Cain: A Mystery


(The Works of Lord Byron. Poetry. Vol. V., ed Ernest Hartley Coleridge, 1901)

“Now the Serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.”

Chapter 3rd, verse 1.


Cain was begun at Ravenna, July 16, and finished September 9, 1821 (vide MS. M.). Six months before, when he was at work on the first act of Sardanapalus, Byron had “pondered” Cain, but it was not till Sardanapalus and a second historical play, The Two Foscari, had been written, copied out, and sent to England, that he indulged his genius with a third drama—on “a metaphysical subject, something in the style of Manfred” (Letters, 1901, v. 189).

Goethe's comment on reading and reviewing Cain was that he should be surprised if Byron did not pursue the treatment of such “biblical subjects,” as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Conversations, etc., 1879, p. 62); and, many years after, he told Crabb Robinson (Diary, 1869, ii. 435) that Byron should have lived “to execute his vocation … to dramatize the Old Testament.” He was better equipped for such a task than might have been imagined. A Scottish schoolboy, “from a child he had known the Scriptures,” and, as his Hebrew Melodies testify, he was not unwilling to turn to the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration. Moreover, he was born with the religious temperament. Questions “of Providence, foreknowledge, will and fate,” exercised his curiosity because they appealed to his imagination and moved his spirit. He was eager to plunge into controversy with friends and advisers who challenged or rebuked him, Hodgson, for instance, or Dallas; and he responded with remarkable amenity to the strictures and exhortations of such orthodox professors as Mr. Sheppard and Dr. Kennedy. He was, no doubt, from first to last a heretic, impatient, not to say contemptuous, of authority, but he was by no means indifferent to religion altogether. To “argue about it and about” was a necessity, if not an agreeable relief, to his intellectual energies. It would appear from the Ravenna diary (January 28, 1821, Letters, 1901, v. 190,191), that the conception of Lucifer was working in his brain {200} before the “tragedy of Cain” was actually begun. He had been recording a “thought” which had come to him, that “at the very height of human desire and pleasure, a certain sense of doubt and sorrow”—an amari aliquid which links the future to the past, and so blots out the present—“mingles with our bliss,” making it of none effect, and, by way of moral or corollary to his soliloquy, he adds three lines of verse headed, “Thought for a speech of Lucifer in the Tragedy of Cain“—

“Were Death an Evil, would I let thee live?
Fool! live as I live—as thy father lives,
And thy son's sons shall live for evermore.”

In these three lines, which were not inserted in the play, and in the preceding “thought,” we have the key-note to Cain. “Man walketh in a vain shadow”—a shadow which he can never overtake, the shadow of an eternally postponed fruition. With a being capable of infinite satisfaction, he is doomed to realize failure in attainment. In all that is best and most enjoyable, “the rapturous moment and the placid hour,” there is a foretaste of “Death the Unknown”! The tragedy of Manfred lies in remorse for the inevitable past; the tragedy of Cain, in revolt against the limitations of the inexorable present.

The investigation of the “sources” of Cain does not lead to any very definite conclusion (see Lord Byron's Cain und Seine Quellen, von Alfred Schaffner, 1880). He was pleased to call his play “a Mystery,” and, in his Preface (vide post, p. 207), Byron alludes to the Old Mysteries as “those very profane productions, whether in English, French, Italian, or Spanish.” The first reprint of the Chester Plays was published by the Roxburghe Club in 1818, but Byron's knowledge of Mystery Plays was probably derived from Dodsley's Plays (ed. 1780, l., xxxiii.-xlii.), or from John Stevens's Continuation of Dugdale's Monasticon (vide post, p. 207), or possibly, as Herr Schaffner suggests, from Warton's History of English Poetry, ed. 1871, ii. 222-230. He may, too, have witnessed some belated Rappresentazione of the Creation and Fall at Ravenna, or in one of the remoter towns or villages of Italy. There is a superficial resemblance between the treatment of the actual encounter of Cain and Abel, and the conventional rendering of the same incident in the Ludus Coventriæ, and in the Mistère du Viel Testament; but it is unlikely that he had closely studied any one Mystery Play at first hand. On the other hand, his recollections of Gessner's Death of Abel which “he had never read since he was eight years old,” were clearer than he imagined. Not {201} only in such minor matters as the destruction of Cain's altar by a whirlwind, and the substitution of the Angel of the Lord for the Deus of the Mysteries, but in the Teutonic domesticities of Cain and Adah, and the evangelical piety of Adam and Abel, there is a reflection, if not an imitation, of the German idyll (see Gessner's Death of Abel, ed. 1797, pp. 80, 102).

