Spirits at the Top of the World

June 16, 2020

A scene from Manfred by Thomas Cole (1833)

Lord Byron (1788–1824). Manfred.
Vol. 18. pp. 415-428 of The Harvard Classics

The inaccessible mountain tops were ever venerated as the haunts of all mysteries. Manfred, hero of Byron's play, seeks upon the high Alps the aid of spirits, specters, and goblins. What unearthly adventures await him!
(Byron publishes "Manfred," June 16, 1817.)

Act I
Scene II

The Mountain of the Jungfrau.—Time, Morning. MANFRED alone upon the Cliffs.

  Man.  The spirits I have raised abandon me,
The spells which I have studied baffle me,
The remedy I reck’d of tortured me;
I lean no more on superhuman aid,
It hath no power upon the past, and for
The future, till the past be gulf’d in darkness,
It is not of my search.—My mother Earth!
And thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye Mountains,
Why are ye beautiful? I cannot love ye.
And thou, the bright eye of the universe,
That openest over all, and unto all
Art a delight—thou shin’st not on my heart.
And you, ye crags, upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance; when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom’s bed
To rest for ever—wherefore do I pause?
I feel the impulse—yet I do not plunge;
I see the peril—yet do not recede;
And my brain reels—and yet my foot is firm.
There is a power upon me which withholds,
And makes it my fatality to live;
If it be life to wear within myself
This barrenness of spirit, and to be
My own soul’s sepulchre, for I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself—
The last infirmity of evil. Ay,
Thou winged and cloud—cleaving minister,  [An eagle passes.
Whose happy flight is highest into heaven,
Well may’st thou swoop so near me—I should be
Thy prey, and gorge thine eaglets; thou art gone
Where the eye cannot follow thee; but thine
Yet pierces downward, onward, or above,
With a pervading vision.—Beautiful!
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, and breathe
The breath of degradation and of pride,
Contending with low wants and lofty will,
Till our mortality predominates,
And men are—what they name not to themselves,
And trust not to each other. Hark! the note,  [The Shepherd’s pipe in the distance is heard.
The natural music of the mountain reed
(For here the patriarchal days are not
A pastoral fable) pipes in the liberal air,
Mix’d with the sweet bells of the sauntering herd;
My soul would drink those echoes.—Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony,
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!

Enter from below a CHAMOIS HUNTER
  Chamois Hunter.                Even so
This way the chamois leapt: her nimble feet
Have baffled me; my gains to—day will scarce
Repay my break—neck travail.—What is here?
Who seems not of my trade, and yet hath reach’d
A height which none even of our mountaineers,
Save our best hunters, may attain: his garb
Is goodly, his mien manly, and his air
Proud as a freeborn peasant’s, at this distance—
I will approach him nearer.
  Man.  (not perceiving the other). To be thus—
Grey—hair’d with anguish, like these blasted pines.
Wrecks of a single winter, barkless, branchless,
A blighted trunk upon a cursed root,
Which but supplies a feeling to decay—
And to be thus, eternally but thus,
Having been otherwise! Now furrow’d o’er
With wrinkles, plough’d by moments, not by years
And hours—all tortured into ages—hours
Which I outlive!—Ye toppling crags of ice!
Ye avalanches, whom a breath draws down
In mountainous o’erwhelming, come and crush me!
I hear ye momently above, beneath,
Crash with a frequent conflict; but ye pass,
And only fall on things that still would live;
On the young flourishing forest, or the hut
And hamlet of the harmless villager.
  C. Hun.  The mists begin to rise from up the valley;
I’ll warn him to descend, or he may chance
To lose at once his way and life together.
  Man.  The mists boil up around the glaciers; clouds
Rise curling fast beneath me, white and sulphury,
Like foam from the roused ocean of deep Hell,
Whose every wave breaks on a living shore
Heap’d with the damn’d like pebbles.—I am giddy.
  C. Hun.  I must approach him cautiously; if near,
A sudden step will startle him, and he
Seems tottering already.
  Man.                Mountains have fallen,
Leaving a gap in the clouds, and with the shock
Rocking their Alpine brethren; filling up
The ripe green valleys with destruction’s splinters;
Damming the rivers with a sudden dash,
Which crush’d the waters into mist and made
Their fountains find another channel—thus,
Thus, in its old age, did Mount Rosenberg—
Why stood I not beneath it?
  C. Hun.                Friend! have a care,
Your next step may be fatal!—for the love
Of him who made you, stand not on that brink!
  Man.  (not hearing him). Such would have been for me a fitting tomb;
My bones had then been quiet in their depth;
They had not then been strewn upon the rocks
For the wind’s pastime—as thus—thus they shall be—
In this one plunge.—Farewell, ye opening heavens!
Look not upon me thus reproachfully—
Ye were not meant for me—Earth! take these atoms!   [As MANFRED is in act to spring from the cliff, the CHAMOIS HUNTER seizes and retains him with a sudden grasp.
  C. Hun.  Hold, madman!—though aweary of thy life,
Stain not our pure vales with thy guilty blood!
Away with me—I will not quit my hold.
  Man.  I am most sick at heart—nay, grasp me not—
I am all feebleness—the mountains whirl
Spinning around me—I grow blind—What art thou?
  C. Hun.  I’ll answer that anon.—Away with me!
The clouds grow thicker—there—now lean on me—
Place your foot here—here, take this staff, and cling
A moment to that shrub—now give me your hand,
And hold fast by my girdle—softly—well—
The Chalet will be gain’d within an hour.
Come on, we’ll quickly find a surer footing,
And something like a pathway, which the torrent
Hath wash’d since winter.—Come, ’tis bravely done;
Your should have been a hunter.—Follow me.  [As they descend the rocks with difficulty, the scene closes.

