The Destruction of Sennacherib
The Destruction of Sennacherib
Lord Byron 1815
Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” was originally published in his 1815 book Hebrew Melodies, which included poems written to be set to adaptations of traditional Jewish tunes. The poem is based on a brief story in 2 Chronicles 32:21 that records in one sentence the defeat of the Assyrians by God’s Angel of Death. What details are missing in the biblical version, however, Byron provides: through metrical invention, description, powerful imagery, and parallelism the poet makes the dismal scene come to life. The destruction of the Assyrian invaders by the Angel of Death is not given any religious significance by Byron; instead, he concentrates on seeing the scene clearly, imagining it so specifically that the reader can see the foam coming from the dying horse’s mouth, and the “withered,” “distorted” bodies of the Assyrian army. Byron also uses similes based on natural processes—summer turning to fall, snow melting, armor rusting—to suggest the transitory nature of all life.
Byron was born in 1788 in London to John Byron and Catherine Gordon, a descendant of a Scottish noble family. He was born with a clubbed foot, with which he suffered throughout his life. Byron’s father had married his mother for her money,
which he soon squandered and fled to France, where he died in 1791. When Byron was a year old, he and his mother moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, and Byron spent his childhood there. Upon the death of his great uncle in 1798, Byron became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottingham. He attended Harrow School from 1801 to 1805 and then Trinity College at Cambridge University until 1808, when he received a master’s degree. Byron’s first publication was a collection of poems, Fugitive Pieces (1807), which he himself paid to have printed, and which he revised and expanded twice within a year. When he turned twenty-one in 1809, Byron was entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, and he attended several sessions of Parliament that year. In July, however, he left England on a journey through Greece and Turkey. He recorded his experiences in poetic form in several works, most importantly in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18). He returned to England in 1811 and once again took his seat in Parliament. The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 met with great acclaim, and Byron was hailed in literarary circles. Around this time he engaged in a tempestuous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who characterized Byron as “mad—bad—and dangerous to know.” Thoughout his life Byron conducted numerous affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. One of his most notorious liaisons was with his half-sister Augusta. Byron married Annabella Millbank in 1815, with whom he had a daughter, Augusta Ada. He was periodically abusive toward Annabella, and she left him in 1816. He never saw his wife and daughter again. Following his separation, which had caused something of a scandal, Byron left England for Europe. In Geneva, Switzerland, he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with whom he became close friends. The three stayed in a villa rented by Byron. During this time Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein, and Byron worked on Canto III of Childe Harold (1816). In 1817 Byron moved on to Italy, where he worked on Canto IV, which was published the next year. For several years Byron lived in a variety of Italian cities, engaging in a series of affairs and composing large portions of his masterpiece Don Juan (1819-24) as well as other poems. In 1823 he left Italy for Greece to join a group of insurgents fighting for independence from the Turks. On April 9, 1824, after being soaked in the rain, Byron contracted a fever from which he died ten days later.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
The first line is arresting and immediately identifies the motif of good versus evil. Sennacherib is “The Assyrian,” the King of Assyria, and he and his cohorts are descending on the Israelites. The people of Israel are mentioned nowhere else in the poem, so when they are compared to a “fold” or a flock of sheep—suggesting innocence—and Sennacherib is compared to a wolf, the line is drawn in the poetic sand between the evil, rapacious beast, Sennacherib, and the peaceful Israelites, the chosen of God, their shepherd.
The rest of the opening quatrain is somewhat less negative in describing the remaining Assyrians. They are not as animalistic as their commander; in fact, the troops are seen in all their beauty. Their outfits “gleam” in the royal colors of purple and gold, and their spears shine so brightly they are like stars reflected on the sea of Galilee. Of course, this brilliance is a setup. Byron wants to establish a beautiful scene so that its eventual destruction will stand out more effectively.
This is a perfect example of a quatrain being divided into two parts. The first two lines continue the pretty picture established in the first quatrain. The troops are again compared to nature, this time to summer leaves, as their banners are spread out against the evening sky. But the nature simile takes a quick turn in the closing couplet. Just as quickly as summer can change to autumn, so too these troops change from beautifully arrayed men to withered and strewn corpses. The simile of the green leaves is replaced by the simile of the withered and fallen autumn leaves.
The reader need not wonder for long how these troops were transformed. The first half of this quatrain shows the Angel of Death at work. He spreads his wings, not to protect or embrace, but to kill; spreading his wings on the blast probably refers to the autumn winds of the last stanza, as in a blast or violent gust of wind. No spears or arrows are necessary, no clashing armies; the Angel of Death simply breathes on the hapless troops and they are gone. The concluding lines of the quatrain shift the camera-eye from the angel to the troops: the reader can see their eyes wax over and their chests stop heaving.
