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  • Byron's Waterloo: The Reception of Cain, A Mystery by Robert Mortenson
  • Bernard Beatty
BYRON'S WATERLOO: THE RECEPTION OF CAIN, A MYSTERY. By Robert Mortenson. Seattle: Iron Press, 2015. Pp. v, 272, 978-0-692-42435-3. $30.

This is in some ways an odd book. The author had an early academic background, left it, is now retired and has returned in his retirement to the work on the reception of Cain that he began 50 years earlier. Hence the idiom of the book and the vast majority of its references belong more with that earlier period than the present one. The aim of the book is stated clearly enough: 'to furnish a detailed, chronological description of the reaction to Cain, concentrating especially on the six months following its publication on December 19, 1821 but continuing to the end of 1822'. This purpose is, pleasingly, carried through to the letter. Much of what is here is reasonably well known but this book has the advantage of trawling very widely through articles, reviews, sermons, poems and plays and, by placing the reactions to Cain (and, importantly, reactions to reactions) in detailed sequence month by month, sometimes day by day, we get the impression of something actually unfolding rather than analysed at a distance. This, in turn, certainly helped me to see far more clearly than hitherto some important features of the aftermath of Cain's publication. I set these out below.

It is clear that Byron was astonished at the reaction to his play. Cain was published with the two Venetian tragedies and Sardanapalus. There was some comment on these latter works but they were ignored in comparison with the outcry over Cain. Byron had certainly not anticipated [End Page 83] or wanted this. It blunted the force of his Neoclassical thrust. It is clear, too, that Byron did not intend to write an openly blasphemous play and that he believed his own distinction between what dramatic characters say and think and the opinions of their author. This is seen, for instance, in his extreme enthusiasm for a pamphlet signed 'Harroviensis' which was written in reply to the scathing criticism of the play made by one 'Oxoniensis'. 'Harroviensis' (by implication a Christian) believes 'Byron not guilty of any of the charges made against him'. In particular, he argues that if Cain was thought blasphemous because of some of its speeches then the same logic applied to Paradise Lost. I find it interesting that Byron twice referred to the reviewer as 'clever' since it suggests that Byron agreed with the pamphlet rather than simply being grateful for any kind of defence. Indeed, Byron instructed Murray to print it together with any further editions of the poem.

Byron, himself, made exactly the same connection with Paradise Lost in his defensive letter to Murray which he authorised Murray to publish. It appeared in full in at least four newspapers. The claim brought instantly a flurry of new horror at Byron's play and anxious defence of Milton. This is a good example of how Mortenson's book discloses how like a newspaper scandal the whole affair was. A kind of master narrative was set up, the same phrases were used then re-used, and flare-ups arose when any kind of defence of the poem was made. An immediate effect of this, as Mortenson makes clear, is that piratical publishers scented money in the scandal. He estimates that as many as 8500 cheap copies (6d rather than 15s) were printed, with 'at least 17 piracies between 1822 and 1832', whereas one gets the impression that Murray's edition was more talked about than read. And this, too, had consequences. Piratical publishing was linked with sedition as well as pornography. Part of the vehemence of Cain's critics almost certainly derived from fear that such publications would radicalise the lower classes.

Murray wanted an injunction to stop pirated editions of Cain; however, this was a dangerous stratagem since, if Eldon—the Lord Chancellor—refused it, Murray might have been prosecuted for an immoral publication. Eldon carefully side stepped the issue. He did not grant the injunction which might have been interpreted as...


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