, and he makes the point that tragedy relies more on plot that it does on character, and I thought it might be interesting to compare that to the story of Manfred, where by far the emphasis is on characterization - by far. The plot moves forward only to point out some element of Manfred's character, and there is not a single event of any consequence other than his death at the end. If it were tragic, perhaps we would see the events leading up to Astarte's death?
How much of this is dependent on causation? Compare this with Oedipus. The plot is entirely based on an irony of causation, whereas in Manfred there is no causation at all - in fact causation has ended with Astarte's death, and from that moment (which we never see), Manfred goes through a series of scenes that have no effect on each other. Nothing he does makes the slightest difference.
This is quite different from the Oedipus story - although perhaps nothing he could do could stave off his realization of the truth, in the end it is his own actions that condemn him, unwittingly executed as those actions may be. Almost every utterance from beginning to end increases the irony, and thus the tragedy, of his revelation.
There are two chances for Manfred to "make a difference," one with the chamois hunter and the other the abbot. In the first, Manfred attempts to kill himself but is saved by the chamois hunter, and in two exchanges with the Abbot, that Abbot tries to save his soul.
Really, though, these are not scenes to forward plot or offer Manfred escape - in fact they are, like the scenes with the spirits, character-building scenes. They are chances for Manfred to show his indecision, his disgust with life cooped up in a human body, his unrepentance.
It is sort of interesting that Aristotle defines tragedy as plot-driven. I think it is true of at least Greek drama, and it makes an interesting point - maybe it is easier for us to identify with a character who is fairly broadly drawn? With a Manfred, who has very definite character traits, many of which are superhuman, it takes a bit of an intellectual wrench to really identify with him. We can only partially identify, and part of him will remain Manfred. So may be you could say when Oedipus gouges out his eyes, we gouge out our eyes, but when Manfred dies, only Manfred dies? What about Hamlet, I wonder?
Going along with this, Manfred always has a choice, a choice which he willfully disregards. Oedipus never has a choice, and that is the tragedy? But then again, if Oedipus has a character flaw that causes his downfall (which I'm not really sure of, at least that his flaw is commensurate with his downfall), Manfred does as well - a couple, willfulness and indecision. In that sense he is a tragic hero without a doubt. Hamlet? Hamlet certainly has character flaws, in fact his willfulness is almost as great as Manfred's.
I should give this up for now, especially because if I had readers on this page, they would certainly not have read this far...