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the play passes beyond the word™s rather transparent thematic meaning.
We realize this when we re¬‚ect on Byron™s joke in Beppo. There the word
makes no assault upon the poem in which it appears because Byron
plainly controls the wit of the text. The dramatic texture of Manfred
alters the terms of the word™s reception, as if it were the “choice” of the
demon to speak in this way, as if a wholly inappropriate meaning of the
word “awful” (from the demon™s and the English reader™s point of view)
had found its way into his mouth. At such a moment the play™s traditional
decorum is hopelessly breached and the artistic integrity of the drama
imperilled. At such a moment, in fact, as De Sta¨ l observed of Goethe and
e
his Faust, Byron emerges unmistakably as a character in his own work,
a kind of Samson wrecking the pillars of his art: Out of this chaotic
moment emerges the Gay Science of Byron™s comic immensities. The
joke on the word “awful” in Beppo fully explicates the meaning of the joke
in Manfred: against Sotheby™s “sublime / Of mediocrity” (lines µ± “µ)
Byron sets a new kind of poetic sublimity, the style of a deliberate and
imperial artist who can as easily make as unmake his own worlds, and
who can observe these acts in many tones and moods. Like Goethe in
Faust, Byron in Manfred chooses to hurl his own work down from the
heaven of ¬ne art.
This is truly a joke from the regions beyond good and evil. It is also an
important and a telling joke in the context of the play. The demon, being
a spirit, is clearly unaware of the vulgar meaning of the word he uses.
Byron, however “ widely travelled and an avid student of language “
supplies the demon with a word that literally dramatizes who is the master
of all these poetical ceremonies.
The master is not Manfred, least of all the imaginary world of spirits
and demons, but the author of the play named after its ¬ctive hero. Byron
uses comedy and burlesque to signal the self-consciousness of his produc-
tion. But like Sterne before him, Byron insists upon locating himself, the
ceremonial master, within the critical context of his own phantasmagoria.
We admire and praise this manner when we encounter it in Don Juan
and its associated writings, where the self-critical manoeuvres are han-
dled with such un-self-critical elegance. But there is an important sense in
± Byron and Romanticism
which Manfred is a far bolder and more forward-thinking work than Don
Juan “ just as we can see that Wordsworth™s linguistic experiments in
Lyrical Ballads engaged more prescient and profound stylistic issues
than his clear masterpiece The Prelude. For Manfred is the acme of his
“spoiler™s art.” No other work of his dares to bring so much to judgment.
It is all very well “ and it is very well indeed “ to essay the candor of
the “[Epistle to Augusta]” with its admission that “I have been cunning
in mine overthrow, / The careful pilot of my proper woe” (“). It is
quite another matter to demand that your art take up literally unspeak-
able matters “ Byron™s “home desolation” as well as his love for his sister
Augusta “ and force them into a public sphere of discussion. The move
involves far more than a breach of aesthetic decorum, it sets a whole new
agenda for what we think about the limits of art. Which is precisely what
Byron™s great nineteenth-century European inheritors thought it did.
The contrivance of Byron™s move spans, and requires, the entire work.
This fact is nicely illustrated in the full dramatic management of that
curse and judgment pronounced in the play™s great “Incantation.” Not
many writers have found the courage, or the stylistic means, to unleash
their conscience upon themselves, in public, in this way:
Though thou seest me not pass by,
Thou shalt feel me with thine eye
As a thing that, though unseen,
Must be near thee, and hath been . . . .
And a magic voice and verse
Hath baptized thee with a curse;
And a spirit of the air
Hath begirt thee with a snare;
In the wind there is a voice
Shall forbid thee to rejoice;
And to thee shall Night deny
All the quiet of her sky . . .
By thy cold breast and serpent smile,
By thy unfathom™d gulfs of guile,
By that most seeming virtuous eye,
By thy shut soul™s hypocrisy;
By the perfection of thine art
Which pass™d for human thine own heart;
By thy delight in others™ pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee and compel
Thyself to be thy proper Hell!
(I, ±, ±“±µ, “, “µ±)
±·
Byron and Wordsworth
The stylistic procedure of the play does not let us forget that Manfred
is the undisguised surrogate of Lord Byron. Nor has the work ever been
read otherwise, and this passage is the clear origin of the entire po`te e
maudit tradition that runs through so much of our art even to the present.
The great curse is the play™s high moral equivalent of what enters
from below as travesty and burlesque. These antithetical forces locate
the poles of a work that is trying to say something reasonably honest
about human sin, weakness, and self-deception. And also about the as-
piration to truth-telling in works of art. What Manfred ends up arguing,
in major part, is that such aspirations are as doomed to failure “ to defect
and to spoliation “ as human beings are doomed to die. That thought
is brilliantly dramatized in the ¬nal travesty of the play, when Byron
deliberately “spoils” the splendid gesture made at the outset in the great
Incantation. That ¬rst text had pronounced an irrevocable and appar-
ently objective doom upon Manfred. But when the demons enter at the
end to carry him off to the “Hell” we all know he deserves, the scene falls
apart. Manfred simply refuses to go. So much for grand incantations of
doom and damnation. When he answers the melodramatic demands of
the demons with his own melodramatic non serviam, the spirits from hell
lose their high style of talk and fall into a kind of Monty Python stuttering:
“But thy many crimes / Have made thee “.” And that™s all they get to say.
When the absurd “Demons disappear,” only the Abbot remains to uphold
the claims of sublimity. He implores Manfred to “Give thy prayers to
heaven “ / Pray “ albeit but in thought “ but die not thus.” But Manfred
sets his sights higher by setting them lower. Dying, Manfred is being
“born from the knowledge of [his] own desert.” The play™s last impor-
tant pun (on the word “desert”) comes in to brilliant effect, spoiling the
high rhetoric of its own linear loveliness. (How does one speak such a line
when the word we hear in it is simultaneously desert and dessert?) And then
it™s over.

