It will come as no surprise that the aristocratic rebel Lord Byron was of the Devil’s Party. In his poetry, he reveled in depicting Satan as a lonely, misunderstood, and heroic figure. Unsurprisingly, given the times, this radical reinvention of Christianity’s evil one scandalized Europe. And Byron’s colorful lifestyle only served to fuel the fire in terms of scandal.
As poetry was widely read in Byron’s day, he became the equivalent of a rock star and was famous throughout Europe. Born in 1788 George Gordon Byron was the Sixth Baron Byron. He was a very British aristocratic, but with a deeply rebellious nature, which meant outrage followed him wherever he went. His notoriety and diabolic reputation skyrocketed when his marriage ended in divorce due to his affair with his half-sister Augusta.
Byron’s verse travelogue Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published in 1812, had already made him into a celebrity poet by this time. And the inevitable consternation and outrage about his divorce and incestuous affair with Augusta led Byron into self-imposed exile on the continent. After roaming around Europe for a time, he ended up in Venice and regularly sent ever more daring poetry to Britain, which was lapped up by his publisher John Murray.
Byron’s literary critics had a field day condemning his lyrical brand of “Romantic Satanism”, calling it “an adornment and extension of evil”. The poet laureate at the time, Robert Southey, referring to both Byron and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, added to the criticism, saying: “The school which they have set up may properly be called the Satanic School; for though their productions breathe the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent…”
No doubt Byron took this as a compliment. If nothing else, it led him to put pen to paper to write an even more “Satanic” work, a drama called Cain: A Mystery, which was published in 1821. According to Byron he wrote it in three weeks while continuously drunk.
In the dramatic poem, Byron reinterpreted the Bible’s account of the first murder – that of Abel by Cain his brother. The two were the sons of Adam and Eve. Both made sacrifices to God. But God favored Abel’s sacrifices over Cain’s. So Cain killed Abel, as you do in such circumstances… or at least you do if you’re of a religious disposition.
The Bible doesn’t explain the whys and wherefores of the murder. But Byron saw it as Cain’s revolt against the “politics of paradise” – as in humanity’s banishment from the carefree, not to mention death-free, happiness they once knew in the Garden of Eden. And the banishment, of course, was God’s doing.
Cain’s rebellious attitude was exacerbated by his conversations with Lucifer, who was more than happy to point out that God the Creator was nothing short of malign.
On finishing Cain, the dramatic work, Byron wrote to a friend merrily admitting that “…the small talk which takes place between [Cain] and Lucifer upon these matters is not quite canonical.”
Byron was well aware that he would come in for some flack when Cain was published. In the drama’s original preface, he wrote the following to preempt the inevitable criticism:
“I am prepared,” he said, “to be accused of Manicheism or some other hard name ending in ism, which makes a formidable figure and awful sound in the eyes and ears of those who would be as much puzzled to explain the terms so bandied about as liberal and pious indulgers in such epithets.”
So even then, in the early 1800s, “ism” words, which are so ubiquitous today, were used to defame people who didn’t toe the line.
But there was do stopping the book Cain. It hit like a bombshell when it was published. Conservative reviewers declared it a “Hideous blasphemy.” It caused problems for the publisher, John Murray, however, due to a court of law in 1822 declaring that Cain was blasphemous and set a ruling that copyright protection for the work would not be enforced. For Byron this was no bad thing as pirate publishers promptly released low-cost editions, which brought the book, and its anti-Christian message, even greater distribution.
The internationally celebrated poet – or diabolic lord (depending on your viewpoint) – had put the new Satan on the map, and there would be no going back. The melancholic, isolated and romantic figure of Satan, pictured by Byron, was the ultimate outsider, which many could relate to, irrespective of their class or position in life.
God was starting to be seen as a tyrant, the “prototype of human misrule,” as Shelley put it. And this was the beginning of the end for the Church and Christianity itself. It slowly lost much of the power and control over people it had previously enjoyed. In the end, it had to give in to secularism and modernity. It was forced to adapt to the changing conditions of society. Nevertheless, the rot had set in, and today, arguably, the Church is on its last legs.
Nowadays it’s hard to envisage the impact Byron’s Cain had on people. But if we remember how strong the hold of the Church was on the populace at the time, Byron voicing his anti-religious sarcasm via the character of Lucifer must have been both shocking and exhilarating.
Byron’s Lucifer is highly vocal in his condemnation of God. In one section, Byron has him saying the following: “…who dare look the omnipotent tyrant in his everlasting face and tell him that his evil is not good!”
While many other individuals also questioned Christianity and the dominance of the Church, Byron’s international celebrity brought his message to the masses. If nothing else, it meant even the humble and poor began to feel that one day the oppression of the Church would be broken.
It has been in many respects. But now we see the rise and domination of another monotheistic doctrine, that of Islam, a close relative of Christianity. Perhaps the two will team up in a business venture, and we’ll see an Islamo-Christian corporation selling its oppression to all those fool enough to buy into it. Religion is, after all, a business, and a very profitable one at that. It won’t go down lightly.
But the rebel voices today are even stronger than in Byron’s time. The voice of Satan echoes far and wide, propounding the voice of reason and rationality… and yes, poetry too. The verses of diabolism cannot be silenced. They resound across the internet, over mountains, hills and dales, and most importantly in our hearts.
Like Byron before us, we know that the God of the Christians, Muslims and other religions is a tyrant who dishes out evil and your reward for following this God is servitude and thralldom.
So let us welcome the Satanic into our hearts, and let the arch rebel guide us with his message of liberty, reason and objectivity… with a dash of aestheticism and poetry thrown in.