In this quatrain a horse is the focus. The scene is gruesomely described by Byron. The horse lies on the ground with its nostrils wide open, but no breaths are taken. Byron provides another image of desperation and pain: the horse had been gasping for breath so hard before it died that it has produced foam around its mouth. He uses another natural simile, saying the foam is as cold as the “spray of the rock-beating surf.” The reader needs to remember the opening quatrain here. Initially the army was associated with the rolling waves of the Sea of Galilee, a tranquil simile, but now the Assyrians, or at least their horses, are aligned with the chill of an ocean, and the violence of “rock-beating surf.” By transforming rolling waves into rock-beating surf, Byron demonstrates the shift that has taken place because of the Angel of Death’s visit.
Again the quatrain is broken in two: the first section focuses on the rider, the second on the accoutrements of war—the tents, banners, lances and trumpet. The soldiers who at the start of the poem were gleaming are now pale, and the sheen of their spears has been replaced with rust on the armor or mail. The final lines of this quatrain are interesting because of their emptiness. Usually literature is filled with action, drama, music, and scenes; this moment is special because of what is absent. There are no sounds coming from the tents or the trumpets, there is no movement in the banners of the lances. The static scene effectively conveys the absence of life.
The concluding stanza moves away from the battle scene. We see the Assyrian women, presumably back in Assyria, wailing. They are described
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem about a modern situation in which angels might intervene.
- This is not a very active poem: the destruction of the Assyrians occurs somewhere in the middle of the second stanza. To what extent is this an effective technique? Do you think more action would improve this poem? Why or why not?
as “widows of Ashur” because Ashur was the god of war and the chief god of the Assyrians. Their gods were not a match for the god of Israel, so the idols or statues of Baal, a nature god, are destroyed. Byron concludes the poem with the last in a series of similes based on nature. The mighty Gentiles, the non-Jewish Assyrians, have not been defeated by the swords of Israelites, but simply by the glance of the Lord. Their power and might have disappeared, in the same way that snow melts in the sun. Everything in nature changes, everything is transitory, so by using these natural images and similes, Byron is emphasizing the temporary nature of human conflict and humanity itself.
“The Destruction of Sennacherib” is most overtly a poem about death. The Assyrian king is killed by the first line of the third stanza, leaving more than half the poem devoted to the effects of his death. Foremost among the images of death is the description of the king’s horse, who gasped so strenuously as he died that foam spewed from his mouth. Though death comes quickly for Sennacherib and his men—“their hearts but once heaved”—Byron takes a whole stanza to describe the horse’s death. The horse is larger and more powerful than a man, and by describing the demise of a powerful animal that belongs to the king, Byron equates the horse’s death with Sennacherib’s and intends for the horse to be a symbol of the king’s crushed power.
Death in Byron’s poem is more than the simple cessation of life. Sennacherib’s demise is called a “destruction,” a word chosen by Byron to underscore the complete dissolution of the king’s power. Normally, cities or large buildings are destroyed; men die or are killed. But Sennacherib is a feared king who appears “like a wolf on the fold,” and the Angel of Death does not simply kill him but destroys him. His quick death is physical proof of the Hebrew belief that God is many times more powerful than the most powerful mortal. Furthermore, the king’s death is more than just the loss of one life. It is a symbol of the destruction of the entire Assyrian culture, a society that worshipped Baal, the beleaguered pagan god of the Old Testament. The Old Testament verse that inspired Byron is 2 Chronicles 32:8, in which Hezekiah speaks to the people of Judah after Sennacherib has announced intentions to conquer their land: “With him an arm of flesh; but with us the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles.” Using this verse, Byron created a scenario in which Sennacherib fights and loses the battle with God. However, Byron’s poem is pure fiction; the Assyrian king almost was certainly killed by his own sons.
It was a typical theme among the Romantic poets to depict the deaths of heroes and villains alike, just as long as scene involved a dramatic confrontation. Byron, in particular, was known for his strongly drawn heroes, dubbed “Byronic heroes” by critics. The most famous are the rogue adventurers Don Juan and Childe Harold, who were modeled on Byron himself. Other types of Byronic heroes are the “Gothic Hero-Villain” or the “Noble Outlaw” according to Peter K. Thorslev, Jr. in his book The Byronic Hero. Sennacherib has characteristics of these two, though he could more accurately be called an anti-hero. Because Hebrew Melodies, the collection in which “The Destruction of Sennacherib” was first published, was intended to exalt Jewish history—Byron had a strong religious leanings himself—Sennacherib appears as the foe and his death is not a tragedy but a moment of celebration. However, in his typical melancholy fashion Byron states that “widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,” underlining the tragedy of the death, even though he is the anti-hero.