MAN. Old man! ™Tis not so dif¬cult to die.
[M A N F R E D expires]
A B B O T . He™s gone”his soul has ta™en its earthless ¬‚ight”
Whither? I dread to think”but he is gone.

A death splendid for its unpretentiousness and lack of ceremony, and
most of all for the vital signs of its language. Manfred, still a young man,
leaves the world with a witty allusion to the old fears of the “Old man,”
the latter phrase playing ironically with the Christian “ and speci¬cally
Pauline “ source that it echoes. Missing the joke, the Abbot fears what he
± Byron and Romanticism
sees, desires to imagine a more glorious expiration, but ¬nally “dread[s]
to think” anything one way or the other. For Byron, who never wants to
dread to think anything, the death “ the whole ending “ is just right.


III

What has all this to do with Wordsworth, you™re wondering? I™ll try to
explain by asking you to think about the way Wordsworth treats the rela-
tion of remembering and forgetting. First for Wordsworth, paradoxically
and platonically, comes forgetting, as we see it named at the outset of the
“Immortality Ode.” “Our life is but a sleep and a forgetting” because
we are plunged into the maelstrom of experience. In a further paradox,
however, Wordsworth argues that this occlusion in the body is the means
for the emergence of the soul:

we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
(“Tintern Abbey” µ“)

This ultimate knowledge of a spiritual order develops through acts of
remembering. Wordsworth sees a dialectic between two types of what
he came to call “spots of time”: moments of experience that impress us
as both dark and powerful, full of obscure signi¬cance; and moments of
re¬‚ection when the deep meaning of those dark moments gets exposed.
The schema of this relation is laid out in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads.
On one hand is the “forgetting” of immediate experience “ the “sponta-
neous over¬‚ow of powerful feeling”; on the other is the “remembering”
of re¬‚exive thought “ “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Wordsworth
appears to have conceived the whole process as the operation of what he
called “Imagination.”
However that may be, it is a process that functions to repair or redeem
our experience of loss and recurrent disaster. With time comes memory,
or more exactly an imaginative remembering that overtakes one™s in-
herited sense of loss and transforms it into something said to be “full
of blessings.” Stories are retold “ “Michael,” “The Ruined Cottage,”
pre-eminently The Prelude “ so that we may re-perceive their originary
losses and confusions in benevolent terms.
±
Byron and Wordsworth
Byron too, of course, is a great poet of remembering. But a work like
Manfred helps us to see how differently he engages with the process of re-
membering and forgetting. Like Childe Harold III, Manfred begins as a quest
to extinguish memory, with all its train of vivid losses and “desolations.”
At the end of both works, however, as the “Alpine Journal” declares
(not to mention all his subsequent poetry and prose), nothing has been
forgotten and nothing is redeemed. “In my heart / There is a vigil” of ulti-
mate losses, Manfred says at the outset of his play, and the pain of keeping
this vigil brings a desire, or rather a temptation, to forget. The move to-
ward suicide is simply the de¬nitive sign of what he knows but is reluctant
to accept: that so long as he lives he will never forget. As it turns out, he
has what he calls a “fatality to live” and hence to remember always. Like
the Giaour before him, Manfred keeps his “vigil” of losses and gains,
powers and limitations, end-to-end. So does the Giaour, but his vigil is
maintained under tormented pressures: “The cherish™d madness of [his]
heart” (line ±±µ±). In Manfred, by contrast, the pressure of the fatality
of living turns more mixed and ¬‚uctuating, like the tones of his play “
ultimately, like the tones of Don Juan. Above the latter, the entrance not to
hell but to the tragi-comical human world, is written the following motto:

In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing,
The one is winning, and the other losing.

