Adult Fiction

Classics Club: Cain by Lord Byron

The Classic:

Cain, a Mystery (1821) by Lord Byron

This is a rather obscure play, and as such I couldn’t find a good blurb, but basically it’s a play in poetry clearly inspired by Paradise Lost, telling a story about Cain and his conversations with Lucifer leading up to the murder of Abel. (“Mystery” is used here in the even-then-antiquated sense of religious mystery, as old inspirational plays would be titled.)

Lord-Byron-Quote-Words-are-Things

Was it what I expected?

Well, I found it discussed in a fascinating academic history of Satanism — review coming Tuesday — so I had a grounding in what the play was about and where it fit into the Romantic poetry of the time. I expected a play about ideas, rather than action, with some remarkable quotes to chew over, and that’s what it is. (The play is rarely performed, but I don’t think it was really meant for that.)

Did I like it?

Very much. I’m a big fan of Lucifer as a fictional character, and this one is very sharp. He doesn’t have the larger-than-life quality of Milton’s Lucifer, but the same kind of attitude. He sometimes talks in circles, or knows that what he’s saying won’t be understood, but he doesn’t lie. He’s tormented by his own intellect, as is Cain, trying to reconcile what they’re told about god and the world with what they see and experience. Most of the play is Lucifer and Cain discussing divine command theory, and Lucifer is a soul “who dare look the omnipotent tyrant in his everlasting face and tell him that his evil is not good!”

Is it worth reading?

It’s not for everyone. It’s not Satanist in the sense of believing in and worshiping the Christian Satan, it’s part of a Romantic trend of Lucifer as a representative of humanity (about which more Tuesday), but if you’re a practicing Christian I expect you’d be offended, and that’s okay. It’s an interesting little play though, recommended for religion geeks, Milton enthusiasts, and those of us who continue to find Lucifer a relatable character who symbolizes both intellect and rebellion.


This book is part of my Classics Club list!

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5 thoughts on “Classics Club: Cain by Lord Byron

  1. As a practicing Christian (a pastor even), I find positive (or at least sympathetic) portrayals of Lucifer in thoughtful literature to be very interesting. I think it shows that in many ways humanity’s thoughts and values more closely match Lucifer/Satan’s than God’s, which is what one would expect from studying Christian theology (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9 vs. Ephesians 2:2-3). Of course, in the Christian worldview Satan’s reasonableness/freedom is ultimately deception with the goal of making sure that as many humans as possible meet the same fate as himself (e.g. John 8:44, Matthew 25:41), and God’s plan is to forgive rebellion and give humans a share in his glory (e.g. Ephesians 2:4-9, Romans 8:28-30)…but its always interesting to imagine Lucifer/Satan’s self-justification and view of things. C. S. Lewis has an interesting (and I think mostly correct) analysis of Milton’s Lucifer in “A Preface to Paradise Lost” that you might find interesting.

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      1. No problem!

        At one point I had read almost everything C.S. Lewis wrote, although it’s been a long time since I read the Preface to Paradise Lost and don’t recall Lewis’s opinion, although I’ve been meaning to re-read it while I’m on the subject!

        I find that Satan is at his most interesting as a meta-textual creation. If I thought there was a real personification of evil, or a real deity with a real adversary, I’m sure my engagement with the literature would be quite different because it would have a more tangible import. The crucial innovation with the Romantic Satanists, like Byron, is that they were able (culturally and personally) to leave and criticize the church. So, their vision of Lucifer is about him as a legitimate rebel who has been created to give voice to their complaints about the church and detraction from Christianity as a real thing, rather than taking the devil’s side in an argument that was perceived to be real. I’m very interested in metafiction of this kind, because however many other things are going on with it, it’s only able to make a real-world statement because it is fiction. A fascinating overlap between fiction and reality. But again, I’m primarily interested in it as literature and don’t engage with it on a religious basis as such, so my focus is different.

        Anyway, that seems to be the main difference between Byron and Milton. Milton would’ve been baffled at the reinterpretation of Satan as a hero, but he was operating from a different point of view that (I think) would more closely resemble yours, where Satan sounds so reasonable because his thought processes are closer to human ones, but Milton’s point was to show that god’s ways would triumph.

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        1. Even in many (most?) modern forms of Satanism, Satan is viewed as more of a metaphor for the “do as thou wilt” mentality than as an actual being, isn’t he? I get the impression that a lot of the “blasphemous” Gothic trappings are just there to annoy oversensitive Christians and/or titillate the more immature members of the group.

          In non-Christian literature I tend to see sympathetic Lucifer being intended non-literally to voice anti-[insert-all-or-some-aspect-of-Christian-worldview] sentiment. Of course, from a Christian worldview that means that at the same time the Lucifer character is representing a worldview that to some degree does originate with the literal Lucifer who I believe exists even if the author doesn’t. And at that point we’re probably way beyond authorial intent, but that’s how my mind works 🙂

          Definitely agree with you on Milton not intending Lucifer as hero but something much closer to a traditional Christian view (having a healthy dose of pride and maybe a bit of self-delusion)

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