LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life of Lord Byron
Chapter XXXII

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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 dilated. 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.

John Cam Hobhouse to John Galt

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 misun-
derstood, 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 been 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.”

Of what—of whom—and why?
Of that which is within me; read it there——
Ye know it, and I cannot utter it.
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.
Oblivion, self oblivion—
Can ye not wring from out the hidden realms
Ye offer so profusely, what I ask?
It is not in our essence, in our skill,
But—thou may’st die.
Will death bestow it on me?
We are immortal, and do not forget;
We are eternal, and to us the past
Is as the future, present. Art thou answer’d?
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.
We answer as we answer’d. Our reply
Is even in thine own words.
Why say ye so?
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.
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—
With thy hand?
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;* 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.

* The sacrifice of Antinous by the emperor Adrian is supposed to have been a sacrifice of that kind. Dion Cassius says that Adrian, who had applied himself to the study of magic, being deceived by the principles of that black Egyptian art into a belief that he would be rendered immortal by a voluntary human sacrifice to the infernal gods, accepted the offer which Antinous made of himself.
I have somewhere met with a commentary on this to the following effect:
The Christian religion, in the time of Adrian, was rapidly spreading throughout the empire, and the doctrine of gaining eternal life by the expiatory offering was openly preached. The Egyptian priests who pretended to be in possession of all knowledge, affected to be acquainted with this mystery also. The emperor was, by his taste and his vices, attached to the old religion; but he trembled at the truths disclosed by the revelation; and in this state of apprehension his thirst of knowledge and his fears led him to consult the priests of Osiris and Isis; and they impressed him with a notion that the infernal deities would be appeased by the sacrifice of a human being dear to him, and who loved him so entirely as to lay down his life for him. Antinous moved by the anxiety of his imperial master, when all others had refused, consented to sacrifice himself; and it was for this devotion that Adrian caused his memory to be hallowed with religious rites.
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.”