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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Number 9: George Gordon, Lord Byron: "The Destruction of Sennacharib"

The Destruction of Sennacharib

      The Assyrian came down like the 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!

      --George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron

Hap Notes: This poem has been galloping through my head the last couple of days ever since my dear friend, Anne, said she was reading a book in which Byron (1788-1824) was a character. When this poem comes into your head, you've just got to get it out-it's compelling. There are several reasons why that happens.

Byron wrote this poem as one of a set of verses for "A Selection of Hebrew Melodies" which featured Byron's lyrics and the music of John Braham. The verses are all inspired by the Old Testament and this poem deals with the troops of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704-681 BC) who was laying siege to Judah.

According to the Bible, Sennacherib's troops were stopped from destroying Jerusalem when an angel of the Lord (Gabriel) smote them in the night. All 185,000 of 'em. Sennacherib (who wasn't even actually there- he was in Egypt or Babylon or someplace, with other troops) says that his troops had Jerusalem surrounded like "a bird in a cage". It is true, however, that his troops did not attack. Sennacherib says that Jerusalem's King Hezekiah came out and gave them a bunch of gold and silver and they left. However it was, Jerusalem was saved from destruction. Sennacherib had his own troubles. He was later murdered by his sons. One assumes there were some family problems.

One of the reasons this poem will stick with you forever (especially if you read it aloud a couple of times, which I encourage) is the galloping rhythm of the poem's meter, anapestic tetrameter (anapests are two weak beats and a strong one.) If the meter rings a bell with you, like a distant childhood memory, I'm not surprised. Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) wrote many of his works in the meter including "Yertle the Turtle" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The meter relentlessly drags you through the poem.

Byron's colorful imagery is no slouch either, the leaves, the spears like the reflection of the stars in the sea of Galilee, the widows of the troops moaning, the silent tents, etc. etc. Byron was a huge fan of Alexander Pope and he used the rhyming couplet, as Pope did, to great effect. The Gustave Dore print, pictured above, is my favorite depiction of the scene. Sorta spooky.

Byron's life is worth a book or two and many more than that have been written about him. He was always in love and it didn't much matter whether it was man or boy or woman or girl. He was a charming and handsome devil, in spite of his club foot, and he usually got his man, or woman, or step-sister (allegedly.) When he took his place in the House of Lords he stood up for the Luddites. He was/is a national hero in Greece for his work for, and financing of, their independence from the Ottoman Empire. He wrote an Armenian dictionary. He was a larger-than-life hero/scoundrel who packed ten lives worth of living into his short 36 years. His poetic output was prolific. He sold tens of thousands of copies of his poetry in an era when that meant something (actually, now that I think on it, that means something now, too.) It's hard not to have a bit of a crush on him, in spite of his flaws which were impressive and legion.

I suppose one could say he was the "rock star" of his era but that belittles his literacy, wit and adventurousness. He pretty much exiled himself from England about eight years before his death because...well, we're not sure. It may have been his sexual appetites which England legally could punish. It may have been his debts. It may have been something else. He confided his autobiography to Thomas Moore and, a month after Byron died, Moore and Byron's publisher burned the manuscript. Hmmmm. There's no doubt Byron had some sort of hell hound on his trail, whatever it was.

He liked to be known as a man of action. He swam the Hellespont, for crying out loud! He has become mythic and, in fact, was quite so in his own time.

Here's a good Byron quote: For truth is always strange; stranger than fiction. (Yep, I believe he said it first- in his poem "Don Juan.")

Here's another: "Man is born passionate of body, but with an innate, though secret tendency, to the love of good in his main-spring of mind. But God help us all! It is at present a sad jar of atoms."

You can find more poetry by Byron here:

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