Byron's Depression Reflected in Manfred

Sarah Herback

Byron's Swiss tour and Manfred hit close to home for me. Not because I have traveled Switzerland, but because at one time in my life, I also experienced feelings of alienation and hopelessness. Therefore, I was quite intrigued by Dr Miall's notion of trauma in Manfred. I think he makes a compelling argument, especially when he pairs the notion of trauma with Freud's theory on the causes of trauma, but I do not necessarily agree with him entirely. While Dr Miall's theory is sound, I do not think his definition of trauma is clearly defined. I think a better, but not nearly as interesting theory, is that of depression. Although the symptoms of both psychological disorders are almost indistinguishable, their sources are quite different. I will distinguish the differences and sources between posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. Then I will try to show how Byron suffers from depression, not the result of trauma.

Trauma is "[a] psychic injury, esp. one caused by emotional shock the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed; an internal injury, esp. to the brain, which may result in a behavioural disorder of organic origin. Also, the state or condition so caused" ("trauma," def. 2a). Trauma is often the cause of posttraumatic stress disorder, which although is not defined in Dr Miall's notes, did however come up in class. Posttraumatic stress disorder "involves enduring psychological disturbance attributed to the experience of a major traumatic event" (Weiten 544). By looking at that definition, Dr Miall's theory does apply; however, Weiten's textbook reveals that the types of trauma that lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, from the most prevalent to the least, for men (since the discussion is about Byron) are: witnessing severe injury or death, serious automobile accident, physical attack, natural disaster, robbery, sexual molestation before the age of 18, and finally rape. The study on posttraumatic stress syndrome does not include deaths of parents at an early age, failed marriages, or behaviours that are self destructive. Posttraumatic stress disorder is the result of a single event, not a succession of events. In Byron's case, his alienation due to the intimate relationship he had with his half-sister can be seen in some ways as self-inflicted. I am not convinced that Byron suffered from trauma; I think he suffered from a severe case of depression that preceded his exile.

The criterion for abnormal behaviour depends on three categories: deviance, maladaptive behaviour, and personal distress. Deviance can be described as the violation of the standards and expectations of society. Maladaptive behaviour is measured by the quality of a person's behaviour that makes it disordered. In obvious cases, drugs and alcohol are determinates. Personal distress is usually based on "an individual's report of great personal distress" (571). Personal distress can also be reported by what the individual says to friends and family; Byron let his whole audience know it when he wrote Manfred.

Once an individual meets the criterion of abnormal behaviour, then the type of disorder has to be identified. "Mood disorders are a class of disorders marked by emotional disturbances of varied kinds that may spill over to disrupt physical, perceptual, social, and thought processes" (586). There are two major types of mood disorders, one being depression. Depression has emotional characteristics like gloom, hopelessness, socially withdrawn behaviour, and irritability. The cognitive characteristics of depression include "slowness of thought processes, obsessive worrying, inability to make decisions, negative self-image, self-blame and delusions of guilt and disease" (587). Unfortunately as an individual's depression is left untreated, a theory called learned helplessness can develop, hence the depression worsens. People who are prone to learned helplessness "exhibit a pessimistic explanatory style…These people tend to attribute their setbacks to their personal flaws instead of situational factors, and they tend to draw global, far-reaching conclusions about their personal inadequacies based on these setbacks" (589). Weiten also points out that depression can worsen if the individual ruminates about their depression. "People who respond to depression with rumination repetitively focus their attention on their depressing feelings, thinking constantly about how sad, lethargic, and unmotivated they are" (590). The characteristic of depression are almost indistinguishable from those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, and the theory of rumination can be compared with Dr Miall's use of Freud's theory of trauma.

Now that I have distinguished the difference between posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, I will try to prove that Byron suffered from depression when he wrote Manfred. I also want to prove that he was depressed long before his exile from London. Manfred is, in a sense, autobiographical. A troubled man, with a tortured heart seeks to be reunited with the love of his life. Manfred cannot bear to live in an unrelenting state of despair; he attempts suicide until he is eventually successful.

The very first soliloquy in Manfred is performed by Manfred himself. He "bear[s] / The aspect and the form of breathing men" (1.1.6-7). Manfred feels inadequate with himself as a man who is alive; his words are aloof and withdrawn. Following the model of depression, Manfred is in an emotional state of gloominess and hopelessness, cognitively he has a negative self-image of himself and humanity.