God and Religion
Hebrew Melodies was envisioned as an exaltation of the Old Testament, and “The Destruction of Sennacherib” describes the triumph of God over the pagan Assyrians who are struck down by an angel, a servant of God. Byron had high regard for the Bible and held Calvinist beliefs throughout his life. By writing tales of Jewish lore that could be set to music, Byron publicly affirmed his faith in religion. Sennacherib is struck down by an angel, a servant of God. Even though the Assyrians are presented as noble characters who wear the royal colors of purple and gold, Sennacherib appears “like a wolf on the fold,” or rather, a predator to the peaceful Hebrews. That it takes nothing more than the breath of the Angel of Death to fell the mighty army shows how hollow their power is in the face of God. The poem’s six stanzas dramatize a few verses in the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles which depict the confrontation between the King of Assyria and Hezekiah, the King of Judah. By having the Angel of Death do the dirty work, the Jews have won the battle without so much as lifting a finger. In a Romantic explanation of religious power, “the might of the Gentile” is destroyed by the merest “glance of the lord.” Once again, however, Byron has created fiction. According to history, Hezekiah was defeated by Sennacherib in 701 B.C.
Art and Experience
In evaluating the collection Hebrew Melodies as a whole, art itself becomes a major theme. The poems were originally set to traditional Jewish melodies by Isaac Nathan, a composer who was a contemporary of Byron’s. Though Byron often strayed from the intended religious perspective of the collection—his famous poem “She Walks in Beauty” was also in the collection—a holistic theme becomes apparent. “The Hebrew Melodies are ... Byron’s discourse on art, an examination of how poetry takes the materials of a transient world of process and lends them the grace of immortality,” says Frederick W. Shilstone in an essay for Concerning Poetry. “As such,” he continues, “these poems comprise an important experiment in genre, a true lyric collection.... This experiment is one of Byron’s gifts to the history of literary form.... Byron realized he was engaged in the most unstinting celebration of art in his career.”
Corroborating this view, John Spalding Gatton wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography about Byron’s motivation for writing the collection: “As a champion of freedom, he may also have responded instinctively to the oppression long suffered by the Jewish people.” Besides being a “lyrical examination of the Old Testament, Gatton continues, the “love songs and reflective pieces, some written before the book’s conception, though in their expressions of sadness, longing, and desolation, they voice sentiments found in the biblical poems bewailing the lost Jewish homeland.”
“The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in quatrains—or four-line stanzas—that are very tightly constructed. They not only rhyme aabb, but the rhyming couplets also form grammatical units, so that each quatrain is made of two equal phrases. This doubleness is important to the poem’s content because Byron demonstrates several motifs of duality—life/death, summer/fall, sheen/rust—to his readers, even in his poetic structure.
The metrical structure is also essential in this poem. Byron employs a meter of anapestic tetrameter, which means that each line is made up of four feet, or sets, of anapests (“tetra” is Greek for four). An anapest is made of three syllables, with the accent placed on the last syllable, forcing the reader to almost race along. While Byron sometimes substitutes an iambic foot, or pair of unstressed/stressed syllables, in his metrical pattern for variety and emphasis, most often he employs a perfectly regular anapestic line, such as the following:
And the sheen / of their spears / was like stars /
on the sea .
Notice how the words that are accented—sheen, spears, stars and sea—are linked grammatically (they are all nouns, not action words), but more importantly in their sound. Not only do they all carry the accent, they all begin with the “s” sound—what is known as alliteration. As a result, there is a soothing quality to the line which is certainly appropriate, since none of the violence of the poem brought on by the Angel of Death has taken place yet; everything seems serene, peaceful, and safe for the Assyrians.
Byron wrote “The Destruction of Sennacherib” at a time when Romanticism was flourishing in the arts. In painting, literature, and music, one of the great Romantic obsessions was the ancient past. By
Compare & Contrast
- 1815: Napoleon is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, the dictator abdicates the French throne on June 22 and lives in exile on the island of St. Helena for the rest of his life.
Today: The sun set on the British Empire as control of Hong Kong, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, reverted to the Chinese on July 1, 1997, more than a hundred and fifty years after it was conquered by British military forces.
- 1815: The ancient land of Assyria, once ruled by Sennacherib, is ruled by the Ottoman Turks, though British forces consider the area strategic.
Today: The ancient land of Assyria is now Iraq, its capital Baghdad, and its ruler Saddam Hussein.
- 1815: The first Jewish Reform Temple opens in Berlin. Members adopt more modern lifestyles, easing dress codes and dietary laws.
