Byron's Cain and Romantic Education

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Byron´s engagement with Romantic discourses of education in his closet drama Cain has been overshadowed by critical discussions of the work´s theology. This essay repositions Cain within period debates about the goals and possibilities of pursuing knowledge. Falke suggests that although Cain appears to endorse the epistemology implied in many discussions of elite education, it ultimately undermines the dichotomies of knowledge vs. action and mind vs. body upon which these discussions relied.

Byron’s Cain and Romantic Education

Cassandra Falke
University of Tromsø


1.        In the words of Byron’s contemporaries, his character Cain is a “hideous blasphemy,” an “off-scouring of […] Voltaire” and a “heinous offense to society” “embalm[ed] in verse” (“Three Orthodox” 219-220). But, he is also what we might call a pioneer of knowledge. Cain is a solitary hero of Romantic learning—a type variously imagined by Shelley in Alastor and Prometheus Unbound, by Wordsworth in The Excursion, and by Byron again in Manfred. As a learner, he is individualistic, adventuresome, and like many pioneers, wayward. In Byron’s version of the myth from Genesis, Lucifer claims to possess the supernatural knowledge that Cain craves, and Cain follows the trouble-making angel on a tour of the universe. He encounters pre-Adamantine beings. He sees worlds “full of life” and thick with potential Edens (II: ii, 168, 183). Nevertheless, Cain wants to know more. In his desire to know more, he exasperates even the devil, who finally chides, “Dust! Limit thy ambition” (II: ii 406).

2.        Much has been written about Cain’s (1821) disputation of theological orthodoxy. Criticism by Byron’s contemporaries centered attention on the play’s theological concerns, and critics remain interested in the theology of the play. In her biography of Byron, Fiona MacCarthy summarizes the play’s reception as “the greatest outcry yet against the poet and his work, with accusations of willful, dangerous iconoclasm that reverberated for the remainder of the nineteenth century” (414). Byron’s publisher, John Murray, dismissed the fuss as “a humbug row” (qtd. in MacCarthy 414), but the poet’s supposed iconoclasm set the terms of the play’s immediate critical reception to such a degree that even critics who found it theologically limp felt it necessary to say so in public. For example, Francis Jeffrey concludes his consideration of Cain’s theodicy with the inconclusive remark that Byron had “neither thrown any new light upon [the origin of evil], nor darkened the previous knowledge which we possessed” (235). The questions surrounding the play’s implicit theology have continued to give rise to interesting scholarship, positioning it in relation to Byron’s own shifting religious concerns and in relation to the broader questions about the representation of theological matter in art. Alan Rawes finds in Cain evidence of “Byron’s Romantic Calvinism,” arguing that in the play, “yet another individual quest after freedom […] activates and enacts a predestined damnation” (137). Trevor Hart engages the text anew as a means for performing theological meditation through art. Wolf Hirst contests the nineteenth-century impression of the play by arguing that because of its irony and structure, the play is “closer to a conventional justification of God’s ways to men than to the iconoclastic attacks voiced by its protagonists” (152).

3.        In the flurry of concern over the play’s theological implications, its engagement with the discourse on education, another dominant and highly contentious topic of the day, has been overlooked. But the play returns repeatedly to the theme of the pursuit of knowledge, a pursuit that Cain argues should be boundless. Speaking of the tree of knowledge, Cain says “It was the tree of life: Knowledge is good, / And truth is good; and how can both be evil?” (I: i, 36-38). For him the desire to learn is innate, a physical need bound inextricably with life itself. He tells Lucifer, “Thou canst not / Speak aught of knowledge which I would not know. / And do not thirst to know” (I: i, 247-249).

Placing Cain in Romantic Period Discourses of Learning

4.        Byron’s Cain does not fit tidily into any of the period’s discourses about learning because it appears to fit into so many of them. The character dramatizes many of the assumptions inherent in upper-class education during the Romantic period. First, the knowledge that Cain most desires is, like that pursued at the universities and the most traditional public academies, metaphysical in nature. He wants to “learn to anticipate [his] immortality” (I; i, 137) through the study of topics that transcend mere usefulness. Lucifer characterizes the knowledge he offers Cain as being metaphysical in contrast to other angels’ empirical knowledge. God’s angels, he says, know “nought beyond their shallow senses” in spite of their immortality (II, i, 9). Secondly, the knowledge Cain hungers for is only desired by and only appropriate for select individuals, “Souls who dare use their immortality” in Lucifer’s words. Implicitly, the acquisition of knowledge does not confer privilege on Cain; his desire to learn demonstrates an innate superiority over the rest of his family. Finally, as a learner, Cain repudiates his body and the toil it can perform, deeming them inconsequential when compared to the power of his mind. He “feel[s] the weight […] Of daily toil and constant thought” (I; I, 174-75). Toil and thought, for him, are incompatible. He complains that his physical self seems “nothing” in comparison with what he sees, but that the “thoughts that arise” in him seem as if they “could master all things”(I: i, 167-68). The dichotomies here—between empirical and metaphysical knowledge, between the privileged learner and the ignorant mass from which he has escaped, between mental and physical exertion—echo the conceptions of education being deployed in debates about England’s elite public schools and the increasing numbers of dissenting academies and mechanics’ institutes.

