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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 11527

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Byron's Residence in Switzerland-Excursion to the Glaciers-"Manfred" founded on a magical Sacrifice, not on Guilt-Similarity between Sentiments given to Manfred and those expressed by Lord Byron in his own Person

The account given by Captain Medwin of the manner in which Lord Byron spent his time in Switzerland, has the raciness of his Lordship's own quaintness, somewhat diluted. The reality of the conversations I have heard questioned, but they relate in some instances to matters not generally known, to the truth of several of which I can myself bear witness; moreover they have much of the poet's peculiar modes of thinking about them, though weakened in effect by the reporter. No man can give a just representation of another who is not capable of putting himself into the character of his original, and of thinking with his power and intelligence. Still there are occasional touches of merit in the feeble outlines of Captain Medwin, and with this conviction it would be negligence not to avail myself of them.

"Switzerland," said his Lordship, "is a country I have been satisfied with seeing once; Turkey I could live in for ever. I never forget my predilections: I was in a wretched state of health and worse spirits when I was at Geneva; but quiet and the lake, better physicians than Polidori, soon set me up. I never led so moral a life as during my residence in that country; but I gained no credit by it. Where there is mortification there ought to be reward. On the contrary, there is no story so absurd that they did not invent at my cost. I was watched by glasses on the opposite side of the lake, and by glasses, too, that must have had very distorted optics; I was waylaid in my evening drives. I believe they looked upon me as a man-monster.

"I knew very few of the Genevese. Hentsh was very civil to me, and I have a great respect for Sismondi. I was forced to return the civilities of one of their professors by asking him and an old gentleman, a friend of Gray's, to dine with me I had gone out to sail early in the morning, and the wind prevented me from returning in time for dinner. I understand that I offended them mortally.

"Among our countrymen I made no new acquaintances; Shelley, Monk Lewis, and Hobhouse were almost the only English people I saw. No wonder; I showed a distaste for society at that time, and went little among the Genevese; besides, I could not speak French. When I went the tour of the lake with Shelley and Hobhouse, the boat was nearly wrecked near the very spot where St Preux and Julia were in danger of being drowned. It would have been classical to have been lost there, but not agreeable."

The third canto of Childe Harold, Manfred, and The Prisoner of Chillon are the fruits of his travels up the Rhine and of his sojourn in Switzerland. Of the first it is unnecessary to say more; but the following extract from the poet's travelling memorandum-book, has been supposed to contain the germ of the tragedy

"September 22, 18 16.-Left Thun in a boat, which carried us the length of the lake in three hours. The lake small, but the banks fine; rocks down to the water's edge: landed at Newhouse; passed Interlachen; entered upon a range of scenes beyond all description or previous conception; passed a rock bearing an inscription; two brothers, one murdered the other; just the place for it. After a variety of windings, came to an enormous rock; arrived at the foot of the mountain (the Jungfrau) glaciers; torrents, one of these nine hundred feet, visible descent; lodge at the curate's; set out to see the valley; heard an avalanche fall like thunder; glaciers; enormous storm comes on thunder and lightning and hail, all in perfection and beautiful. The torrent is in shape, curving over the rock, like the tail of the white horse streaming in the wind, just as might be conceived would be that of the pale horse on which Death is mounted in the Apocalypse: it is neither mist nor water, but a something between both; its immense height gives a wave, a curve, a spreading here, a condensation there, wonderful, indescribable

"September 23.-Ascent of the Wingren, the dent d'argent shining like truth on one side, on the other the clouds rose from the opposite valley, curling up perpendicular precipices like the foam of the ocean of hell during a spring-tide. It was white and sulphury, and immeasurably deep in appearance; the side we ascended was of course not of so precipitous a nature; but on arriving at the summit, we looked down on the other side upon a boiling sea of cloud dashing against the crag on which we stood. Arrived at the Greenderwold, mounted and rode to the higher glacier, twilight, but distinct, very fine; glacier like a frozen hurricane; starlight beautiful; the whole of the day was fine, and, in point of weather, as the day in which Paradise was made. Passed whole woods of withered pines, all withered, trunks stripped and lifeless, done by a single winter."

Undoubtedly in these brief and abrupt but masterly touches, hints for the scenery of Manfred may be discerned, but I can perceive nothing in them which bears the least likelihood to their having influenced the conception of that sublime work.

There has always been from the first publication of Manfred, a strange misapprehension with respect to it in the public mind. The whole poem has been misunderstood, and the odious supposition that ascribes the fearful mystery and remorse of a hero to a foul passion for his sister, is probably one of those coarse imaginations which have grown out of the calumnies and accusations heaped upon the author. How can it have happened that none of the critics have noticed that the story is derived from the human sacrifices supposed to have bee

n in use among the students of the black art?

