‘The clankless chain hath bound thee’: An exploration of metaphysical paradox and internal opposition in Lord Byron’s Manfred, A Dramatic Poem – Sadia Pineda Hameed

Sadia Pineda Hameed is a third year English Literature student at Cardiff University whose interests include Existentialism and exploring subjectivity in film and literature.


Gustave Doré, Manfred and the Chamois Hunter, 1853

‘The clankless chain hath bound thee’: An exploration of metaphysical paradox and internal opposition in Lord Byron’s Manfred, A Dramatic Poem

Much of Lord Byron’s dramatic works have been concerned with the contention and consolidation of opposition within the mind. In his first major dramatic work to address this theme, Manfred, A Dramatic Poem, the eponymous character is plagued by his paradoxical pursuit of knowledge in a postlapsarian world. Manfred is in two minds as to whether fate or free will is the power that rules his life, and is curiously shown to believe in both simultaneously. Moreover, Manfred’s promethean endeavours are in conflict with his beliefs that attaining knowledge leads to sorrow, and ultimately an Edenic fall. It seems that, rather than compromising either, Manfred chooses to remain in the paradox. Also in conflict is Manfred’s existence itself, which causes a tension due to the opposition between his human form and the superhuman being he arguably sees himself as. Although this can be regarded as solipsistic, Manfred finds a sort of middle ground between these two conflicting forms: the 1817 Byronic precursor to Nietzsche’s Overman.

The oppositions in Manfred’s mind are rooted in his disappointment in having not found true meaning despite his exhaustive quest for knowledge:

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.[1]

Manfred believes the ‘truth’, that knowledge will not reveal meaning to life, is ‘fatal’, however this may be a nihilistic attempt at attributing his failed autonomous pursuits to fate. Instead of resolving these conflicting thoughts – a resolution that could bring him closer to the ‘knowledge of Life’ – Manfred is shown to believe that both agents have power. From the beginning of the play, he seems to believe in fate, calling upon Spirits that rule over ‘the star which rules thy destiny’ (1.1.110), however this determinism is in opposition to his awareness of his own free will. When the Spirits tell him that it is beyond their power to force fate and kill him, he asserts that he has just as much power as they do:

Slaves, scoff not at my will!/
The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark
[…] is as bright […] as your own –
And shall not yield to yours, though cooped in clay! (1.1.153-157)

‘The Promethean spark’, the enlightenment that Manfred has achieved, is said to be ‘as bright’ as these Spirits that rule fate. Despite being ‘cooped in clay’, connoting an entrapment within his human form, he believes his free will to be just as strong as the power of fate. This is further exemplified in his bifurcated wish for ‘oblivion, self-oblivion’ (1.1.144). There is opposition in what Manfred believes is the overruling power in life – fate or free will – when seeking a force to ‘bestow [death] unto’ him’ (1.1.148). He seemingly has the paradoxical idea that both are overruling forces, yet both are able to bring him death.

To resolve this paradox, Manfred must see that the fatalist Spirits are not in contention with his own free will. As John W. Ehrstine asserts, ‘the Spirits represent Manfred’s partial power over the mundane, clay world. He is a magician, after all.’[2] The ‘clankless chain’ (1.1.260) that they bind him with can be interpreted as his own nihilism which impedes his discovery of life’s truths. It is self-imposed, ‘clankless’, as it exists only in his conflicted mind. Friedrich Nietzsche, who in Ecce Homo stated, ‘I must be deeply related to Byron’s Manfred: I have found all these abysses in myself’,[3] likely had the character in mind when he wrote that nihilism is when ‘the highest values devalue themselves.[4] This is true of Manfred, whom Byron writes as a character that devalues his positive action by focusing on the things he cannot do because they are ‘fatal’. In this sense, the character emphatically condemns himself to ‘sorrow’ by ‘devaluing’ the power of his free will. Throughout Manfred: A Dramatic Poem, he attributes his failings to the fatalistic Spirits’ spell, whereas he must see that the incantation they place on him is symbolic of his own self-defeatism. In this regard, rather than simply standing in opposition to self determination, fate is used by the nihilist to excuse his failure to exercise his own free will.