5.        Assumptions about upper-class learners were being solidified through discourses about the publically endowed grammar schools and universities (Richardson 46-47, Aries 313) as well as through heroic learners in literature. In 1820, Henry Brougham, a Whig MP remembered for liberal reforms related to the slave trade and education, proposed a bill that would allow trustees “to use grammar school trusts for the instruction of the poor in reading, writing, and arithmetic” (Sanderson 28). Headmasters and dons recoiled from the idea and defended the exclusivity of their student body by maintaining the exclusivity of the subjects they taught. This conflation between subjects studied and learners seems almost seamless. Students elite enough to study at Shrewsbury and Tonbridge manifested their elitism by mastering classical languages and literature. Endowed school students were to become refined metaphysicians, proudly carrying forward the traditions of Renaissance humanism. This curriculum was clearly unfit, they thought, for the lower classes. As the governors of Harrow were already arguing by 1810, “the school is a school for classical leaning; […] however wise the intentions of the founder might have been, the school is not now adapted generally for persons of low condition, but better suited to those of a higher class” (“Harrow” 81). Moreover, through this schooling, endowed school students were supposedly rendered incapable of living working-class lives. As Leigh Hunt phrases it, “scholarship […] unfits a man for activity” (37).

6.        But, even as this defense of leisure-class traditions was going on, literacy and schooling were becoming more widely available to the rest of the English population. The spread of education in the early nineteenth century has become a familiar story, but recalling it enforces how pervasive the pursuit of knowledge must have seemed. The Sunday School Movement had begun in earnest in the 1780s. By 1819, two years before Cain was published, Parliamentary reports record over 5,000 schools in operation. Andrew Bell’s and Joseph Lancaster’s monitorial systems of education had led to the creation of another 1,520 schools between 1800 and 1819. Adding these schools to the over 4,000 endowed schools and the almost 14,000 other “unendowed” schools, we end up with a country awash in pedantry. In 1819, England had no desire for the million-plus pupils enrolled in these schools to become heroic learners.

7.        They were not pursuing metaphysical truth, they were not exploring their individual uniqueness, and they were not encouraged to think their learning would not go with physical work. Whereas Cain hopes his intellectual activity will free him from labor, the children reached by unendowed schools of the period were taught that their education prepared them for labor. Reading the Parliamentary Papers that precede the passage of the 1870 Education Act, we find Sir Charles Adderly reflecting as follows on the education offered the poor earlier in the century: “Education was not so much the imparting of knowledge as the training that would fit a child for the work to which his station would probably call him” (National Education Union 114). Speaking before the House of Commons in 1819, the Earl of Harrowby similarly advocates educating the poor to make them “useful members of society” (Great Britain Parliament 1515).

8.        In contrast to Byron’s characterization of an individualistic heroic learner, the manuals that provide guidance for teaching the lower classes characterize learners as socio-political contributors who could either enhance public stability by creating wealth or damage public stability through criminality and rioting. As educational historian Michael Sanderson writes, by the 1830s education was seen as “an agent of social control” (12). Discussions of educating “the poor” (usually not George or Henry) prioritized “useful science” over metaphysics (Wilderspin ix). The founding of the aptly named Society for Useful Knowledge in 1826 suggests the educational impetus behind most middle class reform. For children from working-class families, instruction began with basic literacy, writing, and math although some Sunday School advocates, such as Hannah More, famously excluded writing from the curriculum. More common than lists of subject areas were lists of virtues that poor children were supposed to attain through the discipline of schools. Designed to promote “industry, sobriety, honesty, benevolence, and mutual kindness” (vi), schools did not encourage long trips with the devil. Samuel Wilderspin, whose manual I have just quoted, was not a conservative voice in the debates surrounding education when his 1823 Remarks on the Importance of Educating the Poor was published. The inventor of the playground, he was more permissive than most. His sense that working-class learners needed moral containment more than intellectual adventure was typical.

9.        Byron’s Cain collides with these ideas. It violently flouts the possibility that learning leads to moral discipline, useful work, or the other oft-cited goal of Romantic-period education, happiness. In her description of “Educational Prose” for the recent Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature (2012), Catherine Ross notes that for all of their disagreements, the writers of educational prose during the romantic period espoused or implied “the belief that the proper ends of education are ‘happiness’ and ‘usefulness,’” that “both of these conditions, while variously defined, are dependent upon virtue,” and finally that “virtue can be taught” (390). An example of this alignment among knowledge, happiness, and virtue may be seen in William Godwin’s claim that “the true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness” (qtd. in Silver 72). Byron addresses each of these possible goals for learning, but denies them all. Cain tells Lucifer that he seeks knowledge as “The road to happiness” (II: ii 229-230). Lucifer initially upholds the pairing of knowledge and happiness as a logical proposition, saying “If truth be so [happiness], / Then though hast it” (II: ii, 231-232), but Cain has declared himself unhappy just a few lines before (II; ii, 217-218), and Lucifer foretells a “doubled wretchedness” to come (II; ii, 222). The liberal, humanist discourse of education so dominant among the romantic period’s educational reformers may have yoked knowledge and happiness together, but here they are unhinged. Good and evil are disengaged from knowledge in this same scene: “[I]gnorance from evil doth not save / From evil” (II: ii, 236-7).