When Manfred asks the Spirits to grant him "Forgetfulness" (1.1.136), he wants to be absolved of his own actions and memories. Speaking from experience, you want to leave everything behind because it is natural to remember, and sometimes remembering leads to rumination. Rumination can become self-propelling and self-prophesizing for the depressed individual. The memories in one's mind relive and cause the person to become more depressed, not necessarily because the individual has trouble comprehending the circumstances, but because sometimes depressed people want to stay depressed. It is hard to escape the downward spiral (I'm sorry about the cliché!). I think Manfred/Byron suggests something simpler than Dr Miall's theory of trauma, but rather Manfred is too weak to face his own challenges and would rather forget his troubles. It absolves himself of all responsibility.

After Manfred's first attempt at suicide, the chamois hunter "saves" him. Manfred challenges him on the dullness and relentlessness of existence:

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 salt-surf weeds of bitterness.

This passage struck me because it best captures the essence of the depressed person. The images of unceasing despair go beyond Dr Miall's notion of stasis; nothing is stopped at all, in fact it is perpetual and never-ending. To me this passage does not go beyond time, it is encircled by time, always being reminded that time is stretched into infinity. Again I am reminded of my experience as an individual who suffered from depression. There is a sense of alienation in this passage; being alone with time is isolating and lonely. In turn, the isolated self becomes hopeless and desolate. This passage is connected later when Manfred says "I dwell in my despair / And live - and live for ever" (2.2.149-50) Again, the notion of perpetuity refutes Dr Miall's idea of stasis.

Once Manfred calls upon the Witch of the Alps, she asks him to repeat what he asks of her. He replies: "Well, though it torture me, 'tis but the same; / My pang shall find a voice" (2.2.49-50). Again, this reminds me of reliving the memories that keeps one from being able to forget. There is a comfort in this kind of depression, although it can be the most harmful and destructive. Of course in this speech, Manfred is talking about Astarte who is presumably his sister. In this passage, Manfred never identifies the name of the woman whom he is speaking of; she remains an illusion of the conscious, a memory that Manfred so desperately wants to forget, but cannot afford to leave behind, because if he did, he could not perpetuate himself into further doom.

When the Witch of the Alps casts Manfred away he asks her to "come and sit by [him]! / [His] solitude is solitude no more, / But peopled with the Furies" (2.2.129-31). This passage Dr Miall describes as being beyond stasis and that it is self-destruction. Although I agree with him somewhat, I also feel there is a tendency to see Manfred seeking comfort in the avenging agents of the gods. Manfred is in a sense beyond self-destruction; he is beyond healing and he will only find comfort in death. For Manfred, nor for Byron I think, is self-destruction as means to an end. Self-destruction is the end; Manfred will find freedom in death. (Since he is an atheist, he does not believe in the sin of suicide.)

The final passage I want to look at is part of Manfred's final speech before his death:

                                      I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine.
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts,
Is its own origin of ill and end,
And its own place and time.

This passage reveals the mental anguish in Manfred, and consequently, Byron himself. Manfred is finally able to accept his tortured soul; although he knows the mind is immortal, the image seems to change, and we are comforted by Manfred's sense of ceasing the unceasing. I think Manfred/Byron is aware that the whole of the agony and suffering has come from his own tortures and his own mind.

Although there are many more examples of Manfred's depression throughout the play, I have only highlighted a few (since my word count maximum has already expired). But I will quickly touch on my belief that Byron suffered from depression long before he wrote Manfred or was even exiled from London. I only know briefly Byron's childhood and the events leading up to his exile, but his intimate relationship with his sister violates two out of the three categories when trying to identify abnormal behaviour. He demonstrates deviance and maladaptive behaviour. The highly inappropriate relationship he pursued with Augusta set the stage for Byron's exile. His depression would have led him to initiate his relationship with his half-sister; incest is not exercised by persons with normal behaviour, but in those who are already experiencing difficulties with their own identities or selfhood. Byron was unable to resist the temptation of perpetuating the incestuous relationship, which I think began the downward spiral for him. Hence, Manfred, I think, is undoubtedly, a reflection of Byron's most inner thoughts. I think it is safe to presume that the feelings Manfred feels mirror the internal turmoil that Byron is experiencing.

Although Dr Miall's theory is valid on many levels, I think my theory also proves to be substantial, especially if we consider the differences between the sources of trauma and the sources of depression. Both lead to the same symptoms, but I think depression better represents Byron's state of mind. Freud's theory on trauma can work if one sees Manfred/Byron suffering from trauma, but it does not work if one sees him as suffering from depression. I must admit that I am biased in my conclusion. I am drawn to my theory based on my own personal experiences.

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon. Manfred. Romanticism: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998. 718-751.

"trauma." Def. 2a. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. University of Alberta Library. Edmonton, Alberta. 3 April 2005.

Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations. 5th ed. Toronto, Ontario: Wadsworth, 2001.