Of his indebtedness to Milton he makes no formal acknowledgment, but he was not ashamed to shelter himself behind Milton's shield when he was attacked on the score of blasphemy and profanity. “If Cain be blasphemous, Paradise Lost is blasphemous” (letter to Murray, Pisa, February 8, 1822), was, he would fain believe, a conclusive answer to his accusers. But apart from verbal parallels or coincidences, there is a genuine affinity between Byron's Lucifer and Milton's Satan. Lucifer, like Satan, is “not less than Archangel ruined,” a repulsed but “unvanquished Titan,” marred by a demonic sorrow, a confessor though a rival of Omnipotence. He is a majestic and, as a rule, a serious and solemn spirit, who compels the admiration and possibly the sympathy of the reader. There is, however, another strain in his ghostly attributes, which betrays a more recent consanguinity: now and again he gives token that he is of the lineage of Mephistopheles. He is sometimes, though rarely, a mocking as well as a rebellious spirit, and occasionally indulges in a grim persiflage beneath the dignity if not the capacity of Satan. It is needless to add that Lucifer has a most lifelike personality of his own. The conception of the spirit of evil justifying an eternal antagonism to the Creator from the standpoint of a superior morality, may, perhaps, be traced to a Manichean source, but it has been touched with a new emotion. Milton's devil is an abstraction of infernal pride—

      “Sole Positive of Night!
            Antipathist of Light!
Fate's only essence! primal scorpion rod—
The one permitted opposite of God!”

Goethe's devil is an abstraction of scorn. He “maketh a mock” alike of good and evil! But Byron's devil is a spirit, yet a mortal too—the traducer, because he has suffered for his sins; the deceiver, because he is self-deceived; the hoper against hope that there is a ransom for the soul in perfect self-will and not in perfect self-sacrifice. Byron did not uphold Lucifer, but he “had passed that way,” and could imagine a spiritual warfare not only against the Deus of the Mysteries or of the Book of Genesis, but against what he {202] believed and acknowledged to be the Author and Principle of good.

Autres temps, autres mœurs! It is all but impossible for the modern reader to appreciate the audacity of Cain, or to realize the alarm and indignation which it aroused by its appearance. Byron knew that he was raising a tempest, and pleads, in his Preface, “that with regard to the language of Lucifer, it was difficult for me to make him talk like a clergyman,” and again and again he assures his correspondents (e.g. to Murray, November 23, 1821, ”Cain is nothing more than a drama;” to Moore, March 4, 1822, “With respect to Religion, can I never convince you that I have no such opinions as the characters in that drama, which seems to have frightened everybody?” Letters, 1901, v. 469; vi. 30) that it is Lucifer and not Byron who puts such awkward questions with regard to the “politics of paradise” and the origin of evil. Nobody seems to have believed him. It was taken for granted that Lucifer was the mouthpiece of Byron, that the author of Don Juan was not “on the side of the angels.”

Little need be said of the “literature,” the pamphlets and poems which were evoked by the publication of Cain: A Mystery. One of the most prominent assailants (said to be the Rev. H. J. Todd (1763-1845), Archdeacon of Cleveland, 1832, author inter alia of Original Sin, Free Will, etc., 1818) issued A Remonstrance to Mr. John Murray, respecting a Recent Publication, 1822, signed “Oxoniensis.” The sting of the Remonstrance lay in the exposure of the fact that Byron was indebted to Bayle's Dictionary for his rabbinical legends, and that he had derived from the same source his Manichean doctrines of the Two Principles, etc., and other “often-refuted sophisms” with regard to the origin of evil. Byron does not borrow more than a poet and a gentleman is at liberty to acquire by way of raw material, but it cannot be denied that he had read and inwardly digested more than one of Bayle's “most objectionable articles” (e.g. “Adam,” “Eve,” “Abel,” “Manichees,” “Paulicians,” etc.). The Remonstrance was answered in A Letter to Sir Walter Scott, etc., by “Harroviensis.” Byron welcomed such a “Defender of the Faith,” and was anxious that Murray should print the letter together with the poem. But Murray belittled the “defender,” and was upbraided in turn for his slowness of heart (letter to Murray, June 6, 1822, Letters, 1901, vi. 76).