Today: Many Orthodox Jews believe that the Reform movement has gone too far and the religion has lost much of its identity.
envisioning a battle scene from the Old Testament, Byron aligned himself with his contemporaries like the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, whose 1808 6th Symphony, also known as Pastoral, evoked the bucolic country life of ancient Greece, and the French painter Eugene Delacroix, whose Death of Sardanapalus (1827) depicted the demise the Assyrian King Sardanapalus, who ruled shortly after Sennacherib.
Writers and artists of the Romantic era may have also been influenced by the military exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican soldier who became the Emperor of France until he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the same year Byron’s poem was published. This defeat was one of the century’s most dramatic political events and meshed well with the Romantics’ preoccupation with fallen heroes.
Prior to Napoleon’s defeat, his army’s exploits provided much fodder for the imaginations of artists and laypeople alike. During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, his troops rediscovered the Pyramids at Giza and began excavation of the Great Sphinx, which had been buried by sand for over a millennium. Though the campaign was primarily a military conquest of Egypt, Napoleon enlisted scientists to evaluate the spoils of his victory. Their findings engendered the science of Egyptology and influenced the development of modern archeology. Across Europe and Great Britain, suddenly all things ancient became trendy; literature and art depicting ancient Egypt and other lost civilizations proliferated.
This trend was a continuation of the interest generated by the discovery of ancient Rome in the mid-seventeenth century. A century later in 1738 the ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been buried by lava and ash in the 89 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, were discovered. Excavation of the area continued to Byron’s day and uncovered copious information about life in Roman times. Many motifs common to Greek and Roman art unearthed in the dig found their way into Romantic art and popular trends. For instance, the high-waisted Empire-style dresses favored by women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe were inspired by the feminine clothing of the Roman Empire. Wedgewood pottery, a style created by Josiah Wedgewood who became the official potter to the Queen of England in 1762, was inspired by ancient Greek artifacts and the paintings uncovered at Pompeii. Today, the famous white-on-blue designs still recall the frieze designs of Rome’s ancient public buildings. Thus, Byron’s allusions to ancient history in Hebrew Melodies and “The Destruction of Sennacherib” were intended for an audience which was likely well-versed in history.
Fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of similar themes in his work. In “Ozymandias,” a traveler encounters an crumbling statue in a desert. Its inscription, once meant to invoke fear in Ozymandias’s subjects and foes, now seems ridiculous to the onlooker who can see no other trace of the once-great empire. In his collection Prometheus Unbound (1820) Shelley included many verses inspired by mythology and classical literature, just as his good friend Byron had been inspired by the Old Testament when compiling Hebrew Melodies.
Even though “The Destruction of Sennacherib” depicts the tragedy of war, Byron himself, along with many other Romantic artists, felt that fighting and dying on the battlefield was a noble endeavor. Taking his romantic feelings about war and ancient life to heart, he sailed to Greece in 1823 to fight in that country’s war for independence from the Turks. This gesture was so in sync with the tenets of Romanticism that Delacroix depicted Byron’s involvement in the Greek war in some of his paintings. When Byron lost his life after falling ill during the campaign, he was proclaimed a national hero of Greece. Romanticism valued instilling autobiographical material into one’s art, and Byron’s willingness to die in battle is foreshadowed in his graphic depiction of the felled Assyrian king in “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”
There have been a number of major criticisms of Byron’s work by a number of famous writers. W. H. Auden, the Anglo-American poet, asserts that Byron needed to be “read very rapidly” because if one slows down the “poetry vanishes—the feeling seems superficial, the rhyme forced, the grammar all over the place,” as he writes in 1962’s Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. T. S. Eliot, the American expatriate poet, notes in his 1957 On Poetry and Poets that what some critics have considered as Byron’s most ambitious works were “nothing but sonorous affirmations of the commonplace with no depth of significance.” He even attacks Byron’s ear for writing poetry, saying that he could “think of no other poet of his distinction who might so easily have been an accomplished foreigner writing in English.” Eliot concludes that as a poet Byron “added nothing to the language ... and developed nothing in the meaning, of individual words.” The nineteenth-century British poet Matthew Arnold shares a similar appraisal of Byron, although he considers Byron, along with Wordsworth, “first and pre-eminent in actual performance ... among the English poets of this century.” Writing in a preface to Poetry of Byron, Arnold states: “As a poet, he has no fine and exact sense for word and structure and rhythm; he has not the artist’s nature and gifts.”
