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 mighty Assyrians have been defeated, but Byron asks by whom and how. After all, no other nation could come close to the Assyrians’ military power.
The third stanza gives the answer: It is not a human, but rather a supernatural force. The “Angel of Death” has wished a fatal sleep on the Assyrians. His breath has deadened their eyes, stopped their breathing, and reduced their hearts to one final beat. Even the horses are not spared. The pride of the Assyrian army, accustomed to carrying their riders to victory, the great steeds foam at the mouth, diseased and maddened. As great as both horse and rider appeared but a moment before, they are now humbled and indeed reduced to utter destruction.
The horses’ riders—Byron uses the singular for poetic effect, but in fact he is talking about groups of dead soldiers—who were ready to attack an instant ago, now lie as if they were never alive at all, their skin and armor disintegrating. The lances with which they were going to fight and the trumpet that was going to hail their victory are both stilled. Jerusalem, the city of God’s people, has been spared.
In Ashur (the original capital of the Assyrian kingdom, also another name for Assyria as a whole) the wives of the soldiers sit waiting. When they realize their husbands will not return, they are desolate. Unlike the people of Jerusalem, the Assyrians worship idols, not the Judeo-Christian God. The supernatural force shown by the God of the Bible therefore prevails over the material gods worshipped by the attacking armies.
“The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in six stanzas of four lines each. Each line has twelve syllables and is subdivided into four groups of three, with the emphasis on the final syllable of that group, for instance, “like a wolf” in line 1. This is called anapestic tetrameter: An anapest is a foot in which the third syllable is accented, whereas the first and second are not, and tetrameter refers to the four of these feet that make up the line. Anapestic tetrameter is often found in poems with strong aural effects, story-driven poems that use sound and rhythm to give their tales...
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Knowing the metrical scheme helps the reader determine how the various lines are sounded out. “Assyrian” in the first line, a word which in contemporary spoken English is four syllables (as-SYR-ee-an), is elided to three (a-SYR-yan). Part of Byron’s metrical task is to intertwine the proper names pertaining to the story he is telling with the rolling, melodious rhythm of his general diction. Byron deftly integrates these names of remote antiquity with words that were standard elements in the poetic diction of his own day.
The poem’s rhyme scheme reinforces this combination of might and mellifluousness. The first two lines of each stanza rhyme which each other, as do the second two, making the scheme aabb. This apposition of sounds is forceful. Byron uses other poetic effects to reinforce this power, such as alliteration in line 3, “sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea.” In this line, a series of disparate images is threaded together, linked as much by their alliteration as by any thematic association.
The seasonal similes in the second stanza are notable in that their imagery almost covers up their meaning. The reader begins to think about the leafiness of summer and the barrenness of autumn and only reluctantly comes back to the sudden change in the Assyrians’ fortunes that the similes are meant to exemplify. A simile is also used in the fourth stanza, when the foam produced by the horse’s death throes is compared, slightly incongruously, to the froth on top of ocean waves.
Byron also organizes the poem by his patterning of the words at the beginning of each line. “Like” and “That” are alternated in the second stanza. In four of the six stanzas, “And” begins consecutive lines (in another, it is at the start of alternate lines). This poetic device is called anaphora, the reiteration of an initial word. The fact that “and” is a conjunctive word not often found at the beginning of sentences gives the lines a striking urgency and adds a sense of crisis to the declarative thump of the lines’ verbal repetition.
The critic Northrop Frye commented that the poem is characterized by a kind of “poetic jazz” that leads to the sheer sound effects mattering as much as the meaning. Other critics have seen in the abrupt ending of the poem, the way God is introduced only at the last minute, a kind of resistance to closure, a reluctance to neaten matters.