The Destruction of Sennacherib
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
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 mail:
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 sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.
LORD BYRON (1788–1824)
Lord Byron, now there was a character to contend with in terms of his personality and in his writings. What we have here is one of his masterpieces of English Literature. But do you know what it is about after one reading? Do you know about Baal and the way that all ended, in the end? If not, Google it now before you read on.
On the face of it, this about a battle, the usual thing we think of in terms of “conflict” but there are hidden messages in this, sent to every reader. Remember Dulce Et Decorum Est and its message that it is not sweet and good to die for your country? Well this is similar in that it tells of a battle but not necessarily glorifies it.
The poem has several features, most notably the use of quatrains and quite a speedy rhythm, which does not ‘sound’ right, in a way, because a war poem should, you would think, be more sombre, slower paced and dramatic. But with the poet being a Romantic, his thoughts play into the writing as he creates this piece of work. In the end, when we put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, we have a rough idea what we are going to write, but not totally. Check out the notions of the intentional fallacy, as well as its opponent idea and see what I mean.
The contradiction between form and language is startling because of this and is meant to represent something of an opposite; the strength of a well armed machine of an army as set against the idea that was is a tragic venture. Consisting of six verses, or stanzas, we see an aabb rhyme scheme appearing, helping to make this a powerful poem. The rhythm of the poem may even be said to represent the sound of horse hooves at the canter, a sound heard in battle before the might of modern machinery took over. At this point as well, you need to ask yourself if anything in the life of the poet is shown in this poem, as well as world events at the time. Born in 1788 and dying in 1824 puts Byron in some very historical dates, including the battles between Wellington and Napoleon. Look up those years to add to your research and you may see something different. Also, as a Romantic, he was interested in the cultures of the Middle East, the importance of liberty and freedom and the fascination with mystical, supernatural events.
So, we have to see the Assyrians as representing the French and the battles of the wars of that time especially since the poem was first published in 1815. If you know some classical music, you will know the date of the major battle because there is a very well known piece of music called an Overture set to it, using some of the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. And as you see this, then think how the poet is trying to get the reader at the time to think about the events in the Middle East. I wonder, nothing changes much even these days, so I wonder if I was to write a poem about the Syrian conflict, the refugee situation, but setting it in a context to the battles in another time, whether the same effect would be seen? This is why this poem is such a clever use of words.
Assyria sounds very like Syria doesn’t it, but you would be wrong to assume this, for it is what we now know as modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the northwestern fringes of Iran. The start to this poem is particularly dramatic with the words “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold” with the use of the simile to compare them to a pack of hunting wolves. That image in your head right now is meant to be there for we tend to think of the Wolf in negative terms and so, anyone who hunts with the enemy must also be seen in the same light too, hence the next line where we see “his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” Purple and gold are regal, kingly colours, so we are seeing an army with others attached who come invading in power and might. Indeed, the way that they look allows us to see them in all their glory as it were, with the “sheen of their spears” being described “like stars on the sea when the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.” The sense of romance about this band of brothers is meant to be there as the description continues.
Then Byron gives us a description of the slain army, described as being “like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,” another use of romantic imagery to make this all sound rather wonderful. But is this what Byron is intending for us? That is what you have to ask as you read about the “host with their banners at sunset” who are seen “like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown.” This sets the poem in late Autumn because it has blown, or gone, or is on the way into Winter. If this is the case, then the battlefield would have been a cold one leaving “the host on the morrow [laying] withered and strown.” That final word is an interesting one. He means “strewn” but that would not rhyme, so he bends the word to match what he needs, just like Shakespeare, in a way, introducing new words into the English language.
Into this battlefield comes a figure from history we are all too aware of. Think of those films you have seen where the Grim Reaper has emerged and you have seen the cloaked image of death. The Angel of Death, if you wish. Here we see the same thing in this poem as “the Angel of Death [spreads] his wings on the blast and [breathes] in the face of the foe as he [passes],” claiming them for his own. The romanticism of death is the best phrase I can think of to describe what is happening here at this point. This Angel of Death walks among the dying, claiming them for his own as “the eyes of the sleepers” move towards death as “their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.” There is a beauty in these words, which are meant to honour the fallen, but there is also a sense of desolation as well in this battlefield scene where men lay dying, but they are not alone either, for their war animals are there also dying.
