Written completely in blank verse, ‘Darkness’ by George Gordon, more commonly known as Lord Byron, taps into a fear for the future of the human race through an almost ‘epic’ style of poetic storytelling. This poem was written in July of 1816 runs for a total of 82 lines many of which end abruptly, allowing the thought to go into “darkness” before being picked back up in the next line. Byron’s ‘Darkness’ is considered one of the best poems ever on the theme of darkness.
Summary of Darkness
This piece begins with a description of the sun, stars, and moon being extinguished and the earth being left to stumble through space without direction. All of the people of the earth have been doomed to live in darkness. They burn everything around them, from palaces to huts and eventually religious materials. They are desperate for any kind of light to see by.
All are made equal by this darkness, kings are brought to the level of peasants and all suffer together. The men burn the forests and weep as they go out. Some are driven mad by the eventual starvation they will, and do, face. The beasts of the forest become tame but are slaughtered by the men and all “sate” themselves for what will be one of the last times. Many men die from starvation until all the world is reduced to two men that become enemies.
These men find themselves at the same “altar-place” amongst the ashes of religious items. They manage to start a small fire and are horrified to see one another, dying right thereof fright. The human race is now extinct, as are herbs, animals, and all plants. All water is still and the tides no longer go in or out because the moon is long since “extinguish’d.” The clouds are gone, useless to the darkness which is now “…the Universe.”
Analysis of Darkness
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Byron begins this piece with a statement that must remain in the mind of the reader throughout the entirety of the poem. His speaker states that he has “…had a dream” (1) that was not entirely a dream. The dream can either be brushed off as only that, or considered as a premonition due to the fact that it has a poignant message to share about the state of the human race.
The dream of the speaker revolves around one main concept, “darkness.”
In the dream, (that takes on strong religious, end of days, overtones,) the “bright sun” (2) has been put out, and the stars in the night sky are “wander[ing] darkling,” meaning that they traverse the sky without light, as they too have been extinguished. They are said to be “Rayless” (4) and without a path. There is nothing to guide them, just as mankind has lost its way.
The fifth line of the poem begins to describe the state of the earth, it is “icy” (4), and due to the lack of light from the stars and sun, it is “[swinging] blind…in the moonless air” (5). The moon too is gone, and with no light to guide it, the earth is swinging out of control.
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
The darkness of this night is not broken by the coming of “Morn” (6) but continues onward endlessly. The day does not bring with it light, as the sun, too, has been put out.
Men are said to have forgotten “…their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation.” There is nothing to live aside from the dread of the darkness, all passion for worldly pursuits is lost. All of the hearts of the world were “chill’d” or frozen (in this context meaning both stuck and cold) “into a selfish prayer for light.” Men and women prayed for light not for the benefit of mankind, but for themselves, each wishing to retrieve their life as it was before. But this test, most likely sent by a God bringing on the end of days, is not going to be surmounted so easily.
The people of the world lived “by watchfires” that provided them some light in the dark, and all structures from “palaces,” to “huts,” and “The habitations of all things which dwell” were used as kindling to create beacons. These beacons allow communication and direction in this perpetually dark world. All have become equal, no king or peasant has anything the other does not; all homes have been destroyed. The apocalypse, at least at this point has had its hoped-for outcome, leveling kings to peasants and palaces to huts.
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
While the homes of humankind are burning, the men “were gather’d round their blazing homes” to finally look one another in the face. It appears that this is the first time since the darkness came that there has been enough light to truly see one another again.
A few lines are taken at this point to draw attention, figuratively, to those that dwell “within the eye / Of the volcanoes” and can see by the light of the magma inside. Byron could have added this line solely as a way of emphasizing the darkness, but could also have meant it to underline the length to which men will go to be rid of darkness (condemning themselves to the brightest light source they can find). Those that survived here represented those that survive in sin, off of pain, and with an attitude of “making it” at all costs.
The poem continues, and the speaker describes that aside from darkness, “A fearful hope” was all that the world contained, a hope to be rid of the dark by whatever means necessary.
The forest of the world was burnt but they “fell and faded” throwing the world back into blackness again.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The next section of lines focuses solely on the reactions of the men, those that are burning everything around them. They have experienced darkness and want nothing more than to be rid of it. Instead of coming together to find a new way to live, they only want to return to the past.
By the light of the burning woods, the faces of the men are said to bar “an unearthly aspect” as the trees are felled and the flashes of light appear and are quickly extinguished. As this occurs some of the men lay down on the ground, hiding their eyes, and weep for their world. Other men turn towards, what one may assume is madness (or intense cynicism for what is happening), simply smile on into their “clenched hands.”
Then finally, the third kind, “hurried to and fro” attempting to build up the fires even as they are being extinguished. These “funeral piles” of burning trees and homes are failing and these men turn their eyes with “mad disquietude,” or agitation, to the sky.
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
The men, with their eyes, turned with burgeoning madness to the sky, see a “pall” of the past world, a small echo, a shadow of what was, then return their eyes to the dust.
It is clear that the people of this dark world are growing increasingly mad. This “pall” of the past world only made them angrier and they, “gnash’d their teeth and howl’d” like wild animals lost in the dark, frustrated by what has become of them.
Their howls terrify the “wild birds” and they “flutter” from the trees onto the ground.