10.        These contrasts between Byron’s presentation of knowledge and what we see in Romantic period pedagogy for the working classes are significant because the separate assumptions about what kind of education is good for different classes have persisted. We see it in the disjunctions between the teleology of liberal arts classes and that of vocational classes. There is a long and intricate genealogy that I cannot untwine in the length of this essay. On Byron’s side of the family we find Matthew Arnold with his mellifluous learners gleaning sweetness and light from the best that has been thought and written. Arnold asserts that it is part of our innate desire to perfect ourselves through the pursuit of knowledge. We find also John Henry Newman, whose 1865 Idea of a University articulates so eloquently why we should pursue knowledge with the same unconscious consistency with which we pursue our physical health. There is a comparable genealogy through our other line of educational heritage. On the opposite side of the family, we find W. E. Forster, for whom England’s 1870 Education Act was named, telling The House of Commons that “the speedy provision of elementary education” is essential for “our industrial prosperity […] [I]f we leave our work-folk any longer unskilled […] they will become overmatched in the competition of the world” (18). For Forster, education must be practical because it must serve the projected growth of a national economy. England’s future “work-folk” get to learn to read between the ages of five and twelve, but what they need to do after twelve is make money. Contemporary educational policy makers in the United States seem to be descended from this side of the family. When United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered his 2014 report to the House Appropriations Committee, he extended the discourse of Forster, and Brougham, and the Sunday Schools, figuring education not in heroic but in economic terms. “Falling behind educationally now,” he warned, “will hurt our country economically for generations.”

Byron and Working-Class Readers

11.        Although the play appears to suggest that the pursuit of knowledge is incompatible with a life of labor, Cain, like other works by Byron, was circulated enthusiastically among networks of working-class readers where it would have been interpreted with great freedom, just as Shakespeare and scripture were (Rose 15-16). After Murray famously failed to secure the text against piracy, it was absorbed into radical political and theological discourses. Byron’s name was linked to Tom Paine and Richard Carlile. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the contemporary critic who talks most about knowledge in relation to Byron’s Cain discusses his anxiety about the dissemination of the play as knowledge, rather than the play’s treatment of knowledge as a concept. In his 1822 essay for the Quarterly Review, Reginald Heber worries that “by circumstances which Lord Byron himself could not foresee, - those speculations which he designed for the educated ranks alone, are thrown open to the gaze of the persons most likely to be influenced by them, and disseminated, with remorseless activity, among the young, the ignorant, and the poor” (238). Writing for the Edinburgh Review, Jeffrey frets that Cain will trouble “hundreds of minds that might never otherwise have been exposed to such dangerous disturbance” (233). Jeffrey appears to assume, with Heber, that “the poor” who are likely to purchase the illicitly published Cain will also be “the ignorant,” that they will never have thought about the origins of evil without the help of a noble author. Similarly, the anonymous reviewer for the Eclectic posits that the “difficulties” of the first family’s story will be “new to a large proportion of [Byron’s] readers” and that “the young and inexperienced are ill able to grapple” with these questions (219). This reviewer distinguishes between working-class readers, whom he assumes will passively accept Lucifer’s and Cain’s logic, and leisure-class readers capable of weighing these characters’ ideas against reasoning they have already performed.

12.        Jeffrey’s review came out in the Edinburgh in April; the Eclectic ran theirs in May. In June, Leigh Hunt published a letter about Cain “To the Readers of the Examiner,” and although he does not say much about the play’s presentation of knowledge, he does make an implicit claim about the equality of intellectual potential among readers of all classes by crediting the play’s imagined reader with an equal capacity to contemplate the questions Byron raises. He acknowledges that the play privileges Lucifer’s and Cain’s critiques of divine wisdom, but says that this lopsidedness is Byron’s “hint” for readers to “work out the conclusion for themselves” (225). He later credits readers with the ability “to draw the united conclusions of his heart and understanding.” Hunt makes no distinction between “inexperienced” readers who may have purchased the 6d. version and readers of the Edinburgh and Quarterly who more likely purchased the 15 s. 5 d. first edition (St. Clair 588).