Other critics, however, disagree with these assessments. A British commentator writes in an 1815 Augustan Review critique of Hebrew Melodies that “there are traits of exquisite feeling and beauty” in the collection and adds that the poetry itself was of “superior excellence.” Other critics in this century have likewise praised Hebrew Melodies and specifically “The Destruction of Sennacherib” L. C. Martin, in his 1948 Byron’s Lyrics, claims this particular poem to be “the apex, the crown of Byron’s lyrical writing.... Here, though not here alone, the anapestic measure which Byron so often employed with effects of triviality and bathos is marvelously effective.” He concludes that the diction—or word choice—and the rhythm of the poem “drive home the concept of swift visitation and inevitable doom.” Another critic, Frederick W. Shilstone, also applauds Hebrew Melodies, calling it “an important experiment in genre, a true lyric collection” that prepared the way for “more elaborate volumes like Robert Lowell’s Notebook and John Berryman’s Dream Songs.”
Brent Goodman is a freelance writer and has taught at Purdue University and mentored students in poetry. In the following essay, Goodman argues that although “The Destruction of Sennacherib” retells an ancient story, it is firmly rooted in nineteenth-century Romanticism.
The Romantic poets, including such writers as Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelly and Byron, believed strongly in a revolution of ideas—not only about how poets should write, but also about how poets should see and experience the world. William Blake, in his “Prophetic Books,” defined this revolution as a recovery of the imagination, a rethinking of the way we see things “through and not with the eye.” Similar, too, is Shelly’s definition in his “Defence of Poetry.” He wrote, “Poetry reproduces the common universe, but purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” In other words, poems, by recreating the real in a new and refreshing way, allow us better access at “wonder,”
What Do I Read Next?
- “Ozymandias,” by Byron’s colleague Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a poem about the ruins of a colossal statue in the desert which depicts an ancient, once-feared king.
- Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival at Ninevah, by John Malcolm Russell, University of Chicago Press, 1991, is a nonfiction title providing more detail on the ancient king.
- Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is Byron’s autobiographical epic poem describing his wanderings throughout Spain, Greece, and Albania.
- Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is Mary Shelley’s Gothic, Romantic novel about the limitations of humankind. The classic novel was conceived during the summer of 1816 in Geneva where Shelley, then the nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft, was vacationing with fellow poets Byron and Percy Shelley.
- Lord Byron’s Doctor is Paul West’s 1989 biographical novel about Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s attending physician in Geneva. Polidori was a marginal writer who was eventually accused of plagiarizing one of Byron’s unwanted works and passing it off as his own.
or that energetic curiosity that keeps children moving and smiling.
This new sense of discovery, combined with the approaching end of a millennium and the flaring of revolution in Europe, made the Apocalypse an attractive theme to the Romantics. Often, this theme surfaced in retellings of battles or biblical revelation. In the case of “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” which describes the fall of the King of Assyria in 681 B.C., Lord Byron recounts the battle between me Christians and Assyrians that resulted in the overthrow of Paganism. In an historical period wrought with change, from rethinking the way literature was written to outright civil revolution on a national scale, this story probably carried much emotion with reader of that time. Some modern readers might ask why, if a Romantic poet such as Byron was obsessed with change and discovery, should he choose such ancient subject matter? Why retell such an old story? The answer, perhaps, is not necessarily only the subject matter itself, but also the way in which Byron describes the subject matter. In that sense, Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is an example of the Romantic philosophy in both its revolutionary subject matter and in how Byron, by using vivid details and descriptive language, purges me “film of familiarity” from a commonly told story.
Like the other Romantic poets, Byron often used highly structured and rigid, traditional forms to craft his poems. “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” for example, is written in four-line stanzas called quatrains, with the first and second, as well and the third and fourth, lines rhyming. Similarly, there are four stresses, or beats, in each line (this is called tetrameter). A reader might wonder why a poet so concerned with finding new ways of imagining the world would still depend on such rigid rules for crafting his poems. Ironically, the form Byron chose to retell this apocalyptic story may help us experience the scene better than a less strict form would. In reading this poem—with its four stresses per line and four lines per stanza—aloud, our ear begins to recognize a marching beat, like a snare drum keeping time: “the asSYRian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD, and his COhorts were GLEAMing in PURple and GOLD.” A march, literally, is a song written in straight four beats per measure. Often poets use this unique relationship between the rhythm or sound of the poem and its subject matter to help bring a scene or experience to life. In this case, even the most structured and traditional form helps Byron find freedom of expression.
Another point of poetic structure Byron uses to help match the poem’s form to its subject is the use of consonance and assonance or matching consonant sounds and vowel sounds in a line. This can have a variety of effects, depending on which sounds are repeated. In line where he is describing smashing false idols in the temple of Baal, Byron repeats the sharp consonant sounds—“d,” “b,” “k,” and “t”—to match the sound of the line to the action, “the idols are broke in the temple of Baal.” Whereas in the last line, he uses softer sounds like “th,” “m” “1” and “n” to recreate the subtle image of snow melting “in the glance of the lord.”
