Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“The Destruction of Sennacherib” was part of a collection of poems called Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern, published in 1815. The collection was commissioned by the composer Isaac Nathan, who had compiled a set of old (though post-biblical) tunes from Jewish musical tradition. Byron then wrote poems to parallel the tunes, though evidently he did not attempt to match a poem to a specific piece of music. Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern was an atypical collection for Byron in that the poems were short, often deeply felt lyrics, not mock epics or satiric narratives. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” has found considerable fame as an anthology piece and a poem for recital. It is, however, only the second most famous poem in Hebrew Melodies Ancient and Modern, though the most famous, “She Walks in Beauty,” does not deal with the biblical subjects that are characteristic of the volume.

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Interestingly, Byron is usually considered a wholly secular poet. For Byron, largely interested in adventure, satire, and vers de societé (verse chronicling the doings of high society), this Old Testament subject seems an unlikely one. “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” however, is the most famous poem on a biblical subject to come out of the English Romantic movement. Although Byron’s fellow poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both became professed Christians in the later portions of their careers, neither wrote a biblical poem as famous or as memorable as that written by Byron, so often castigated in conservative quarters as an unreliable freethinker.

Byron’s poem takes completely the position found in the Old Testament. Sennacherib is an evil tyrant, and Judah’s delivery from him was a result of miraculous divine intervention. If anything, Byron’s poem could be criticized for taking an overly Christian view of what was originally a Jewish subject. This Christianizing is also seen in the final line of the first stanza, where the mention of Galilee alludes to Jesus Christ. As a geographical term for the lake near the head of the Jordan River, the word “Galilee” was not in use until the third or second century b.c.e., so its presence here is anachronistic. However, its strong Christian associations—Galilee being the region where Jesus Christ grew up and began his ministry—were clearly important to Byron, even though his musical collaborator, Isaac Nathan, was a Jew.

To an Englishman writing in 1815, the threat posed to Jerusalem by the tyrant Sennacherib would have had its natural analogue in the threat posed to peace and order by the French emperor Napoleon. Byron referred to Napoleon as “a wolf” in other poems. The Napoleonic allusion is not the predominant theme of the poem, however; “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is mainly about the Assyrian emperor, about the original biblical story of his demise.

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