13.        In his discussion of Byron and the Victorians (2004), Andrew Elfenbein points out that “working-class literacy introduced a [...] possibility for reading Byron” that was “more subversive” than the appropriation of his work into debates about the beneficence of God or the propriety of certain sexual behaviors because it was more difficult to contain (85, 87). It swelled and surged outside of the purview of the cultural elite. One enthusiastic Byronist suggests the breadth of Byron’s influence in an 1825 letter to Carlile’s The Republican where he writes that that Byron had “influenced millions in the cause of liberty” (162). This was precisely the influence that orthodox critics of Cain feared. Lucifer’s arguments associate him with “the spirit of free thought and stern endurance, unbrokenly contending against the bondage which makes nature miserable” (Heber 243). Although Byron’s popularity among working-class readers, in general, is well-documented, since we have no records of the sales of pirated copies of Cain and no working-class recollections of reading Cain in particular, it is impossible to judge what role the play may have had in this popularity. [1]  Nevertheless, the energy with which Byron advocates for a pursuit of knowledge freed from communally imposed boundaries would have resonated with working-class autodidacts’ energy and longing for freedom.

14.        In his comprehensive study of 142 working-class autobiographies from the nineteenth century, David Vincent discusses the astounding commitment some men and women had to learning. A few examples will suggest the extent of the sacrifice of time and resources these individuals made in order to pursue knowledge. Yorkshire weaver William Heaton recalls that on the Sabbath, he would “wander forth” at around four in the morning with a group of like-minded naturalists in order to collect and study bird’s eggs or fossils. They would return at sundown “often having never tasted food all the day.” Nevertheless, they found resources to create a shared library (qtd. in Vincent 173). Some of his fellow weavers managed to “place books before them [on the loom] to read whilst at work,” but he confined himself to “ruminat[ing]” on his reading during work and recording his thoughts “in a memorandum book […] kept by the side of [his] loom for the purpose” (125). Thomas Cooper, recalling his apprenticeship as a shoemaker, records how strategically he had to plan his reading in order to attain the breadth of education he desired:

Historical reading, or the grammar of some language, or translation, was my first employment on week-day mornings, whether I rose at three or four, until seven o’clock, when I sat down to the stall. A book or a periodical in my hand while I breakfasted, gave me another half-hour’s reading, I had another half-hour, and sometimes an hour’s reading or study of language at from one to two o’clock, the time of dinner – usually eating my food with a spoon, after I had cut it in pieces, and having my eyes on a book all the time. (qtd. in Vincent 124).
During his remaining six hours at work, he recited Hamlet “or the poetry of some modern or living author” (124), quite possibly Byron. In 1818, when he was thirteen years old, he learned to love poetry by reading Childe Harold and Manfred (qtd. in Collins 5). In the “Sonnet to Chillon” Byron expresses a sentiment that must have resounded with the workers reciting Hamlet at their cobbler’s stalls and parsing verbs before their breakfast:
Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art,
For there thy habitation is the heart --
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
Imaginative freedom from one’s surroundings—Byron’s liberty whose “habitation is the heart”—was only one kind of freedom that working-class readers sought. Vincent lists the freedom from non-rational beliefs and from non-rational behaviors (especially drunkenness) as common goals as well. He mentions the freedom to pursue scientific learning, philosophy, and literary occupations, which included writing for political and occupational organizations (166-177). And perhaps most importantly for considering Cain in light of working-class discourses of learning is the prospect of freedom from “the world view of the educated” (174). It is in his advocacy for individual questioning that Byron most appealed to working-class readers. Cain reports that labour itself does not interfere with learning:
It is not with the earth, though I must till it,
I feel at war, but that I may not profit
By what it bears of beautiful untoiling,
Nor gratify my thousand swelling thoughts
With knowledge (II; ii, 125-129)
He sees his parents and their religion as a barrier to knowledge in a way that many working-class learners must have sympathized with. The rest of his family has “but / One answer to all questions, “’Twas his will, / And he is good’” (I; i, 74-76).

15.        Working-class autobiographers often expressed frustration with precisely this alignment of community members’ lack of curiosity and religion’s one serve-all answer. For example, when Christopher Thomson began to read beyond the small collection of books that his local Methodist congregation had collected, he confronted his community’s opposition to unsanctioned learning as an ultimatum. He recalls being told that “if I did not at once, and unconditionally, renounce all books, except such as they should approve of, I was for ever lost!” Therefore, he “renounced [his] connection with all bodies which would prescribe the free range of thought in matters of such vital importance” (Thomson 66, qtd. in Vincent 179). John Bezer’s discontent with his local school was less combative. Yet, it reveals that he faced barriers to learning similar to those faced by Thomson. Bezer reports that he “yearned for” his time at school, but the picture of Sunday School education that he portrays makes it clear that the school met a social more than an intellectual need. He regrets that “school did not even learn me to read; six hours a week, certainly not one hour of useful knowledge; plenty of cant, and what my teachers used to call explaining difficult texts in the Bible, but little, very little else” (Bezer Ch. 2).