The poem itself is more narrative than lyric, meaning it tells a story in a chronological order, describing a scene and characters working their way through a situation. Because our understanding of any poem first depends on our ability to figure out what is happening at the literal or narrative level, it is useful to walk through a close reading of the poem. Byron opens the narrative with a panoramic description of the Assyrian King along with his army that is dressed in purple and gold, with spears shining “like stars on the sea.” Sennacherib is the powerful Pagan King of Assyria, a non Judeo-Christian civilization, and purple and gold are colors usually associated with royalty or nobility. In the first line, Byron compares Sennacherib to a wolf sneaking into a “fold,” or sheep pen, which, by analogy, also paints the King as a dangerous and deceitful man. His “host,” or army, could be seen at sunset with banners waving like “leaves of the forest when summer is green.” Here, within the first five lines, Byron introduces yet another color, green, that usually reminds us of vitality, freshness, and life.
But no sooner does he establish this scene does Byron begin to paint a darker picture: suddenly the seasons change from summer to autumn, as the bodies of the Assyrian army “withern and strown” across the field like leaves. We learn in the beginning of stanza three this is because the “Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, / And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed.” The angel of death is a character out of the Judeo-Christian bible, and here he enters the scene to wipe out an entire army with a spread of his wings and one breath. What remains is an apocalyptic landscape completely devoid of any of its previous inhabitants. It is a scene perhaps symbolic of the revolutionary change the Romantic poets such as Byron strove for.
By the time the reader gets only two stanzas into the retelling of the Sennacherib’s destruction, the war is already over. In the remaining four stanzas of the poem, Byron uses vividly descriptive language and images to zoom in on the scene, recreating the aftermath in such a precise way that readers are forced to look at a familiar story in a fresh way and with a new sense of wonder. He points out the multiple “eyes of sleepers waxed deadly and still,” and the sound of their hearts heaving a last few beats before death. He focuses on the horse’s breathless nostril and the foam from its mouth that lay on the grass “cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.” By using this comparison, or simile, to re-create a scene, Byron is drawing the reader in by asking us to participate with him in the act of imagining by seeing (and feeling) the cold foam from the horse’s gasping mouth in a way we probably never have before—like sea-spray pounding the shore. Byron is a master in his craft, and his comparison is accurate in both its literal description and its source of violent action; the horse is struggling on the ground like a “rock beating surf.”
After describing the multitudes of dead and their fallen horses, Byron focuses the fifth stanza on who we can guess to be King Sennacherib himself, dead on the ground in rusting armor, amid an empty group of tents and banners. The actual battle, so quickly over with early on in the poem, is diminished even further when Byron tells us the Assyrians’ swords remained “unlifted, the trumpet unblown.” In the next and last stanza he similarly describes the army as “unsmote by the sword,” implying they were not killed by man-made weapons. The actual destruction and revolution, Byron seems to say, is caused by a much more powerful source that can kill whole armies in one sweeping gesture, much like that described in stories from the Bible’s “Book of Revelations.” Here again is the reoccurring vision of apocalypse.
The final stanza pans the camera back again, until we can hear the “widows of Ashur” crying loudly and see the false pagan idols broken in the temple of Baal. Ashur, it is important to note, is both the name of the god of war, as well as the original capital city of Assyria. In the closing lines, the entire might of the Gentiles, or non-Christians, dissolves like snow under a hot sun; a whole civilization is brought down under “the glance of the lord.” Bringing things full circle, Byron ends this poem, which began using images of summer, then autumn, with winter ending and the melting of snow. And although he never mentions the next and final season specifically, we instinctively know that this poem ends as spring begins and new growth emerges from a frozen and dead landscape.
Source: Brent Goodman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, IL, as well as the faculty advisor and cofounder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College. He is currently writing a novel. In the following essay, Kelly explains that the perceived weaknesses in “The Destruction of Sennecherib” seem less so when considering Byron’s goals for the poem and acknowledging his unique approach of providing readers with a visual—rather than purely emotional—image of its events.