Although Manfred is an enlightened Promethean figure, becoming enlightened to the power of his free will proves difficult. When contemplating stepping off the mountain of Jungfrau to his death, Manfred states, ‘I feel the impulse, yet I do not plunge; / I see the peril, yet do not recede’ (1.2.20-21). The syntactical parallelism in these two lines about a literal fall exemplify his metaphysical dilemma. He sees ‘the peril’, the dangers of overreaching in his pursuits of knowledge, ‘yet [does] not recede.’ At the same time, he ‘feels’ the impulse to jump, ‘yet [does] not plunge’. This non-committal and negative language is the invisible force that binds his feet in place as he exclaims, ‘my foot is firm’ (1.2.22); his ‘clankless chain’ is symbolic here of his debilitating human fears of both never finding out the meaning of life, and of an Edenic fall if he does find it.

In an attempt to consolidate these conflicting fears in his mind, Manfred regards his ‘clankless chain’ as a safety mechanism preventing his fall, when really it is closer to a defence mechanism preventing his failures. In the episode in which Manfred speaks to the Witch of the Alps, he tells her that ‘with my knowledge grew / The thirst of knowledge, and my power and joy / Of this most bright intelligence, until —’ (2.2.94-96). Manfred wavers at the end of this, prompting the Witch to ask him to ‘proceed’, however he dismisses this train of thought by saying, ‘Oh, I but thus prolonged my words’ (2.2.97-98). Just as he begins to remember the motivation, ‘power and joy’ that his promethean quest brings him, the ‘clankless chain’ that tug at his feet remind him of the threat of the fall. Rather than breaking out of the paradoxical fears of both overreaching and never finding life’s meaning, Manfred succumbs to them and resultantly ‘[searches] no further’ (2.2.43) for the truth. However, perhaps his end to his search is not a disenchanted surrender to fear in the face of a seemingly incongruous paradox, but a refusal to compromise. Erhstine believes that ‘Manfred’s quest involves the deliberate smashing of the various possible ideals, or modes of salvation, open to him […] he is beyond being duped by any partial salvations which carry with them freedom only at the price of reduction in man’s scope.’[5]

Manfred’s actions in this case can be seen as an escape from the ‘partial salvations’ of either ideal. If he were to continue his search for the truth and transcend his human form, he would gain freedom from the ‘clay’ he is ‘cooped’ in; however this would come at the price of not being able to commit mortal and sinful acts, such as loving Astarte, without being ‘degraded back’ to clay (2.2.78). Conversely, if he were to stop his quest and surrender himself completely to fate, he would not be at the risk of sinning in a postlapsarian world by seeking forbidden knowledge, but would never reach the truth he goes through sorrow for. Although there is no way to undo the opposition in his mind, nor is there any simplistic choice to make due to its paradoxical nature; perhaps, then, a refusal to compromise is the only way to resolve his inescapable inner-conflict.

It seems, though, that by the end of the play Manfred’s defiance to compromise pays off in a way. The Abbot acts as a narrator as he says Manfred ‘should have been a noble creature’  if he weren’t plagued by ‘an awful chaos’ of ‘mind and dust […] mixed and contending without end or order’ (3.1.160-166). By this point in play in Act 3, this seems like a fair assessment. Manfred’s tenacious qualities exhibited in his quest, such as his rejection of the Witch’s request to ‘swear obedience’ and ‘do her bidding’ (2.2.156-157) display a potential to be ‘a noble creature’, however his internal conflicts that are paradoxically ‘mixed and contending’ seem as though they will endlessly plague and limit him.

However, the Spirits give their assessment of the change in Manfred in the following act. Although they note that his overreaching still demonstrates what it is ‘to be a mortal/ And seek the things beyond mortality’, they concede, ‘yet […] he mastereth himself and makes/ His torture tributary to his will’ (2.4.182-185). Byron suggests that there is unity in this opposition; the ‘thirst for knowledge’ of things ‘beyond mortality’ is emphatically what it is ‘to be a mortal’. Manfred’s attempt to transcend the mortal ‘form’ that he ‘wore’ (2.2.56) is inescapable, however he proves the Abbot wrong by finding a noble cause still: making his inward quest ‘tributary to his will’ and thus no longer devaluing his free will.

