The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 impact.

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...

(The entire section is 514 words.)