It would be easy to write Lord Byron off as a minor poet who has wrangled himself a seat at the great historic banquet of poets by living a life of fame, scandal and sex, reasoning that bookish literary historians are overly friendly to his reputation because they want to be more like him. There is enough critical support to defend such an idea, and “The Destruction of Sennecherib” can seem, to the contemporary reader, a catalog of tricks that a poet might use to make his verse seem more clever and important than it really is. The rollicking anapestic meter, charging along line after line with the dah-dah-DUM, dah-dah-DUM rhythm of charging horses, has a rousing battle-ready beat, but that is exactly what makes it inappropriate when the focus shifts to the after-slaughter stillness—we have to wonder if poets shouldn’t have some sort of valve to control the flow of their heroic booming. The rhyming couplets also are not very clever, displaying a competent craftsmanship when they are working and even blowing one sour note on twelve couplets, with the use of the word “strown” where any number of legitimate words—stone, thrown, throne, bone, moan and alone come to mind without bothering to think—would have worked. Even his heroic subject matter is taken from the Old Testament and is therefore pre-tested, purchased like a paint-by-numbers kit, isn’t it? It is at this point that literary historians generally try to prop up his poetry with biographical facts, first telling us about Byron’s great luck at having his title delivered to him unexpectedly one day when he was fifteen, his early success and witty put-downs of critics, his drinking and up-and-down finances and chasing every woman in sight, including his half-sister. After this, historians will mention his fantastic public success during his lifetime and then rank him in a place within the Romantic movement (there is no consensus: he places “marginal” to “forefront,” depending on the critic).
But lovers of poetry are often better than literary historians at separating the poet’s life from his or her work and getting down to the crucial question: Will I like reading this poem? Implied in this statement, secretly hidden in the genetic code of the words “lovers of” and “like,” is a second question: Will I learn from it? After all, in this age of infinite distractions and sensory stimulation, it is pretty safe to guess that anyone reading at all has some element of learning built into their sense of entertainment. By nature of their indirect structure, poems always require a little think-work, which the reader accepts as part of the fun. With just two background ideas to consider, and absolutely no condescending to Lord Byron because he was such a fascinating person in life, “The Destruction of Sennecherib” offers today’s readers an amusing and worthwhile reading experience.
The first consideration that we should take into account, to be fair, stems from the fact that this poem was written to be put to music, as part of a series called Hebrew Melodies that he worked on with his friend, composer Isaac Nathan. Keeping this in mind helps us understand the author’s intention, repositioning our opinions about the stubbornness of the rhythm and the weak obviousness of the rhymes from uninteresting artistic decisions to shrewd commercial choices. Verse that is written to be sung and followed with the ear, not the eye, must by basic necessity avoid being too complex, so that the singer and the listener can follow it. Writing for music required Byron to be smoother and less challenging than writing for the page, and in these terms this work was a great success with his public, as most of Byron’s works were during his lifetime. We can blame a contemporary poet for trying to be light and bouncy and sing-songy, especially if, like this piece, the subject is massive deaths. Byron was not trying to just write likeable verse, he was writing to interlock his words with Nathan’s melodies in order to be popular and make money. He was working, quite well, within a predetermined form, and so the contemporary reader should not blame him for the lack of creativity in the structure.
The only other consideration that we should give him, to be fair readers, is the recognition of how few poets up to Byron’s time really valued giving the reader a physical description, and how nobody seemed to enjoy plunging readers into the scene the way Byron did. Poets before him used their art of image-conjuring, when they used it at all, to make their point about God or human nature, not to take the reader with them on a journey to a place. Shakespeare showed in sonnets such as “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun” that he understood the impact that physicality gave the written word, but the practice was not common. Even Byron’s immediate predecessor, Wordsworth, used adjectives in “Daffodils” that were more reflective of what the speaker felt than what he saw, giving us only “golden” to help us picture what a daffodil is like. Byron was a sensualist—it is here that his lack of morals, his sexual appetite and mood swings can usually be worked into a critical analysis, but they can just as well be left out. To the audience of 1815, his writing was like being shown color television for the first time, and they lapped it up. Today, we have had the benefit of the twentieth century’s descriptive works, which in one way or another, consciously or not, have been influenced by T.S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” which encourages writers to use objects that all people feel the same about, eliminating the need for the poet to announce his or her own feelings. Byron’s narration approaches its subject matter like a camera, a technique so contemporary that readers tend to overlook it.
And so, excusing his form because it was chosen to fit into a melody and appreciating the originality of his style, we are ready to examine what “The Destruction of Sennecherib” has to offer to readers today. The poem is based on a story from the Second Book of Kings, chapter 19, where Hezekiah, ruler of Judah, implores God, through the prophet Isaiah, to stop the attacking Assyrians: God promises coming hardship for the unfaithful people of Judah, but because Hezekiah has always been faithful and obedient He sends an angel to kill all 180,000 Assyrians in their camp overnight. Interestingly, Byron leaves out the prophet’s long lecture about the wickedness in Jerusalem, which takes up most of the chapter, and he concentrates on the destruction of enemies which is represented in the chapter’s last two lines, making this a traditional victory hymn.
