The tragedy which Mr. Taine particularly dwells on as a masterpiece of Byron's productions is "Manfred"; he even likens it to Goethe's "Faust." It is, however, fortunate for the poet, that he mentions his having heard "Faust" but once, or he might be accused of plagiarism. And yet "Manfred" is not an English idea; its conception is foreign to the spirit of English poetry, and like "Werner," which we know to be an imitation, shows its German origin. Manfred has, like Faust, control over the spirit-world; like Faust, he summons them to do his bidding; but their efforts are of no avail to destroy the deep-rooted despair with which he is possessed, the horror of the world, or more especially of human kind, which masters him, and the unholy, but constant love for Astarte; finally, after several unsuccessful efforts to end his life, he dies, while the angels contend with him for his soul. It is true "Manfred" abounds in many fine parts, and is justly ranked among his best productions. Yet imitation is not Byron's specialty; his mind was so constituted that when he set himself to dramatize the ideas of others he did not excel. The "Deformed Transformed" and "Werner" seem to me to exemplify this. The plot is, that Werner, a man of high principle, but weak-minded, under the pressure of circumstances, reaches a high position through the crimes of himself and his son, suffering afterwards the tortures of a guilty conscience. In the "Deformed Transformed," Arnold, a hunchback, sells his soul to the Devil, who takes the name of Caesar; his noble spirit, however, obtains him glory, and he retires from the play with a love he wins at the point of the sword.
"Werner," in particular, is labored, its versification most prosaic, and in several places a literal paraphrase of the novel which supplied him with his idea. The "Deformed Transformed" is less so. Caesar is a very human devil, partaking more of a cynical adventurer than of a minion of the Prince of Darkness. His master is also an adventurer, but of less intellectual pretensions.
Compare these with his more thoroughly original work, and though I yield a place to "Manfred," his imitations sink into insignificance. "Sardanapalus" can vie in many points with "Manfred." In the one a remorseful, despairing man speaks; in the other, an Eastern voluptuary. Though Byron excels in both, - and it may be objected that the comparison is not fair, - yet Sardanapalus, his own creation, allows him a latitude of development which Manfred does not. In "Manfred" there is no woman. "Sardanapalus," on the contrary, has one of the fairest types of Byronic poetry. Here his true spirit shows itself; that warm, sunny, voluptuous South, mingled with the fidelity and truthfulness of the North. Byron's women are his guardian angels; and, whether good or bad, they leave an impression of beauty and passion which characterizes them alone. Manfred only speaks to Astarte. Sardanapalus both speaks to Myrrha and is answered with that passionate devotion which Manfred seeks for in vain.
Sardanapalus is especially suited to the development of Myrrha's character, a pious Greek slave, passionately in love with her master, an Eastern prince, a man of noble parts, but deadened by a voluptuous life, and hardly capable of any exertion, except in extreme circumstances, when all his superiority appears.
"Heaven and Earth" and "Cain," again, seem to me truer expressions of Byron's ideas than Manfred. There is that peculiar irreverence in both, especially in "Cain," with which he was so often stigmatized. They both abound in fine verses, both show deep thought. "Cain," I believe, develops some peculiar ideas on religion, some very fair reasoning, and curious statements, which, amongst all the grand imagery and marked characters, are apt to somewhat disturb the mind of a cursory reader. The object of these remarks is to suggest that Mr. Taine, in doing Byron's "Manfred" full justice, might have given some of his other dramas a more prominent place, which they certainly deserve.