In 1815 George Gordon, Lord Byron wrote a poem about the biblical story of Sennacherib, whose destruction is related in the nineteenth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. Sennacherib was the emperor of Assyria from 705 to 681 b.c.e. In 701 b.c.e., his forces laid siege to Jerusalem.
The Assyrians had conquered the entire Near East except for tiny Judah, the last remaining Israelite kingdom, which was militarily weak. Few thought it possible that their walled capital city, Jerusalem, could hold out long against such forceful Assyrian military might. The Assyrians were a regimented and militaristic society, and aggressiveness was their trademark. Byron’s comparison of them to “wol[ves] on the fold” grasps the animal intensity characteristic of their assaults. “Fold” means sheepfold, or pen of sheep; “wolf on the fold,” an image itself derived from the Bible, refers to an evil predator among the innocent.
In Byron’s poem, the Assyrians are arrayed with fine clothing and mighty weaponry. Yet in the second stanza readers are told that all these material goods have not availed them. The division between the two couplets in this stanza is abrupt. At one moment, the Assyrians resemble the green of the summer: beautiful, prosperous, with nature itself on their side. At the next moment, they are like the withered leaves of autumn, drained of life and blown in many ways. The...
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