Fresh combatants rushed into the fray: “Philo-Milton,” with a Vindication of the “Paradise Lost” from the charge of exculpating “Cain: A Mystery,” London, 1822; “Britannicus,” with a pamphlet entitled, Revolutionary Causes, etc., and A Postscript containing Strictures on “Cain,” etc., {203} London, 1822, etc.; but their works, which hardly deserve to be catalogued, have perished with them. Finally, in 1830, a barrister named Harding Grant, author of Chancery Practice, compiled a work (Lord Byron's “Cain,” etc., with Notes) of more than four hundred pages, in which he treats “the proceedings and speeches of Lucifer with the same earnestness as if they were existing and earthly personages.” But it was “a week too late.” The “Coryphæus of the Satanic School” had passed away, and the tumult had “dwindled to a calm.”

Cain “appeared in conjunction with” Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari, December 19, 1821. Last but not least of the three plays, it had been announced “by a separate advertisement (Morning Chronicle, November 24, 1821), for the purpose of exciting the greater curiosity” (Memoirs of the Life, etc. [by John Watkins], 1822, p. 383), and it was no sooner published than it was pirated. In the following January, “Cain: A Mystery, by the author of Don Juan,” was issued by W. Benbow, at Castle Street, Leicester Square (the notorious “Byron Head,” which Southey described as “one of those preparatory schools for the brothel and the gallows, where obscenity, sedition, and blasphemy are retailed in drams for the vulgar”!).

Murray had paid Byron £2710 for the three tragedies, and in order to protect the copyright, he applied, through counsel (Lancelot Shadwell, afterwards Vice-Chancellor), for an injunction in Chancery to stop the sale of piratical editions of Cain. In delivering judgment (February 12, 1822), the Chancellor, Lord Eldon (see Courier, Wednesday, February 13), replying to Shadwell, drew a comparison between Cain and Paradise Lost, “which he had read from beginning to end during the course of the last Long Vacation—solicitæ jucunda oblivia vitæ.” No one, he argued, could deny that the object and effects of Paradise Lost were “not to bring into disrepute,” but “to promote reverence for our religion,” and, per contra, no one could affirm that it was impossible to arrive at an opposite conclusion with regard to “the Preface, the poem, the general tone and manner of Cain.” It was a question for a jury. A jury might decide that Cain was blasphemous, and void of copyright; and as there was a reasonable doubt in his mind as to the character of the book, and a doubt as to the conclusion at which a jury would arrive, he was compelled to refuse the injunction. According to Dr. Smiles (Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 428), the decision of a jury was taken, and an injunction eventually granted. If so, it was ineffectual, for Benbow issued {204} another edition of Cain in 1824 (see Jacob's Reports, p. 474, note). See, too, the case of Murray v. Benbow and Another, as reported in the Examiner, February 17, 1822; and cases of Wolcot v. Walker, Southey v. Sherwood, Murray v. Benbow, and Lawrence v. Smith [Quarterly Review, April, 1822, vol. xxvii. pp. 120-138].

Cain,” said Moore (February 9, 1822), “has made a sensation.” Friends and champions, the press, the public “turned up their thumbs.” Gifford shook his head; Hobhouse “launched out into a most violent invective” (letter to Murray, November 24, 1821); Jeffrey, in the Edinburgh, was regretful and hortatory; Heber, in the Quarterly, was fault-finding and contemptuous. The “parsons preached at it from Kentish Town to Pisa” (letter to Moore, February 20, 1822). Even “the very highest authority in the land,” his Majesty King George IV., “expressed his disapprobation of the blasphemy and licentiousness of Lord Byron's writings” (Examiner, February 17, 1822). Byron himself was forced to admit that “my Mont Saint Jean seems Cain” (Don Juan, Canto XI. stanza lvi. line 2). The many were unanimous in their verdict, but the higher court of the few reversed the judgment.

Goethe said that “Its beauty is such as we shall not see a second time in the world” (Conversations, etc., 1874, p. 261); Scott, in speaking of “the very grand and tremendous drama of Cain,” said that the author had “matched Milton on his own ground” (letter to Murray, December 4, 1821, vide post, p. 206); “Cain,” wrote Shelley to Gisborne (April 10, 1822), “is apocalyptic; it is a revelation never before communicated to man.”

Uncritical praise, as well as uncritical censure, belongs to the past; but the play remains, a singular exercise of “poetic energy,” a confession, ex animo, of “the burthen of the mystery, … the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world.”