The Byronic ethos, then, has no need of the redemptive processes put
into play through the Wordsworthian imagination. Or rather, the need
for forgiveness and redemption does not locate something ultimate and
transformational, it is one more need among the strange variety of needs
that constellate in the fatality of living. This view of the matter gets
argued very clearly in Manfred™s governing desire to see Astarte once
more and to extract “forgiveness” from her. The climactic scene, a piece
of full-blown Gothic phantasmagoria, ends in the purest irresolution
and anti-climax, ¬ttingly underscored in the outrageous joke about the
“awful spirit.”
Manfred asks of Astarte, his epipsyche and imaginative ideal, “One
word for mercy.” She gives him what he asks when she responds with
the word: “Manfred.” This is the play™s term of grace, one word naming
something at once grand and ridiculous: this character, Byron™s play. Both
of the term™s values, moreover, derive from an underlying commitment
to the kind of self-conscious thought that Byron™s play epitomizes: the
clarity and candor of an Enlightenment ideal, what he calls “the right
±° Byron and Romanticism
of thought” in Canto IV of Childe Harold, “our last and only place of
refuge” (lines ±±·“±±). Ultimately the “vigil” Manfred keeps is to the
act of thought itself, and Astarte is the emblem of that act. Her supreme
moment comes when she “gaze[s] on” the heart that Manfred opened
to her awareness and, with Manfred looking on, “withered” at what she
saw. In terms of this psychodrama, her disappearance after that event is
the dramatic sign of Manfred™s “last in¬rmity of evil” (II, , ), that is,
his desire to conceal or alter the full truth: in his own words, “To justify
my deeds unto myself ” (II, , ).
At this point a Wordsworthian comparison can usefully be drawn. My
example is The Prelude, which is Wordsworth™s story of the Imagination:
“what it is, and what it would become,” how it was “Impaired” and
how it was “Restored.” The problem is that this uplifting story regularly,
and I think inevitably, belies itself. Inevitably because Wordsworth™s own
aesthetic is committed to a dialectical “counter-spirit.” So at the end
of Book XII, when the tale of the restored Imagination is being com-
pleted and the benevolent theory of the spots of time fully set forth,
Wordsworth™s vision turns dark. The restored Imagination foresees its
own death:

The days gone by
Return upon me almost from the dawn
Of life: the hiding-places of man™s power
Open; I would approach them, but they close.
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on
(XII, ·“±)
May scarcely see at all.

We are moved by such undefended sincerity, and would perhaps now
rather wish that the poem had ended there, crowned in its own spoliation,
the revelation of its failure.
It does not. The concluding Books, and in particular Book XIV, turn
to dispel the darknesses raised by Wordsworth™s narrative, and ¬nally
propose the work as an exemplary moral tale “ a tale that our culture,
alas, has often accepted at that face value. However that may be, the
consequence in the poem is a series of dismal recapitulating texts that
we may register as either deliberate acts of bad faith, or as moments
of lapsed awareness induced perhaps by the “more habitual sway” of a
certain kind of writing and thinking that Wordsworth programmatically
cultivated. So, for example, when he assures us that his autobiography
has not left out anything of consequence “ that it has “Told what best
merits mention” (·°) and regularly determined to stand up
±±
Byron and Wordsworth
Amid con¬‚icting interests, and the shock
Of various tempers; to endure and note
What was not understood, though known to be;
Among the mysteries of love and hate,
Honour and shame, looking to right and left,
Unchecked by innocence too delicate,
And moral notions too intolerant,
Sympathies too contracted. (“±)

we are only too aware that Wordsworth knew very well how much of
importance he deliberately left out “ how many of those “con¬‚icting
interests” of “love and hate / Honour and shame” in particular. We
now name them, generically, “Annette Vallon,” and Kenneth Johnston™s
splendid new biography has somewhat lengthened the list. So a passage
like this deconstructs itself, as does Wordsworth™s declaration that ¬nally
the discipline
And consummation of a Poet™s mind,
In everything that stood most prominent
Have faithfully been pictured. (°“°)

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