Sunday, March 8, 2009

Manfred, I.ii.37-42

How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself;
But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,
Half dust, half deity, alike unfit
To sink or soar, with our mix'd essence make
A conflict of its elements . . .

These lines present one of the cruxes of Byron's famous drama from 1816—"Manfred." We know from Act I.i that the title character is stricken with a gnawing guilt over some past event involving his beloved Astarte. Now, when Manfred conjurs up supernatural spirits, he does so not to acquire greater power or fame or riches; instead, he asks for forgetfulness and oblivion. So tortured is he by self-recriminations that he imagines his only hope for solace lies in the annihilation of his memory and with it any sense of guilt and inadequacy. Such is the preamble of the scene of the present excerpt. Here in Scene ii, Manfred has ascended a craggy overlook in the Alps with the explicit purpose of hurling himself to his doom. Just before he is about to leap, an eagle flies by and he utters a soliloquy containing the lines above.

Manfred's speech is founded on one of the recurrent themes of romantic-era writing: the relationship between a natural and a supernatural world. Students of romanticism sometimes find the romantics' pervasive concern with this idea peculiar—one of my students once called it "all New-Agey"—but it's really not all that unusual. It has long been conventional, after all, to talk about "heaven and earth" or "body and soul," terms that suggest just how deeply set is this idea of a physical world and a spiritual existence beyond the physical. The implicit question for Manfred, then, is "Where do people belong? Are they natural creatures? Or are they spiritual creatures?" He certainly admires the beauty of the natural world surrounding him ("How beautiful is all this visible world!"), and yet he recognizes that human beings don't really belong exclusively to nature. At the same time, human beings are not purely supernatural beings like the various spirits Manfred conjurs up in his midnight study. Instead, people are "Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar." We have, in other words, a "mix'd essence."

The point lends a new and universal cast to Manfred's sense of guilt. While the immediate occasion for his guilt may be his assumed responsibility for some event involving Astarte, his guilt and his self-inflicted psychological tortures are in this passage the defining condition of being human. Human beings—unlike, say, coyotes or lemurs—have the capacity to perceive and be moved by the beauty of the natural world, and this sets human beings apart from "mere" nature. (One doesn't imagine that coyotes or lemurs or any other natural creatures spend much time in awestruck wonder about the beauty of the natural world they live in.) But, while human beings may have this supernatural aesthetic capacity, this ability to be moved by such sublime scenes as Manfred's alpine vista, we cannot fully transcend nature either. We cannot fully escape the body and the limitations of the physical world we share with the coyotes and lemurs. We are a "mix'd essence" of body and soul and thus find ourselves inadequate both to the harmonious beauty of nature and to the presumed perfection of some unbodied spiritual universe. Manfred's guilt, in other words, is the guilt of fallen humanity's sense of inadequacy.

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