For reviews of Cain: A Mystery, vide ante, “Introduction to Sardanapalus,” p. 5; see, too, Eclectic Review, May, 1822, N.S. vol. xvii. pp. 418-427; Examiner, June 2, 1822; British Review, 1822, vol. xix. pp. 94-102.

For O'Doherty's parody of the “Pisa” Letter, February 8, 1822, see Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February, 1822, vol. xi. pp. 215-217; and for a review of Harding Grant's Lord Byron's Cain, etc., see Fraser's Magazine, April, 1831, iii. 285-304.









The following scenes are entitled “A Mystery,” in conformity with the ancient title annexed to dramas upon similar subjects, which were styled “Mysteries, or Moralities.”2 The author has by no means taken the same liberties with his subject which were common formerly, as may be seen by any reader curious enough to refer to those very profane productions, whether in English, French, Italian, or Spanish. The author has endeavoured to preserve the language adapted to his characters; and where it is (and this is but rarely) taken from actual Scripture, he has made as little alteration, even of words, as the rhythm would permit. The reader will recollect that the book of Genesis does not state {208} that Eve was tempted by a demon, but by “the Serpent3;” and that only because he was “the most subtil of all the beasts of the field.” Whatever interpretation the Rabbins and the Fathers may have put upon this, I take the words as I find them, and reply, with Bishop Watson4 upon similar occasions, when the Fathers were quoted to him as Moderator in the schools of Cambridge, “Behold the Book!”—holding up the Scripture. It is to be recollected, that my present subject has nothing to do with the New Testament, to which no reference can be here made without anachronism.5 With the poems upon similar topics I have not been recently familiar. Since I was twenty I have never read Milton; but I had read him so frequently before, that this may make little difference. Gesner's “Death of Abel” I have never read since I was eight years of age, at Aberdeen. The[209] general impression of my recollection is delight; but of the contents I remember only that Cain's wife was called Mahala, and Abel's Thirza; in the following pages I have called them “Adah” and “Zillah,” the earliest female names which occur in Genesis. They were those of Lamech's wives: those of Cain and Abel are not called by their names. Whether, then, a coincidence of subject may have caused the same in expression, I know nothing, and care as little. [I6 am prepared to be accused of Manicheism,7 or some other hard name ending in ism, which makes a formidable figure and awful sound in the eyes and ears of those who would be as much puzzled to explain the terms so bandied about, as the liberal and pious indulgers in such epithets. Against such I can defend myself, or, if necessary, I can attack in turn. “Claw for claw, as Conan said to Satan and the deevil take the shortest nails” (Waverley).8]

The reader will please to bear in mind (what few choose to recollect), that there is no allusion to a future state in any of the books of Moses, nor indeed in the Old Testament. For a reason for this extraordinary omission he may consult Warburton's “Divine Legation;”9 {210} whether satisfactory or not, no better has yet been assigned. I have therefore supposed it new to Cain, without, I hope, any perversion of Holy Writ.

With regard to the language of Lucifer, it was difficult for me to make him talk like a clergyman upon the same subjects; but I have done what I could to restrain him within the bounds of spiritual politeness. If he disclaims having tempted Eve in the shape of the Serpent, it is only because the book of Genesis has not the most distant allusion to anything of the kind, but merely to the Serpent in his serpentine capacity.

Note.—The reader will perceive that the author has partly adopted in this poem the notion of Cuvier,10 that the world had been destroyed several times before the creation of man. This speculation, derived from the different strata and the bones of enormous and unknown animals found in them, is not contrary to the Mosaic account, but rather confirms it; as no human bones have yet been discovered in those strata, although those of many known animals are found near the remains of the unknown. The assertion of Lucifer, that the pre-Adamite world was also peopled by rational beings much more intelligent than man, and proportionably powerful to the mammoth, etc., etc., is, of course, a poetical fiction to help him to make out his case.

I ought to add, that there is a “tramelogedia” of {211} Alfieri, called “Abele.”11 I have never read that, nor any other of the posthumous works of the writer, except his Life.

Ravenna, Sept. 20, 1821.






Angel of the Lord.






Scene I.—The Land without Paradise.—Time, Sunrise.

Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Adah, Zillah, offering a Sacrifice.

Adam. God, the Eternal! Infinite! All-wise!—
Who out of darkness on the deep didst make
Light on the waters with a word—All Hail!
Jehovah! with returning light—All Hail!

Eve. God! who didst name the day, and separate
Morning from night, till then divided never—
Who didst divide the wave from wave, and call
Part of thy work the firmament—All Hail!