16.        In Cain, Act I portrays the protagonist struggling against complacency and religion in terms that recall the struggles of growing romantic period counter-culture of working-class autodidacts. In Act III, we see that Cain’s search for knowledge excludes him from his community because his limited learning has only strengthened the curiosity that others cannot understand. His wife Adah remarks his change after Cain returns from his lesson with Lucifer:

Cain! that proud Spirit, who withdrew thee hence,
Hath saddened thine still deeper. I had hoped
The promised wonders which thou hast beheld,
Visions, thou say’st of past and present worlds,
Would have composed thy mind into the calm
Of a contented knowledge; but I see
Thy guide hath done thee evil (III; i, 45-51)
By contemplating the insignificance of his race and the confinement of his mortal subject position, Cain has isolated himself further from Adah and the rest of the family. Within his intellectually complacent community, Cain’s isolation is made more profound by the threatening prospects of nihilism and damnation. He has no means of answering the questions he is just learning to ask. “Gazing on eternity,” he says:
methought
I had borrowed more by a few drops of ages
From its immensity: but now I feel
My littleness again. Well said the Spirit,
That I was nothing! (III; i, 65-69)
Nothing. Not a husband, not a father, not a brother, nothing. Both his personal and communal identities now seem insignificant.

17.         The lonely hero is already ringed-round and isolated by his unconscionable longing for knowledge, and he becomes more isolated as he realizes that his experiences are at once incommunicable and unnecessary to communicate. Communication in his family has always been more luxury than necessity. Except for him they lived external lives. They involve themselves in sense like the angels. These external lives were held in common—everyone ate, worshiped, and worked together. Now, he has wandered off. He has lived his pursuit of knowledge alone, and the tale of his journey proves unspeakable. Abel asks his brother where he has been. “I know not” replies Cain. “Nor what thou has seen?” inquires Abel. In response, Cain lists things he has seen: “The dead - / The Immortal - the Unbounded - the Omnipotent - / The overpowering mysteries of space” (III; i, 177-180). But, he despairs, these sights have rendered him “Unfit for mortal converse” (III; i, 184). Cain can list the categories of beings that he has now experienced seeing, but these “overpowering mysteries” cannot be communicated to one who has not experienced them for himself. Temporal-spatial description (Where have you been?) and categorical identification (What kinds of things have you seen?) can locate personal experience within a known and shared world, but they cannot indicate anything meaningful about an experience from outside the world that Abel and Cain inhabit together. If the isolation resulting from the incommunicability of his new knowledge were not enough, Cain is further isolated by his exile at the play’s end. During his exile he does not need to communicate to people. His mark announces his past and his uniqueness for him. Whereas communication had been, because of its superfluous nature, a luxury held in common with his family, it is now, because of its superfluity, a curse.

18.         In an era when new knowledge was being produced rapidly, Byron creates a character who is timeless in his mythical origins, but also particularly well-suited for dramatizing the pursuit of knowledge in the 1820s. The dislocation of a quest for knowledge into classless, mythic territory also allows Cain to function within a growing working-class discourse of self-directed learners as well as in the privileged discourse of the quarterlies. The magnitude of Cain’s desire to know inspires a discourse about his hubris and Byron’s blasphemy, but underneath the scandalous theology lies a subtle inquiry into the possibility and limits of knowledge.

Knowledge in Byron’s Cain

19.         However silent contemporary voices may be about the play’s treatment of knowledge, the subject dominates Cain both structurally and linguistically, and as the play progresses the burden of inquiry becomes not only God’s injustice in offering and then forbidding moral knowledge, but also the possibility of attaining knowledge at all. Throughout the first two acts, the desire to know more provides Cain’s chief motivation. In the third and final act, when Cain realizes that he has killed his brother, he describes this most dramatic of the play’s events to himself as primarily cerebral where the “thought” of death, which “Empoison’d” his life has now been replaced by knowledge (III: I, 371-379). Refocusing the conflict of the Cain and Abel story on the search for knowledge, instead of an originary act of violence, is largely Byron’s innovation. The biblical account, brief enough to quote in full, mentions the themes of envy, anger, and divine approval, but not knowledge.

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground,and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering,but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. (Genesis 4: 2b-8, NRSV)
Sin is pictured as aggressive, “lurking at the door,” and Byron might have found in this (and clearly also in his reading of Milton) inspiration for making Lucifer a dominant character as a kind of personification of this lurking power. However, the Bible offers no hint that Cain has sinned by demanding knowledge. The emphasis seems to be placed on action, to “do well,” rather than on thought.

20.        The only mention of knowledge that occurs in Genesis Chapter Four comes after the murder itself. The Lord asks Cain “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). For the sake of the play, Byron treats Cain’s protestation of ignorance as plausible. He did not know where his brother had gone because Abel was the first in the world to die. The question of responsibility for his brother is also treated as genuine, even as a realization of what Cain does not know. “Where is my brother?” he seems to wonder. Or in other words, “What is the nature of mortality?” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” follows from this question as an inquiry into the responsibility toward others that the condition of mortality might imply. By interpreting Cain’s questions as genuine rather than evasive, Byron transforms Cain from an object of contempt to a figure of identification. By rendering the realization of his ignorance a cause, rather than an effect of Cain’s murderous act, he opens the play to more direct connections with the larger Edenic narrative.