Byron’s speaker now spends a number of lines describing the animals of the forest. They have become “tame and tremulous,” more nervous than fierce” and the “vipers crawl’d” and lay amongst all the other men and beasts, all are becoming one and equal. The vipers are said to hiss, but do not bite, they are “slain for food” by the men.
Quickly this illusion of equality is broken.
Lines 38- 45
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The moment of peace between men and animals, as they were united against the darkness, has ended. Once more War “Did glut himself…” After slaughtering the creatures around them, each man separated himself from the others. Alone, they “sate” themselves “in gloom” and there was “no love left” on the earth.
The thoughts of all those left on earth were turned towards one thing, the specter of death and how it was “immediate” and upon them. The men knew that their food sources have been depleted and that soon they too would die.
The famine, the speaker describes, “fed upon all entrails—men / Died…” This short line is a very poignant description of hunger pains, how they are eating away at the insides of these men and eventually kill them.
After the men have died, their bones are said to be “tombless.” Their bodies have shriveled and shrunk so much from their original state that their bones hardly have a place to rest within them. Additionally, their entire bodies are without tombs. There is no one left to bury them.
The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.
Once more the reader gets a small degree of equality in the darkness. The “meagre” in this world are eating the meagre. All are of the same state and equal in their desperation. Even those that are most loyal, dogs, “assail’d their masters” (49). They attacked and consumed them. Undeterred by past affection.
All the dogs, “save one” behaved in this manner. A single dog was “faithful to a corse” (or corpse). He guarded the body of his past master and kept all creatures away, birds, beasts, and men included. He stood guard until all of these creatures, desperate with hunger, sought out others that were “dropping dead.”
The one dog that did not turn on his human companion also did not seek out any food himself, but stayed by the body and let out a “piteous and perpetual moan.” This single remaining loyal dog represents the last vestige of good within this world. He is the only creature that has yet to turn on those he loved.
He lays by the body and licks “the hand / Which answer’d not with a caress” until he died. He refused to turn to the sin that came to easily to the rest of the world, he was not changed by the darkness.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
This section of the poem begins by referring to “the crowd.” With this phrase Byron’s speaker is alluding to the last traces of the human race. They were all, his speaker says, “…famish’d by degrees…” They did not all die at the same time, but slowly left the world as all source of nourishment did.
Of all the world, only two men survived and became enemies. This turn in the poem is reminiscent of the story of, and the feud between, Cain and Abel the first two sons of Adam and Eve.
These two men, “Of an enormous city” survived while all others did not. The speaker describes how they met next to the burning remains of “an altar-place” where a large number of “holy things” had been used for an unholy purpose (as kindling for another fire).
The men were desperate, as were all those that have since died, and they fell to their knees to gather up the “feeble ashes” that remained of this unholy fire. This act of seeking to find comfort in the burnt remains of religious, or at least holy, texts, objects, or structures, after having destroyed them fits into the narrative of this sinful world being reduced to darkness. God has tested these people and they have failed, only returning to religion when they are at their most desperate.
The men are able to create a small flame from the ashes and see one another for the first time in a little bit of light. They are horrified at the other’s appearance, or perhaps just having been confronted with another being in the same sad state, and they both die.
Lines 67- 74
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
The men were never to discover who the other truly was, or what made them enemies. The speaker describes how it was their “mutual hideousness” not solely on the outside, that made them die. This famine brought on by the darkness caused their feud and they were unable to overcome it.
The world was now without life, it “was void,” all the “populous and “the powerful” were degraded to “a lump.” The speaker has returned to the idea that a force in this world, whether God or another creator has reduced, with purpose, this world to nothing. The perpetrator of the darkness created it in an effort to reestablish some measure of equality in the world, and now the world is even.
There are no seasons, herbs, trees, men, or the life of any kind. The entire planet is described as “A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.” Nothing moves or stirs in the “…rivers, lakes and ocean…”
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.
Byron brings this poem to its conclusion by describing how the ships, unmoving in their bodies of water, were rotting. Their masts fell down and broke to pieces, but do not float away. They “slept on the abyss without a surge.” There were no more waves in the ocean, and the tides no longer went in or out as the moon has long since “expir’d.”
The clouds too were gone, the Darkness did not need their aid, “She” has become the whole universe.
As stated above, this piece serves as a warning against the growing inequality in Byron’s time and a prediction for what will happen to the planet if the human race does not change.
Byron has imagined an apocalypse that is matched only by the brutality of an Old Testament God. The references to religious symbols and events throughout this poem draw a direct connection to a religious and moral ending to the world.
About Lord Byron
Lord Byron was born in 1788 in
London. He gained his title at the age of ten and became, Baron Byron of Rochdale. As a child he was abandoned and shunned by his parents due to the club foot he was born with, something he would be consistently embarrassed of throughout his life.
He would go on to study at Aberdeen Grammar School and then Trinity College, Cambridge. It was during this time that he published his first volumes of poetry, Fugitive Pieces and Hours of Idleness. By the time that Byron was twenty years old, he was facing a massive amount of debt and a small amount of fame that was mainly contained to the aristocratic class.
Byron would become an influential member of the House of Lords, marry, and divorce on grounds ranging from incest to sodomy. In 1816, faced with a number of threats from different sides, Byron fled to Italy where he became increasingly ill while assisting in the Greek fight for independence.
Byron died in 1824 at the age of 36 while in the midst of writing Don Juan which is now considered one of the greatest long poems in the English language.