Act II
Scene I

A Cottage amongst the Bernese Alps.


  C. Hun.  No, no, yet pause, thou must not yet go forth:
Thy mind and body are alike unfit
To trust each other, for some hours, at least;
When thou art better, I will be thy guide—
But whither?
  Man.              It imports not; I do know
My route full well and need no further guidance.
  C. Hun.  Thy garb and gait bespeak thee of high lineage—
One of the many chiefs, whose castled crags
Look o’er the lower valleys—which of these
May call thee lord? I only know their portals;
My way of life leads me but rarely down
To bask by the huge hearths of those old halls,
Carousing with the vassals; but the paths,
Which step from out our mountains to their doors,
I know from childhood—which of these is thine?
  Man.  No matter.
  C. Hun.            Well, sir, pardon me the question,
And be of better cheer. Come, taste my wine;
’Tis of an ancient vintage; many a day
’T has thaw’d my veins among our glaciers, now
Let it do thus for thine. Come, pledge me fairly.
  Man.  Away, away! there’s blood upon the brim!
Will it then never—never sink in the earth?
  C. Hun.  What dost thou mean? thy senses wander from thee.
  Man.  I say ’tis blood—my blood! the pure warm stream
Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours
When we were in our youth, and had one heart,
And loved each other as we should not love,
And this was shed: but still it rises up,
Colouring the clouds, that shut me out from heaven,
Where thou art not—and I shall never be.
  C. Hun.  Man of strange words, and some half—maddening sin,
Which makes thee people vacancy, whate’er
Thy dread and sufferance be, there’s comfort yet—
The aid of holy men, and heavenly patience—
  Man.  Patience and patience! Hence—that word was made
For brutes of burthen, not for birds of prey;
Preach it to mortals of a dust like thine,—
I am not of thine order.
  C. Hun.                Thanks to heaven!
I would not be of thine for the free fame
Of William Tell; but whatsoe’er thine ill,
It must be borne, and these wild starts are useless.
  Man.  Do I not bear it?—Look on me—I live.
  C. Hun.  This is convulsion, and no healthful life.
  Man.  I tell thee, man! I have lived many years,
Many long years, but they are nothing now
To those which I must number: ages—ages—
Space and eternity—and consciousness,
With the fierce thirst of death—and still unslaked!
  C. Hun.  Why, on thy brow the seal of middle age
Hath scarce been set; I am thine elder far.
  Man.  Think’st thou existence doth depend on time?
It doth; but actions are our epochs: mine
Have made my days and nights imperishable,
Endless, and all alike, as sands on the shore,
Innumerable atoms; and one desert,
Barren and cold, on which the wild waves break,
But nothing rests, save carcasses and wrecks,
Rocks, and the salt—surf weeds of bitterness.
  C. Hun.  Alas! he’s mad—but yet I must not leave him.
  Man.  I would I were, for then the things I see
Could be but a distemper’d dream.
  C. Hun.                What is it
That thou dost see, or think thou look’st upon?
  Man.  Myself, and thee—a peasant of the Alps,
Thy humble virtues, hospitable home,
And spirit patient, pious, proud and free;
Thy self-respect, grafted on innocent thoughts;
Thy days of health, and nights of sleep; thy toils,
By danger dignified, yet guiltless; hopes
Of cheerful old age and a quiet grave,
With cross and garland over its green turf,
And thy grandchildren’s love for epitaph;
This do I see—and then I look within—
It matters not—my soul was scorch’d already!
  C. Hun.  And wouldst thou then exchange thy lot for mine?
  Man.  No, friend! I would not wrong thee nor exchange
My lot with living being: I can bear—
However wretchedly, ’tis still to bear—
In life what others could not brook to dream,
But perish in their slumber.
  C. Hun.                And with this—
This cautious feeling for another’s pain,
Canst thou be black with evil?—say not so.
Can one of gentle thoughts have wreak’d revenge
Upon his enemies?
  Man.                Oh! no, no, no!
My injuries came down on those who loved me—
On those whom I best loved: I never quell’d
An enemy, save in my just defence—
But my embrace was fatal.
  C. Hun.                Heaven give thee rest!
And penitence restore thee to thyself;
My prayers shall be for thee.
  Man.                I need them not,
But can endure thy pity. I depart—
’Tis time—farewell!—Here’s gold, and thanks for thee;
No words—it is thy due. Follow me not;
I know my path—the mountain peril’s past:
And once again, I charge thee, follow not!  [Exit MANFRED

You Might Also Like


Like us on Facebook