21.        The structural emphasis that Byron places on Cain’s search for knowledge frustrated both Heber and Jeffrey because it slows the pace of the narrative and eliminates any sense that the murder follows predictably from Cain’s nature and situation. Heber notes that “Two acts and half the third are passed without advancing a single step towards the conclusion” (241-242). Jeffrey laments that the debate of why God had placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden is no “incidental deformity” in an otherwise sound dramatic structure. Rather, it “forms […] the great staple of the piece” (234). If Abel’s death is intended to form the climax of the play as it forms the climax of the biblical story, then Byron has failed adequately to develop this plotline. Judging from the play’s plot development, Heber asserts, Abel could just as well have “been made to drop down in an apoplexy, and Cain to die of grief over his body” (242). Byron represents Abel’s death as motiveless. There is no logic that can contain a murder. He directs our attention to the act’s incomprehensibility, and thus ties the murder to the conflict of Act II, but recognizing this depends on seeing knowledge rather than envy as the primary site of Cain’s internal struggle.

22.        Envy implies need. Byron writes in a letter to Moore that such a motive makes the biblical Cain “contemptible.” In his eagerness to free his rebellious and questioning Cain from his contemptuous biblical precedent, Byron devotes seventeen lines of the play (II: ii, 337-354) to differentiating Cain’s fondness for his brother from the biblical Cain’s envy. Lucifer tempts Cain to feel envy for his brother. “Thy father loves him well,” he says, “so does thy God” (II: ii 340). “And so do I” replies the unruffled Cain (II:ii 341). “He is the second born of flesh, / And his mother’s favourite” presses Lucifer, but Cain still resists. Even in the moment where Cain kills Abel, his anger is against God and not his brother. He has determined to overthrow Abel’s altar so that it will not “stand in the sun, to shame creation!” (III: I, 304, 309-311). Byron clarifies to Moore the manner in which he hoped to reshape Cain’s intentions:

the object of the Demon is to depress him still further in his own estimation than he was before, by showing him infinite things and his own abasement, till he falls into the frame of mind that leads to the catastrophe, from mere internal irritation, not premeditation, or envy of Abel (which would have made him contemptible), but from the rage and fury against the inadequacy of his state to his conceptions, and which discharges itself rather against Life, and the author of Life, than the mere living. (Life, Letters and Journals 541)
The demon that Byron describes in the letter is Lucifer, external to Cain the learner, but is also tied to the demon of knowledge that Lucifer describes as lying latent in both Cain and Eve. Byron’s Lucifer declaims having tempted Eve to knowledge. Nor does he initiate the conversation about knowledge with Cain. The desire to know is rather represented as innate in both mother and son. It is “a demon” that the serpent awoke in speaking to Eve (I: i, 228-229). Lucifer has only to mention knowledge in passing, as part of a casual sarcastic sneer, for the desire to flare up in Cain. Lucifer says there was nothing for spirits “to envy in the narrow bounds / Of Paradise […] but I speak to thee of what though know’st not / With all thy tree of knowledge” (I: i, 241-245). Cain jumps in before the line is metrically complete: “But though canst not/ Speak aught of knowledge which I would not know” (I. i, 246-247).

23.        In addition to modifying the structure of the plot and the protagonist’s motivation to highlight questions of knowledge, Byron also highlights knowledge linguistically. Cognates of the word “to know” dominate the play, recurring over one hundred times. “Knowledge” sometimes so crowds the dialogue that the word itself becomes oppressive.

Cain Deadly error!
Not to snatch first that fruit:—but ere he plucked
The knowledge, he was ignorant of Death.
Alas! I scarcely now know what it is,
And yet I fear it—fear I know not what!
Lucifer And I, who know all things, fear nothing; see
What is true knowledge. (I: I, 295-301)
Five lines in a row mention knowledge, and the sound of the lines encourages readers to take note of the repetition. The pairing of “now know” and “know not” turns the lines into such a sonic bog that it is difficult not to be slowed down. Byron repeats the pairing of “know” and “not” throughout the play. Of the dead Abel, Cain says, “what thou now art / I know not!” (III: i, 530-531). In making his offering before God, he says the he “know[s] not” if it be “good or ill” (III: I, 274-276). Enoch “know’st not” that he is naked (III: I, 23), and Cain “know[s] not” if God smiles (II: ii, 350). The constant positing of the absence of knowledge makes Cain seem like an ideal learner in the Platonic tradition. He knows what he does not know. But it also hints at an impossibility of acquiring knowledge. Cain denies having knowledge about himself, denies having knowledge about God, and denies having knowledge of the pure materiality to which his brother is reduced at the play’s end. In short, he denies the possibility of attaining knowledge even as he repeatedly tries to seek it.

