The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron

The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron is a narrative poem that retells the story of how God destroys King Sennacherib’s Assyrian army as they attack the city of Jerusalem. This is found in the Old Testement, though it is an episode that is probably unfamiliar to quite a few people.In the Bible, Sennacherib attempted to siege Jerusalem; when his soldiers came upon ‘all the fenced cities of Judah’, they took them, and so Hezekiah, the King of Judah, prayed to God, and received the reply – through the prophet Isaiah – that he would ‘defeind this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David’s sake’. In the night, an avenging angel visits Sennachrib’s camp, and destroys his army, pushing Sennacherib to return to Nineveh.

It is worth pointing out that the siege of Jerusalem is historically known to have happened somewhere around 701BC, though the result was that Jerusalem paid tribute to Sennacherib, and Hezekiah was thus allowed to remain as vassal of the country.

The poem takes its events chronologically – it starts with the Assyrians besieging Jerusalem, and moves on to Angel visiting the camp, quietly killing everything that it came into contact with; here, Byron does take his liberties, pulling forth gratuitous and wondrous imagery of the siege and the murder of the Assyrian army.

 

King Sennacherib

Sennacherib was the king of Assyria from 107 BCE to 681 BCE, who was primarily remembered for his campaigns against Babylon and Judah, and for his assassination, in 681 BCE, by his own son. At the time, Babylonians refused to accept Assyrian rule, which led Sennacherib to attack and demolish the city, an event recorded in the Bible’s Book of Kings. This was, however, not the only time that Sennacherib was noted, as most of the Book of Kings is about his campaigns against Syria, Anatolia, and the Arabs of the northern Arabian deserts.

That being said, Assyrian art is considered to have peaked during his rule, with such buildings such as Nineveh, a would-be prototype for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or for the ‘palace without a rival’, which comprised of at least 80 rooms practically dominated by sculpture, built out of limestone blocks and mud brick, the doors of which were flanked by huge figures.

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 14 And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents[b] of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house. 16 At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria. 17 And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 18 And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. – 2 Kings, 18:13.

With Sennacherib being a figure of such alternate personalities, it is easy to see why Lord Byron has chosen to immortalize him in a poem; Byron himself is a man noted for his contradictions, being both a gentleman with a ferocious temper, as well as a gifted poet, who had both fought in wars as well as written about them. One can assume that Byron saw a lot of himself in Sennacherib, and though the episode he has chosen to immortalize may be considered one of the darkest periods of Sennacherib’s life, it is still nonetheless an homage to the man himself, a standing ovation to a brutal warrior who lived a tumultuous life.

 

The Destruction of Sennacherib Analysis

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.

There is such beauty in the elegance of Byron’s words, and his extremely careful use of colour works within the balance of the poem to create a very delicate image; in other works of his, Byron attempts to drown the reader in detailed references, in repeated murmurings of bits and pieces of history, but the opening stanza of The Destruction of Sennacherib is wonderfully simplistic. There is, despite the simplicity of it, a certain ferocity that is evoked in the phrase ‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold’, which is certain to refer to Sennacherib, and works to evoke the image of his ferocity, his single-minded pursuit of Jerusalem, his grace and deadly power – the image of the ‘wolf on the fold’ serves to give the reader a half-view into a different world, a wild and dangerous world where the wolf is at the door almost constantly.

Notice, as well, the brightness of the colours that Byron used – at the time, purple and gold was a definitively royal combination, and so Byron is almost unabashed in his description of Sennacherib, in outfitting him as a modern king should be outfitted (it is unclear whether Sennacherib would have worn the colours that Byron had put him in, but as Byron is writing years afterwards, it is amusing to note that he has dressed him in the style of modern royalty; one can be very amused at Byron’s insistence of Sennacherib’s royal nature).

