LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
Byron's Cain

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.





I introduced the subject of Cain:—

“When I was a boy,” said he, “I studied German, which I have now entirely forgotten. It was very little I ever knew of it. Abel was one of the first books my German master read to me; and whilst he was crying his eyes out over its pages, I thought that any other than Cain had hardly committed a crime in ridding the world of so dull a fellow as Gessner made brother Abel.

“I always thought Cain a fine subject, and when I took it up I determined to treat it strictly after the Mosaic account. I therefore made the snake a snake, and took a Bishop for my interpreter.


“I had once an idea of following the Arminian Scriptures, and making Cain’s crime proceed from jealousy, and love of his uterine sister; but, though a more probable cause of dispute, I abandoned it as unorthodox.

“One mistake crept in,—Abel’s should have been made the first sacrifice: and it is singular that the first form of religious worship should have induced the first murder.

Hobhouse has denounced ‘Cain’ as irreligious, and has penned me a most furious epistle, urging me not to publish it, as I value my reputation or his friendship. He contends that it is a work I should not have ventured to have put my name to in the days of Pope, Churchill, and Johnson, (a curious trio!) Hobhouse used to write good verses once himself, but he seems to have forgotten what poetry is in others, when he says my ‘Cain’ reminds him of the worst bombast of Dryden’s. Shelley, who is no bad judge of the compositions of others, however he may fail in procuring success for his own, is most sensitive and indignant at this critique, and says (what is not the case) that ‘Cain’ is the finest thing I ever wrote, calls it worthy of Milton, and backs it against Hobhouse’s poetical Trinity.


The Snake’s rage has prevented my crest from rising. I shall write Hobhouse a very unimpassioned letter, but a firm one. The publication shall go on, whether Murray refuses to print it or not.

“I have just got a letter, and an admirable one it is, from Sir Walter Scott, to whom I dedicated ‘Cain.’ The sight of one of his letters always does me good. I hardly know what to make of all the contradictory opinions that have been sent me this week. Moore says, that more people are shocked with the blasphemy of the sentiments, than delighted with the beauty of the lines. Another person thinks the Devil’s arguments irresistible, or irrefutable. —— says that the Liberals like it, but that the Ultraists are making a terrible outcry; and that the he and him not being in capitals, in full dress uniform, shocks the High-church and Court party. Some call me an Atheist, others a Manichaean,—a very bad and a hard-sounding name, that shocks the illiterati the more because they don’t know what it means. I am taxed with having made my drama a peg to hang on it a long, and some say tiresome, dissertation on the principle of Evil; and, what is worse, with having given Lucifer the best of the argument; all of which I am accused of taking from Voltaire.


“I could not make Lucifer expound the Thirty-nine Articles, nor talk as the Divines do: that would never have suited his purpose,—nor, one would think, theirs. They ought to be grateful to him for giving them a subject to write about. What would they do without evil in the Prince of Evil? Othello’s occupation would be gone. I have made Lucifer say no more in his defence than was absolutely necessary,—not half so much as Milton makes his Satan do. I was forced to keep up his dramatic character. Au reste, I have adhered closely to the Old Testament, and I defy any one to question my moral.

Johnson, who would have been glad of an opportunity of throwing another stone at Milton, redeems him from any censure for putting impiety and even blasphemy into the mouths of his infernal spirits. By what rule, then, am I to have all the blame? What would the Methodists at home say to Goëthe’sFaust’? His devil not only talks very familiarly of Heaven, but very familiarly in Heaven. What would they think of the colloquies of Mephistopheles and his pupil, or the more daring language of the prologue, which no one will ever venture to translate? And yet this play is not only tolerated and admired, as every thing he wrote must be, but acted, in Germany.
And are the Germans a less moral people than we are? I doubt it much. Faust itself is not so fine a subject as Cain. It is a grand mystery. The mark that was put upon Cain is a sublime and shadowy act: Goëthe would have made more of it than I have done*.”

* On Mr. Murray being threatened with a prosecution, Lord Byron begged me to copy the following letter for him:—

“Attacks upon me were to be expected, but I perceive one upon you in the papers which, I confess, I did not expect.

“How and in what manner you can be considered responsible for what I publish, I am at a loss to conceive. If ‘Cain’ be blasphemous, ‘Paradise Lost’ is blasphemous; and the words of the Oxford gentleman, ‘Evil, be thou my good,’ are from that very poem, from the mouth of Satan,—and is there any thing more in that of Lucifer, in the Mystery? ‘Cain’ is nothing more than a drama, not a piece of argument. If Lucifer and Cain speak as the first rebel and the first murderer may be supposed to speak, nearly all the rest of the personages talk also according to their characters; and the stronger passions have ever been permitted to the drama. I have avoided introducing the Deity, as in Scripture, though Milton does, and not very wisely either;


I cannot resist presenting the public with a drinking-song composed one morning,—or perhaps evening, after one of our dinners.

“Fill the goblet again, for I never before
Felt the glow that now gladdens my heart to its core:
Let us drink—who would not? since, thro’ life’s varied round
In the goblet alone no deception is found.

but have adopted his angel as sent to Cain instead, on purpose to avoid shocking any feelings on the subject, by falling short of what all uninspired men must fall short in,—viz. giving an adequate notion of the effect of the presence of Jehovah. The old Mysteries introduced Him liberally enough, and all this I avoided in the new one.

“The attempt to bully you because they think it will not succeed with me, seems as atrocious an attempt as ever disgraced the times. What! when Gibbon’s, Hume’s, Priestley’s, and Drummond’s publishers have been allowed to rest in peace for seventy years, are you to be singled out for a work of fiction, not of history or argument?

“There must be something at the bottom of this—some private

“I have tried in its turn all that life can supply;
I have bask’d in the beams of a dark rolling eye;
I have lov’d—who has not? but what tongue will declare
That pleasure existed while passion was there?
“In the days of our youth, when the heart’s in its spring,
And dreams that affection can never take wing,
I had friends—who has not? but what tongue will avow
That friends, rosy wine, are so faithful as thou?

enemy of your own: it is otherwise incredible. I can only say, ‘Me, me, adsum qui feci;’ that any proceedings against you may, I beg, be transferred to me, who am willing and ought to endure them all; that if you have lost money by the publication, I will refund any or all of the copyright: that I desire you will say, that both you and Mr. Gifford remonstrated against the publication, and also Mr. Hobhouse; that I alone occasioned it, and I alone am the person who, either legally or otherwise, should bear the burthen.

“If they prosecute, I will come to England; that is, if by meeting in my own person I can save yours. Let me know. You shan’t suffer for me, if I can help it. Make any use of this letter you please.”

“The breast of a mistress some boy may estrange;
Friendship shifts with the sun-beam,—thou never canst change.
Thou grow’st old—who does not? but on earth what appears,
Whose virtues, like thine, but increase with our years?
“Yet if blest to the utmost that love can bestow,
Should a rival bow down to our idol below,
We are jealous—who’s not? thou hast no such alloy,
For the more that enjoy thee, the more they enjoy.
“When, the season of youth and its jollities past,
For refuge we fly to the goblet at last,
Then we find—who does not? in the flow of the soul,
That truth, as of yore, is confin’d to the bowl.
“When the box of Pandora was opened on earth,
And Memory’s triumph commenced over Mirth,
Hope was left—was she not? but the goblet we kiss,
And care not for hope, who are certain of bliss.
“Long life to the grape! and when summer is flown,
The age of our nectar shall gladden my own.
We must die—who does not? may our sins be forgiven!
And Hebe shall never be idle in Heaven.”