BYRON'S 1821 CAIN: A MYSTERY ASKS SOME OBVIOUS AND IMPORTANT questions. At least, they are obvious and important if one takes the book of Genesis literally, as some of his readers then did, and a few still do. Why are the children of Adam and Eve condemned to die for sins they didn't commit? Wouldn't they have resented that? If Adam and Eve were the first people, who could their sons marry except their own sisters? (Was that all right, then? Why isn't it now?) Why did God reject Cain's offering? Why does God like animals being killed for sacrifice anyway? And was it really necessary for everybody to suffer, when God could prevent it? Why should knowledge be forbidden, really? It is possible to imagine, that is, that such questions might be disarming, or even liberating, for certain readers, confronting as they do gnawing problems these readers have been unable or unwilling ever to put into words. Such readers are not offended, exactly. Byron, for them, is a surrogate, an ally, almost a priest of a kind, mediating their experience of the increasingly troubling mysteries of their sacred book. (1) But for a range of fairly obvious reasons, amongst them embarrassment and the very inarticulateness that Byron was assuaging, these readers tend to be fairly quiet.
To believers with a somewhat more figurative idea of their Bible, however, to be this obvious is to be naive, irksomely or suspiciously so. In a child, such queries might be endearing or irritating. In an intellectual-especially the author of such poems as Don Juan and The Vision of Judgement--one suspects irony, sarcasm, disingenuousness. Or a lapse into (or revelation of) culpable stupidity. From publication to the present the poem has often been characterized, by the relatively sophisticated, as a crude or wicked or calculating provocation, a "blundering frontal assault" on orthodoxy (2) or a mischievous taunt at belief with "nothing behind it other than a rather frivolous impulse to be offensive." (3) These readers are considerably more voluble. They feel they can see through Byron's game. They are the ones--they feel--to whom offense is really intended. (Although this too is different from being offended, exactly.)
These, at any rate, are two possibilities broadly described. The complexity of the poem's relationship with its doctrinally and otherwise plural audience does not even begin to end here, though. Audiences in any kind of pluralistic field, for example, are deeply interested in how other audiences are being addressed, and with what effect. The spokesmen of the religious establishment certainly worried that Byron was indeed usurping their own priestly function; as Peter T. Murphy notes, most reviewers feared not for themselves but for the "always-vulnerable people," (4) and the many pulpit denunciations (5) suggest an attempt on the part of the parsons to seize back their role, a project perhaps shared by more recent critics who speak contemptuously of Byron's incapacity to deal with the theological and philosophical issues he raises. This objection--that Byron was crude, unequal to the task, and that his simplifications might seduce the ignorant and embarrass or appall the wise--in fact precedes and may be more important than any criticisms of Cain's dogmatic content. It was and still is unclear whether that content really did constitute a kind of "theodicy-in-reverse." Sophisticated readers continued to quibble, deep into the twentieth century, about whether the poem is pious or not, orthodox or otherwise. (6)
Certainly for liberals or atheists the poem's satisfactions would not arise from any priestly mediation. For them too the imagined discomfiture of enemies or the enlightenment of the darkling masses are what matter, not the posing of personally meaningful or troubling questions. The Shelleys, Leigh Hunt and others produced immediate and hyperbolic praise that now sounds suspiciously glib. …