The whole story is told in an abbreviated form in the poem’s first two stanzas. The first simile used, “like a wolf to the fold,” is as much a cliche now as when people actually tended sheep, but it is effective in establishing the carnivorous, predatory nature of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib and the innocent helplessness of the Judeans. The colors that the attacking army wore is a detail that probably could have been done without, except that it helps establish the visual base of Byron’s style. Likewise, the forced reference to the sea of Galilee could be vaguely significant for those who had no clue of the story’s Biblical origin, but it is just as confusing, because this story takes place in Jerusalem, seventy miles away from the sea. The second stanza’s comparison of the invading army to summer leaves and then to autumn leaves is a fair summary of what actually did happen to the Assyrians, and the language is nicely balanced between the first couplet and the second, but if this were the extent of Byron’s poetic powers the poem would hardly be worth remembering.
The third, fourth and fifth stanzas, though, turn the story into a physical experience that would have been beyond the imagination of most poets to this day. Death is an event, an occurrence, and at least since Biblical times it has been put into the form of an angel, but it takes a poet with a fully developed reality in his mind to focus on Death’s wings (which would of course be the thing we would all look at if Death flew by) and to give Death’s power to kill a physical presence—the angel’s breath seems the obvious means of destruction, now that Byron has mentioned it. We are not simply told that the soldiers died, but our attention is focused on the coldness of their eyes and the stopping of their hearts. Almost a hundred years before the invention of the motion picture camera, Byron uses the methods that movies use to make simple facts imply more than they have to. We know that the Assyrians’ destruction was complete because our attention is drawn to a dead horse lying in the middle of their camp; we know that the horse is dead because its nostrils are still and foam pours from its mouth onto the ground. The poem does not merely tell us that the dead lay on the ground, we get evidence that they are cold and dead from the rust and the dew that settles on skin. Just how this defeat affected Assyria is not explained: the widows’ wail tells it all.
These are the traits of any good poem, of any time: to imply a hundred times more than it says, to stuff a small briefcase with a trunkload of ideas. By concentrating on Byron’s colorful life story, we can possibly come to understand a few small points better, but the risk is that the poem then begins to look like a decrepit old beggar that has lost the ability to stand by itself. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” has its own greatness: recognizing that greatness begins with seeing its many weaknesses and accepting its modest goals. It helps to know how strange this kind of sensory writing was to Byron’s audience, but it is not necessary to study the poem as a fad. Students who take a little time to consider how much each detail tells them will find the investment amply repaid.
Arnold, Matthew, preface to Poetry of Byron, by Lord Byron, Macmillan, 1881, reprinted as “Byron,” in his Essays in Criticism, Dutton, 1964, pp. 312-30.
Auden, W. H., “Don Juan,” in Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Random House, 1962, pp. 386-406.
Eliot, T. S., “Byron,” in On Poetry and Poets, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957, pp. 223-39.
Gatton, John Spalding. “George Gordon, Lord Byron,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 96, Gale, 1990, pp. 18-69.
Review of “Hebrew Melodies,” in Augustan Review, Volume 1, July, 1815, reprinted in The Romantics Reviewed, Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers: Byron and Regency Society Poets, edited by Donald H. Reiman, Garland Publishing, 1972, pp. 57-60.
Martin, L. C., in Byron’s Lyrics, The University of Nottingham, 1948, 25 p.
Shilstone, Frederick W., “The Lyric Collection As Genre: Byron’s ‘Hebrew Melodies,’” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 12, No., 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 45-52.
Thorslev, Peter L. Jr., The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes, University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
Approaches to Teaching Byron’s Poetry, Approaches to Teaching World Literature series, 36, edited by Frederick W. Shilstone, Modern Language Association, 1991.
A guide for the teacher, outlining common themes and stylistic devices used in Byron’s works.
Cooke, Michael G. The Blind Man Traces the Circle: On the Patterns and Philosophy of Byron’s Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1969.
Resource for those seeking extensive information on how Byron’s morality influenced his work.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, Modem Critical Views series, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1990, 183 p.
A critical study of Byron’s works and style.
Grosskurth, Phyllis. Byron: The Flawed Angel, Houghton Mifflin, 1997, 510 p.
Well-reviewed biography of the poet, the first serious study of his life since the 1960s.
Looper, Travis. Byron and the Bible: A Compendium of Biblical Usage in the Poetry of Lord Byron, Scarecrow Press, 1978.
Discusses “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and other poems based on tales from the Bible.
Marchand, Leslie A. Byron’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction, Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Explication of Byron’s poems by the author of the definitive three-volume biography of the poet.