The references to the points of the spears as ‘stars on the sea’ further emphasizes Sennacherib’s power; he is so unwittingly strong that he seems to encompass the universe, and his soldiers look like nothing more than marauding stars, gleaming larger than life in the darkness. They are a constant, as we can tell when we read the next line – ‘when the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee’; the Assyrian soldiers have therefore been waiting for quite some time outside the city of Jerusalem, and one can assume that this is quite late into the siege.

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.

One has to understand that the Romantics were very much a natural sort of people; although it was Wordsworth who had the leanings of nature Romanticism, part of the very element of the style was that it was a return to the natural world. It was a movement away from the manmade machinery and the chaos of then-modern living to an unsullied stretch of paradise, which was considered to be nature (even though one could argue that very few Romantics saw nature as unsullied, and were therefore even more critical of mankind and their development of precious lands). In this paragraph, Byron returns to those tenets of Romanticism by comparing the invading Assyrian army to leaves in summer – plentiful, vibrant with life, very much aware of their presence in the world – and then, in the next stanza, carrying on from the imagery in the previous stanza, refers to them as ‘leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown’; it is amazing how much this simple turn of phrase creates an image in the mind of the reader. From there, he writes: ‘The host on the morrow lay withered and strown’ – and it brings up such a mental picture of the broken-in bodies of the soldiers, lying scattered all along the ground, smote where they stood by God’s avenging angel (who, depending on the Bible, can take the name ‘angelos Kyriou’ or ‘mal’akh ‘Elohim’).

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!

In the third stanza, the Angel of Death makes his appearance – one can see how Byron took the imagery to his own liberties, but there is something particularly beautiful about how he describes the angel of death here. He isn’t violent, he isn’t angry – he appears, and moves slowly through the soldiers, breathing in their faces, and that is all he needs to do. It helps the reader to understand just how strong the will of God is, just how terrifying and alien and deadly the idea of God’s angels are – and it is worth noting that, in the Bible, particularly the Old Testement, angels were considered terrifying. They were considered otherworldly, beings that looked utterly inhuman and horrifying to the masses, and thus it was not surprising that the first word they spoke to people, in several instances, tended to be ‘be not afraid’ or a variation of this.

Death is a gradual process – ‘and the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill’ – but an instant one. It is not terribly long, it does not hurt. One minute, they are alive, they breathe, they exist. By the next, they are dead, growing cold and chilly on the ground.

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.

Here, Byron goes further into the explanation of the dead soldiers – ‘and there lay the steed with his nostril all wide’, he writes, and somehow the image of the horse brought low is far more animated than the death of the soldiers. As Byron describes it, there is an element of fighting to the way the horse died – note the words ‘the foam of his gasping’, something that occurs when a horse is particularly scared or worried; note the reference to the ‘rock-beating surf’, an expression which calls back the wildness of the waves, forever stilled now, in terms of the horse. It is almost as though the horse has understood something far more than the soldiers did, knew that it was dying in a way that the soldiers did not.

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.

Compared it, then, to the peacefulness of the death of the rider – all we are given a view of is how he lay ‘distorted and pale’, how there was ‘dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail’; how ‘the tents were all silent, the banners alone’. There is such stillness, as compared to the wild death of the horse; there is such silence when in the previous stanza there was very little. None of the soldiers fought back. None of the soldiers knew what had happened to them. Death was a sudden driving process, taking them at unawares and breaking their army to pieces in a single night.

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.

However, in the final stanza, that activity returns – but not from the dead army of Sennacherib, but from others, their wives and mothers, their family; ‘the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail’, writes Byron, ‘the idols are broke in the temple of Baal’, showing that whatever happened to the army of Sennacherib is almost a perversity.

 

Historical Background

The Destruction of Sennacherib was published in 1815 was reputedly very popular in Victorian England, so much so that it was satirized in 1878 when the first Australian cricket team defeated the English at crick in Punch magazine, which ran as follows:

The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.

There have been myriad other references to this poem, including ones by Mark Twain, Ogden Nash, Tom Clancy and Terry Pratchett.

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2 Comments

  1. maria preston March 6, 2019
    • mm Lee-James Bovey March 11, 2019

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