The Revolution of Cain

Revolution seems to arise from the very first pages of the Bible: long before God created man, Lucifer had already revolted against him. But revolution is not an isolated event, it tends to spread, as spotted by Lord Byron, who, in his dramatic poem Cain: A mystery, depicted a character who questions his fate, even if that leads him to question God Himself.

 

The Byronic Cain isn’t moved by envy, as the biblical one; instead, he rebels against the punishment (work, ignorance and death) that God has imposed on him and his family. This is first shown in his refusal to worship Him (Ac I, scene I):

Adam. But thou, my eldest son, art silent still.

Cain. ‘Tis better I should be so.

Adam. Wherefore so?

Cain. I have nought to ask.

Adam. Nor aught to thank for?

Cain. No.

Adam. Dost thou not live?

Cain. Must I not die?

Eve. Alas ! The fruit of the forbidden tree begins To fall.

Cain realises he is not like his parents and siblings: the one thing that makes him different is conscience, a deep conscience of death and the limits of human life and understanding, which pushes him in quest of knowledge. Such knowledge can only arrive in the shape of Lucifer (a character that resembles Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust).

Cain (Solus). And this is

Life: Toil: and wherefore should I toil? because

My Father could not keep his place in Eden.

What have I done in this? I was unborn,

I sought not to be born: nor love the state

To which that birth has brought me. Why did he

Yield to the serpent and the woman? or

Yielding, why suffer? What was there in this?

The tree was planted, and why not for him?

If not, why place him near it, where it grew

The fairest in the centre? They have but

One answer to all questions, “’twas his will.

And he is good” How know I that? Because

He is all-powerful must all-good, too, follow?

I judge but by the fruits — and they are bitter —

Which I must feed on for a fault not mine.

There is an interesting analysis of this poem in Cataractmoon’s blog. In his own words, “The play centers around the metaphysical dispute between Abel’s incarnationism, God’s rhetoric, Lucifer’s sophism, and Cain’s skepticism. While all characters except Cain remain unified in an epistemology, Cain cracks open each reality, locates their deceptions and failures, and falls into the postmodern trap of deconstruction, where the failure to operate within any given rhetoric results in nihilism, the extreme form of postmodern isolation.“.  We find an example of the sophism in Lucifer’s speech in Act II, scene 1:

Cain: Let me, or happy or unhappy, learn To anticipate my immortality.
Lucifer: Thou didst before I came upon thee.
Cain: How?
Lucifer: By suffering.

In these terms, the revolution of Cain can be viewed as a revolt against the opaque rhetoric of religion, a defiance and an urge to go beyond meaningless words in order to regain the meaningful paradise of life and knowledge.

The Infernal Assembly

We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal War
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

Here is the first proposition of Revolt uttered by Satan in Milton‘s Paradise Lost (I, 120-124). The fallen angel realises that ‘to be weak is miserable, / doing or suffering ‘, but instead of resigning himself to hell, that ‘dreary plain, forlorn and wild ‘, he wonders how to pull through:

How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope,
If not what resolution from despair.

Later on Satan assembles at Pandemonium, his palace, all the infernal creatures: giants, fiends, spirits, and even the fallen ‘Seraphic Lords and Cherubim ‘. This parliament -or conclave- starts a discussion on the ways of the Revolt. Here, Moloch’s speech (II, 51-64) sounds violent as well as familiar to a modern reader:

My sentence is for open War; Of Wiles,
More unexpert, I boast not: them let those
Contrive who need, or when they need, not now.
For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,
Millions that stand in Arms, and longing wait
The Signal to ascend, sit ling’ring here,
Heav’n’s fugitives, and for their dwelling place
Accept this dark opprobrious Den of shame,
The Prison of his Tyranny who Reigns
By our delay? no, let us rather choose,
Arm’d with Hell flames and fury all at once
O’er Heaven’s high Tow’rs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer.

It is here that we see most of the topics that fill the revolutionary discourse both in literature and beyond: resort to force, internal disagreement, humilliation, torture…

A preface

For this first post I felt that something like a foreword was needed. I definitely found it in the preface to Hellas, a dramatic poem by P. B. Shelley.

This is the age of the war of the oppressed against the oppressors, and every one of those ringleaders of the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers, called Sovereigns, look to each other for aid against the common enemy, and suspend their mutual jealousies in the presence of a mightier fear. Of this holy alliance all the despots of the earth are virtual members. But a new race has arisen throughout Europe, nursed in the abhorrence of the opinions which are its chains, and she will continue to produce fresh generations to accomplish that destiny which tyrants foresee and dread.

These lines were written in the context of the greek revolution of 1821, as Shelley observed “the apathy of the rulers of the civilized world” towards the insurrection.  I was struck by the fierceness of his words, a burst of rage emerging amid the beautiful bright verses of this great poet.

As we will see in further posts, there are many examples of texts dealing with Revolution and Revolt in Shelley’s works, echoing in contemporary Byron and deeply rooted in the epic of Milton.