Manfred is represented as being actuated by an insatiable curiosity-a passion to know the forbidden secrets of the world. The scene opens with him at his midnight studies-his lamp is almost burned out-and he has been searching for knowledge and has not found it, but only that

Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most

Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,

The tree of knowledge is not that of life.

Philosophy and science and the springs

Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world

I have essayed, and in my mind there is,

A power to make these subject to itself.

He is engaged in calling spirits; and, as the incantation proceeds, they obey his bidding, and ask him what he wants; he replies, "forgetfulness."

FIRST SPIRIT

Of what-of whom-and why?

MANFRED

Of that which is within me; read it there--

Ye know it, and I cannot utter it.

SPIRIT

We can but give thee that which we possess;-

Ask of us subjects, sovereignty, the power

O'er earth, the whole or portion, or a sign

Which shall control the elements, whereof

We are the dominators. Each and all-

These shall be thine.

MANFRED

Oblivion, self oblivion-

Can ye not wring from out the hidden realms

Ye offer so profusely, what I ask?

SPIRIT

It is not in our essence, in our skill,

But-thou may'st die.

MANFRED

Will death bestow it on me?

SPIRIT

We are immortal, and do not forget;

We are eternal, and to us the past

Is as the future, present. Art thou answer'd?

MANFRED

Ye mock me, but the power which brought ye here

Hath made you mine. Slaves! scoff not at my will;

The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark,

The lightning of my being is as bright,

Pervading and far darting as your own,

And shall not yield to yours though coop'd in clay.

Answer, or I will teach you what I am.

SPIRIT

We answer as we answer'd. Our reply

Is even in thine own words.

MANFRED

Why say ye so?

SPIRIT

If, as thou say'st, thine essence be as ours,

We have replied in telling thee the thing

Mortals call death hath naught to do with us.

MANFRED

I then have call'd you from your realms in vain.

This impressive and original scene prepares the reader to wonder why it is that Manfred is so desirous to drink of Lethe. He has acquired dominion over spirits, and he finds, in the possession of the power, that knowledge has only brought him sorrow. They tell him he is immortal, and what he suffers is as inextinguishable as his own being: why should he desire forgetfulness?-Has he not committed a great secret sin? What is it?-He alludes to his sister, and in his subsequent interview with the witch we gather a dreadful meaning concerning her fate. Her blood has been shed, not by his hand nor in punishment, but in the shadow and occultations of some unutterable crime and mystery.

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.

She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,

The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind

To comprehend the universe; nor these

Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,

Pity, and smiles, and tears, which I had not;

And tenderness-but that I had for her;

Humility, and that I never had:

Her faults were mine-her virtues were her own;

I lov'd her and-destroy'd her-

WITCH

With thy hand?

MANFRED

Not with my hand, but heart, which broke her heart.

It gaz'd on mine, and withered. I have shed

Blood, but not hers, and yet her blood was shed;-

I saw, and could not stanch it.

There is in this little scene, perhaps, the deepest pathos ever expressed; but it is not of its beauty that I am treating; my object in noticing it here is, that it may be considered in connection with that where Manfred appears with his insatiate thirst of knowledge, and manacled with guilt. It indicates that his sister, Astarte, had been self-sacrificed in the pursuit of their magical knowledge. Human sacrifices were supposed to be among the initiate propitiations of the demons that have their purposes in magic-as well as compacts signed with the blood of the self-sold. There was also a dark Egyptian art, of which the knowledge and the efficacy could only be obtained by the novitiate's procuring a voluntary victim-the dearest object to himself and to whom he also was the dearest; {241} and the primary spring of Byron's tragedy lies, I conceive, in a sacrifice of that kind having been performed, without obtaining that happiness which the votary expected would be found in the knowledge and power purchased at such a price. His sister was sacrificed in vain. The manner of the sacrifice is not divulged, but it is darkly intimated to have been done amid the perturbations of something horrible.

Night after night for years

He hath pursued long vigils in this tower

Without a witness.-I have been within it-

So have we all been ofttimes; but from it,

Or its contents, it were impossible

To draw conclusions absolute of aught

His studies tend to.-To be sure there is

One chamber where none enter-. . .

Count Manfred was, as now, within his tower:

How occupied-we know not-but with him,

The sole companion of his wanderings

And watchings-her-whom of all earthly things

That liv'd, the only thing he seem'd to love.

With admirable taste, and its thrilling augmentation of the horror, the poet leaves the deed which was done in that unapproachable chamber undivulged, while we are darkly taught, that within it lie the relics or the ashes of the "one without a tomb."

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