Up until this point in the play, he has battled with the oppositions of fate and free will, as any human must, however, by accepting his fate and fulfilling his cause through his free will, he unites the two in himself. He both accepts his death but states that he is his ‘own destroyer’ (3.4.139). His promethean pursuits by his own will and its consequences are his fate. He is also able to house both ‘good and evil thoughts’ within him as opposed to agonising over which power rules his mind, and realises this enlightenment about himself is ‘born from the knowledge in its own desert’. In this sense, Manfred is neither man nor god, but godly. Rather than transcending his mortal form, he instead gains a transcendent view, it ‘hath enlarged [his] thoughts with a new sense’ (4.3.16) that is not the ‘awful chaos’ diagnosed by the Abbot. The notion that ‘the tree of knowledge is not that of Life’ remains a ‘truth’, even to the end of the play, but this truth comes from neither Promethean endeavours nor an avoidance of the Edenic fall. It comes from the unification of the metaphysical conflicts in his mind and realising his cause to ‘champion human fears’ (2.2.218).

From this realisation in the character of Manfred, it is likely that Byron had written the first incarnation of what Nietzsche would later deem the Overman. Initially, in the play, Manfred seemed to have a relatively solipsistic outlook. In Act 1, he claimed his ‘spirit walked not with the souls of men,/ Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes’ (2.2.50-51). His disassociation from other men, and even from the human body as illustrated in the referral to the synecdoches of ‘souls’ and ‘human eyes’, portrays his arguably solipsistic view in which he was unlike mankind. By the end of the play, however, he embraces his mortal form and his distinctly human conflicting thoughts. Rather than boasting an individuality, he now boasts thoughts ‘enlarged […] with a new sense’ of the self, which he was in a state to even ‘champion’ for others.

Published in 1883, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘s eponymous character parallels Byron’s Manfred, including this reconciled ‘chaos’ he experiences in his final living hours. Zarathustra says that to go towards the achievable goal of the Overman, ‘I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star. I say to you: you still have chaos in you.’[6] That is, oppositions and chaos that are inherent in human nature are necessary when heading towards a more advanced, individualistic and aware generation of human beings, of bright and enlightened ‘dancing stars’. Although Manfred, in his dying moments after his own enlightenment, could only begin his ‘championing’ of mankind’s move towards an Overman-like way of being, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was able to do so to a higher potential.

The theme of opposition in Byron’s Manfred: A Dramatic Poem is central to the development of Manfred’s metaphysical journey. Opposing thoughts, notions and analogies, and their paradoxical natures, bring about deep sorrow and confusion for him. The Promethean figure attempts to make sense of the chaos by trying to consolidate, place in contention and compromise with these conflicts. These efforts to ‘resolve’ the chaos and become free of the paradoxes prove to not be the solution though. Byron finds, in writing his play, that it is the understanding and embracing of inner-opposition that will begin a newly enlightened, transcendent state and even diminish the tension between paradoxical and conflicting ideas. Moreover, through the nihilistic Manfred, Byron illustrates that the opposition of fate and free will in particular is at the root of it all. We must not devalue our free will by excusing outcomes as fatal if we are to ever achieve, not a solipsistic individuality necessarily, but a mind free of the limiting and self-imposed, ‘clankless chain’ of doubt and fear.



[1] George Gordon Byron, ‘Manfred, A Dramatic Poem’, Romanticism: An Anthology ed. Duncan Wu (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp.922-933 (1.1.10-12). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[2] John W. Ehrstine, The Metaphysics of Byron: A Reading of the Plays (Paris: Mouton and Co., 1979),


[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’, Ecce Homo & The Antichrist, trans. Thomas Wayne (New York: Algora Publishing, 2004), p.30.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1968) , p.9.

[5] John W. Ehrstine, The Metaphysics of Byron, p.23.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.9.


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