Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Armenian Epistles and the 'Doctrine of the Serpent'1

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Armenian Epistles and the 'Doctrine of the Serpent'1

Article excerpt

Abstract

'I am not a Manichean - nor an Any-chean' stated Byron during the furore surrounding his poem Cain: A Mystery. Yet many still insisted on 'accusing [him] of irreligion', labelling him an 'infidel' because of the presence of heresy in his poetry. Assuming for the moment that these allegations were based on actual heretical doctrines present in his poems, from where did Byron gain his extensive knowledge? There is one source which has not been considered, which is Byron's translations of 3 Corinthians and its companion Epistle from the Corinthians, found in the Armenian Apocrypha, but not in the Bibles of Western Christianity. This article examines the importance of these Armenian translations with relation to Byron's understanding of heretical doctrines. It also contains passages from the diary of his Armenian tutor, Pascal Aucher, which have not previously been translated into English, providing a fascinating insight into Byron's interaction with these Epistles.

'I am not a Manichean - nor an Any-chean' Byron wrote plaintively during the furore surrounding his poem Cain: A Mystery.2 He earlier claimed, somewhat disingenuously, to be bewildered by those who insisted on conflating poet and poetry and 'perverted' his views on religion because of his verses. Yet arguably the very fact that Byron felt it necessary to urge readers not to see 'a few passages in works of fiction' as reflecting his own 'creed' and 'personal hypothesis' shows his awareness of the presence of heretical doctrines in his poetry.3 He certainly knew the controversy such doctrines would incite. In the Preface to Cain Byron openly admits that he is 'prepared to be accused of Manicheism - or some other hard name ending in "ism"',4 and his detractors seem to have taken him at his word, inundating him with accusations of heresy. At times Byron appears to have taken pride in the sheer weight of invective directed against him, cheerfully remarking in one letter relating to the reception of Cain that he was currently vilified 'from Kentish Town and Oxford to Pisa'.5 Periodically the thrill of being an international monster seems to have palled, however, and he could become defensive, pretending confusion at accusations of heresy. In 1820, for example, he rounded on the 'Quartering Reviewers' and demanded to know the grounds on which they 'accuse [him] of Manicheism'.6 Byron's frequent protestations that he 'never could understand what they mean by accusing [him] of irreligion' were, I want to argue, exceptionally insincere.7 His use of heresy was deliberate; doctrines and imagery were included for calculated effects. Small wonder even friends accused him of subscribing to 'some erroneous opinion similar to that of some of the Manicheans'.8

Regardless of Byron's religious inclinations, and assuming for the moment that these allegations were based on verifiable heretical doctrines present in his poetry, what was the heresy in question and from where did Byron gain his extensive knowledge of it? Answering this question is the first purpose of this essay. Manichaeism, rampant across Asia Minor and Africa between the third and seventh centuries, was one of a group of similar heresies linked under the umbrella term 'Dualism'.9 There were Dualist sects of one form or another from about 1700 BC to the mid-fourteenth century, which spread across Asia Minor, Africa, the Near East and much of Europe. It is important to remember that Byron was aware of all these distinct variations of Dualism, and was in fact much better informed than many of his critics, whom he mocked for assuming that anything heretical equated to Manichaeism. The Preface to Cain notes that many of the 'liberal and pious' detractors who labelled him a heretic 'would be as much puzzled to explain the terms so bandied about'.10 Dualist heresies have threatened Orthodox Christianity since its very inception, resulting in countless texts denouncing Dualism, as well as a number of works, available to Byron, which contain less negative descriptions of Dualist history and doctrine. …

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