We see this in the next few lines as we see that “there lay the steed with his nostril all wide.” Now, for the modern audience, this will have a negative effect on us because we love our animals, pets, even if they are working ones. Here, we see the horse split from the rider, with “the foam of his gasping” describing its final breaths as it lays “white on the turf” and we see the life go from it being described in terms of “the spray of the rock-beating surf.” Now this is an interesting image for me, because such white, foaming water is a thing of power, but here it is used to describe something that is losing its power, so that shows the romanticism of this poet at work.
If this was written now, about battles in Afghanistan or Iraq, where soldiers use animals like dogs to find IEDs then I ask a simple question: would the language used be so utterly romantic in style? Possibly, if written by the dog’s handler. But the effect may never be the same because we view the world with twenty first century eyes, not the eyes that saw the world on the battlefields of Waterloo. In this poem, we see Byron using such language to describe “the rider distorted and pale, with the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail.” It is not a pretty image but when written like this, it becomes so for a reason. It is designed to make you, as the reader, feel the pride. On this battlefield, “the tents [are] all silent, the banners alone, the lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.” Everywhere is now silent and deathly, just like a funeral service as the coffin goes down into the grave. It is intended to be somber at this point, for to do it in any other manner would be foolish.
The final verse is perhaps, the most interesting, from my perspective, because Byron is aiming a message straight at us, a message that would have been understood then but maybe not now, especially by someone who is fifteen years old. We see that the “widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,” which is a traditional wail in the Middle East when someone you love dies and we see that “the idols are broke in the temple of Baal.” But do we understand nowadays the significance of these words? The wail can be seen on the News any time there is a bombing in the Middle East. Families, especially female members, will wail a high-pitched wail when they are burying their dead. It is their done thing. But Baal is another thing entirely. Do you know what Baal is, or was?
Baal is the name of a god [note, small g] that was prevalent in the Canaanite regions of the Old Testament times. Worshippers of Baal, like Queen Jezebel, offered their sacrifices to it as their god. But then came the Hebrew God [note, big G[ who, according to the Bible, wiped out the followers of Baal. So, when I see this reference to Baal here, my memory and knowledge lets me understand the reference. Google ‘Baal’ and see. But then, in the final two lines, we see that “the might of the Gentile [non-Jew], unsmote by the sword, hath [has] melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.”
This clear reference to the Hebrew God Yahweh [Jehovah] shows one thing and one thing only to me; that Byron was a firm believer in God and he was in some way believing in the age old adage that when you win a battle it is because “God is with you.” Be careful here though, for it does not matter whether you believe in God [capital g or not] or not, but more importantly, that you appreciate that Byron must have to be able to write these words, unless he was using the words for political gain, or some other gain. Nowadays, people who believe that to win a battle the Lord has to be on your side are seen as fundamentalists [from whichever faith] so we tend to see such folk in negative terms. But it appears as if Byron was more believer than none and we need to take that on board when answering a question on this one.
What is clear is that Byron is writing a poem here for us to consider the nature of the Gentile and their God. To understand this, let’s go back to about 2,200 years ago, when the Jews were awaiting their Messiah. Then, approximately, 2,000 years ago, along came a man called Jesus. Who he was and what he was is irrelevant here for us. Factual evidence that he lived exists. But a small group of people took it on themselves to share his teachings with the world and a new faith was born; Christianity. At that point, you were either Jew, or Gentile. The Jews understood the term Gentile to be ‘everyone else’ in the world apart from them, because they believe they are “God’s Chosen People.” But with the arrival of Christianity, the idea was that Jesus is the Son Of God, so Gentiles were now part of God’s blessings because of his death on the cross. Move that on 1700 years or so and we get to when Byron was alive and writing. Now, if you know that and read the lines again, they change in their meaning, strengthen in their style and make a difference to the reader, whoever they are and from whatever walk of life.
Such is the nature of a poem like this.