24.        The language in these “know-not” pairings reinforces the play’s more general questioning of rational knowledge. As Leonard Goldberg puts it, “Cain, whose acts effectively deny that mind can, should or need have anything to do with its objects, catastrophically defies rationality as the way toward autonomous life” (207-208). But, even more radically, the play provides no indication that rationality could provide a way to autonomous life for anyone. Jerome McGann argues that Byron’s Lucifer is himself limited in what he knows. Because he is pure spirit, he can neither sympathize with Cain, nor offer Cain the knowledge of mortality and embodied ethical responsibility that he seeks (260). Being unable to enact death, Lucifer cannot know it. Cain attains this knowledge by performing Abel’s murder. Such knowledge cannot be achieved by witnessing another’s death or looking at “dead things” (II; ii, 191). It requires action for its attainment. Similarly, by not performing acts of love toward anyone, Lucifer excludes himself from any knowledge of love. According to him, the contemplation of love leads to the destruction of love’s potential objects. In one passage, Lucifer describes both the impossibility of knowing love by observing someone else and the impossibility performing love as an abstract contemplation. “[T]hou canst not see if I love / Or no” “except some vast and general purpose, / To which particular things melt like snow” (II; ii 313-315). In Cain’s textual world, learners are doomed to seek knowledge through contemplation but find it through action.

Knowledge in Action

25.        The long discussion of knowledge, the action-less first two scenes and the increasing focus on the incompatibility of contemplation and action prepare the way for the violence of Act III, not by creating a structure that assimilates the murder and makes it an object of understanding, but by diminishing the expectation that knowledge can account for any action. Following the murder, Abel and Cain’s exchange confirms the separation of knowledge and action. Abel, alluding to Christ’s final words, asks God to forgive Cain on the basis that he “knew not what he did” (III; i, 319), but the nature of this knowing or not knowing deserves investigation. Cain says after Abel’s death that he is now “awake” (III; i, 378). This, and Abel’s use of the past tense “knew” indicate a change in Cain’s state of knowledge; he “knew not” what death was until he enacted it. In the association of knowledge with action, Cain forms the darker counterpart to a similar argument in Don Juan—that education cannot come through Donna Inez’s abstractions got by rote but only through experience.

26.        The murder in Act III can be read several ways in terms of its treatment of knowledge and the failure of knowledge to promote either happiness or virtue. The play may be seen as confirming leisure-class anxieties about the connections between working-class access to education and violence. After all, it is only after Cain’s education that he kills his brother. As much as Lucifer counsels Cain to not let his reason “be over-sway’d” (II: ii, 460), Cain does not return to his family a more reasonable man in the commonplace use of the term “reasonable.” When he and Abel are offering their sacrifices, he points to the injustice of shedding innocent blood. Only twelve lines later, he unjustly sheds the blood of his brother. And yet, Cain’s angry expostulations do make sense according to a purely abstract logic. God loves lives, he concludes, since Abel’s sacrifice met God’s pleasure. “Take thy life unto thy God,” he says upon striking him, “Since he loves lives” (III: i, 316-317). Byron portrays here, it might be argued, what pure logic leads to, when it is exercised outside of the guidance of church (suggested by the ritual religious practice of sacrifice) and state (suggested by Adam, the paternal authority Cain resists throughout the play). Neither the present, priest-like Abel, nor the absent father coerces Cain into making a sacrifice. The only expression of authority in the scene is the fire sent to consume Abel’s sacrifice and the whirlwind sent to scatter Cain’s. Cain’s anger is kindled primarily at God for a rejection that he does not understand. His violence results from the displacement of this anger onto his brother, who might be read as standing in for both church and state through his connections to both the sacrifice and Adam. Read this way, Cain resembles a worker, enraged by his divine lot and empowered by justifying logic, displacing his anger onto the nearest emblem of authority. However, the problem here does not really seem to be logic having escaped cultural bounds, but logic failing as an epistemic system.

27.        Scholars have approached Cain’s transition into knowledge following the murder and his preceding epistemic failure in at least two ways. For Leonard Goldberg, the incompatibility of Cain’s rational “knowledge” of what God wants and Abel’s claim that Cain “knew not” what he was doing arises from a failure of language. Cain refuses “to accept that others have meaningful words to say to him,” and refuses to admit there is more than “one story to account for the rejection of his offering” (220). Goldberg opens his article with the assertion that Cain resists the need of the mind to strive after objects instead of just ideas (207), and this assertion could be read as implying that Cain’s enactment of murder shows the tragic climax of Cain’s treating his brother like the consequence of an argument that he needs to deny. This implication is not inconsistent with Goldberg’s reading of Act III, but I think he is right to focus on the scene as a crisis of communication between people rather than a crisis of phenomenological access to knowledge of the objective world. The language of the murder scene shifts from the language of knowledge that dominates the play, to a language of life and love:

Abel: (opposing him) I love God far more
Than life.
Cain: (striking him with the brand, on the temples, which he snatches from the altar)
Then take thy life unto thy God,
Since he loves lives. (III; i, 314-317)
The stage directions here are the second most extensive ones in the entire play, and they are followed by one of the few moments of physical contact between characters. “[G]ive me thy hand” says Abel (III; i, 320). Shifting to physical activity after two acts of only argument, Byron shows the point at which language and logic fail. The boggy alliteration of “know not” is here replaced with “loves lives.” The constant intrusion of the negative into sentences about knowledge yields place to “more” – a comparison of plentitudes. “More” love for God, “more” blood on the altar (III; i, 315, 311). When the epiphany about death that Cain has sought throughout the play finally, ironically, arrives, it arrives through action and explodes the tidy dichotomies of language (know, know-not) with plentitude. The good and evil that Lucifer had described as “essence” at the end of Act II are suddenly revealed to be connected to desires reaching to objects outside the self and materials whose essential connection to life can be neither seen nor explained.

28.        The scene highlights the consequences of Cain’s failure to strive for the life-giving knowledge of another person through love and physical engagement, but it also draws our attention to the gap between materiality and abstractions that has persisted in Byron’s language throughout the play. In the second interpretation of this play as an exploration of knowledge, Jerome McGann sees Cain as torn between “material and spiritual Principles” (259). This material-spiritual conflict is also highlighted in the murder scene, as the protagonist suddenly awakens to the physicality of his own body. “My hand,” Cain says “after a moment of stupefaction” (322). Cain tries one more time after Abel’s death to re-align his world with the way his reason tells him it should be. He begins with the fatalist claim “that which I am, I am; I did not seek / For life, nor did I make myself” implying that Abel’s death is logically the fault of the Creator and he only the mechanism (III; i, 509-510). But his love for his brother drives him into agency. He expresses the same willingness to sacrifice himself that Abel had made for the sake of God, still not submitting himself to God, but to the love of his brother:

[C]ould I
With my own death redeem him from the dust –
And why not so? let him return to day,
And I lie ghastly! So shall be restored
By God the life to him he loved: and taken
From me a being I ne’er loved to bear. (III; i, 510-515)
Logically, this proposition functions perfectly. If God loves Abel and he is omnipotent, then he will restore Abel to life. But, this syllogism fails to account for the shattered materiality of Abel’s body. The knowledge Cain finally achieves is the awareness that knowledge itself is the product embodied action as well as purely cerebral thought. As violent as the play’s ending is, it does not imply that the action through which a learner attains this epiphany about knowledge must be violent or immoral. Abel attains this knowledge though the act of dying.

29.         Cain’s questioning remains heroic, but I agree with Leonard Michaels that Byron is ultimately critical of his character. Michaels argues that it is not Cain’s search for knowledge that Byron critiques but his “simple refusal to identify with the human condition,” a refusal that Michaels dubs “quintessentially aristocratic” (74-75). While Byron seems, at first, to redeploy aristocratic assumptions about education upheld by public schools and universities, the play destabilizes these assumptions as it progresses. In particular, Byron undermines the dichotomy between knowledge and action that was frequently assumed in distinguishing the “practical education” fit for workers from the “classical education” fit for leisure-class pupils. I would like to conclude that Byron advocates for the kind of free, desperate, heroic pursuit of knowledge exemplified by romantic period autodidacts, that his tiller of fields is, murder aside, in solidarity with the tillers, weavers, and shipwrights that loved to read him. But, if Cain can be said to advocate for anything, it does so through layers of negation and irony.

30.         The play engages contemporary discourses of knowledge more through critique than advocacy. Cain critiques the boundaries placed on inquiry, and Byron leads us to sympathize with him by painting the play’s other characters (Adah somewhat excepted) as flat and unsympathetic. And in the play’s implied critique of Cain, Byron problematizes the assumptions that underlie the kind of education he received at Harrow. To offer any resolution to the problem of attaining knowledge that forms the structural center of the play would undermine the nihilism that provides the play’s only pathos. Additionally, such a resolution would imply that the mortal knowledge Cain and Abel gain through murder and death could be contained in one of Cain’s logical syllogisms. Instead, Byron leaves us facing the opposition between the logical metaphysics for which Cain feels his immortal birth has fitted him and the logic-defying corporeality that leads to death. Byron strikes at this opposition like one striking the skin of a drum. The sound caused, re-sounds, its echo manifested in our search for knowledge that we cannot harness in use.

Works Cited

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Elfenbein, Andrew. Byron and the Victorians. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

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Goldberg, Leonard S. “‘This gloom…which can avail thee nothing’: ‘Cain’ and Skepticism.Criticism. 41:2 (1999) 207-232. JSTOR. Web.

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Notes

[1] For discussion of Byron’s working-class readership, see, in addition to Elfenbein, St. Clair “The Impact of Byron’s Writing” in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, and “Byron and Working-Class Readers: Three Points of View” in Rutherford, 368-372. BACK

Published @ RC

May 2016