‘Thou Whose Spell Can Raise the Dead’ by Lord Byron is a four stanza poem that is greatly varied in its line length, and line numbers per stanza. The poet has chosen to disregard a consistent structure in favour of a more diverse feeling narrative. On the other hand, Byron has chosen to give the stanzas particular rhyme schemes. The first follows the pattern of abab, while the remains three follow a patter of aabbccdd…etc.
Before reading this piece it is important to know that “Saul” refers to Saul of Tarsus, a figure in the Hebrew bible, who was the first kind of Israel and Judah. His story is told in the First Book of Samuel.
You can read more about King Saul here.
Summary of Thou Whose Spell Can Raise the Dead
“Thou Whose Spell Can Raise the Dead” by Lord Byron told by the prophet Samuel, describes the fate of King Saul and his sons.
The poem begins with Saul asking that Samuel be brought forth and made to answer his questions about his future. This is done, and Samuel returns in a deteriorated and horrifying state. Saul is shocked into silence by this fact.
Samuel declares that Saul and his sons will soon join him in the afterlife. He has only one more day to live and then will become a part of the earth as Samuel is.
Analysis of Thou Whose Spell Can Raise the Dead
Thou whose spell can raise the dead,
Bid the prophet’s form appear.
‘Samuel, raise they buried head!
King, behold the phantom seer!’
The poem begins with a single speaker, King Saul himself. He is looking for answers about his future and he bids another to, make “the prophet’s form appear.” The “prophet” is a reference to Samuel, who tells the story of Saul in the Hebrew Bible, and who anoints Saul king of Israel and Judah. The speaker casts out his voice and asks that “Samuel” come forth and “raise thy buried head!” He is urging the prophet to return to the world of the living and speak once more.
Within the Bible, in one variation of Saul’s story, Samuel is referred to as the “seer.” The final line of this stanza is a clear reference to that fact. Samuel is being brought back from the land of the dead, to speak once more. He is now a “phantom seer,” who will declare a new prophecy for King Saul. He will come to speak on the destiny of Saul and his children.
Earth yawn’d; he stood the centre of a cloud
Light changed its hue, retiring from his shroud.
Death stood all glassy in his fixed eye:
His hand was wither’d, and his veins were dry;
His foot, in bony whiteness, glitter’d there,
Shrunken and sinewless, and ghastly bare;
From lips that moved not and unbreathing frame ,
Like cavern’d winds, the hollow accents came.
Saul saw, and fell to earth, as falls the oak,
At once, and blasted by the thunderstroke.
Once the general setting of this narrative is understood, the following actions are much simpler to understand. The spell that the speaker casts in an effort to bring Samuel back to the world of the living is working. The earth is opening up like a mouth. From the darkness comes Samuel. He is standing at the “centre of a cloud” with light flashing around his body. The whole atmosphere of the place has changed with his arrival.
The narrator describe the scene in full. When looking upon the returned prophet the narrator states that one can see “Death” in his “fixed eye.” Samuel has a determined look about him and is clearly back from the dead. Samuel’s body has not been returned to its original state. His hands are “wither’d” and his “veins” through which blood should be flowing, are “dry.”
Additionally, the narrator states that one “bony” white foot can be seen sticking out from under his robes. It is “Shrunken… sinewless” and is uncovered. He is not wearing any shoes, nor is he breathing. The prophet is not quite alive or dead.
Saul is there observing this scene and falls to the ground after seeing the prophet’s return. He is so shocked, he collapses like an “oak” that is felled in the forest. He is at once, after seeing this terrible sight, “blasted by the thunderstroke.” It is as if God himself has sent a bolt of thunder through the king’s body.
‘Why is my sleep disquieted?
Who is he that calls the dead?
Is it thou, O King? Behold,
Bloodless are these limbs, and cold:
Such are mine; and such shall be
Thin to-morrow, when with me:
Ere the coming day is done,
Such shalt though be, such thy son.
Fare thee well, but for a day,
Then we mix our mouldering clay.
Thou, thy race, lie pale and low,
Pierced by shafts of many a bow;
In the third stanza the speaker changes once more and Samuel begins to declare his new prophecy for the king. He first asks why he has been disturbed. Who is it, he wonders, who “disquieted” his sleep? Who, he asks, would “call the dead?”
The prophet turns and sees Saul quivering on the ground nearby, he directly asks him, “Is it thou?” Samuel knows this to be the case and does not wait for a response. He continues on to describe the state of his own body. He motions to his “limbs” and declares them “cold,” just as Saul’s will soon be. “To-morrow,” Saul will be existing in the same state that Samuel is.
Not only is this Saul’s fate, it is that of his three sons as well. They will all soon meet death and come to join Samuel. They will “Fare…well, but for a day,” then they will “mix” will the clay of the earth and “lie pale and low.” Saul’s whole family, or house, is soon to meet its end, “Pierced by shafts of many bow.”
And the falchion by thy side
To thy heart thy hand shall guide:
Crownless, breathless, headless fall,
Son and sire, the house of Saul!;
In the final four lines Samuel continues to speak and declares that Saul’s fate will be different from that of his children, he will take his own life. With a “falchion,” a reference to a type of one-handed sword, Saul will piece his own heart. He will the die, “Crownless, breathless, headless” and he and (almost) all his “sire” or sons, will meet their end.
Saul’s death in this piece lines up with his death in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Book of Samuel, Saul takes his own life to avoid capture in battle after his kingship is attested. Three of his sons were killed soon after.
About Lord Byron
Lord Byron was born in 1788 in Aberdeen, Scotland. 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 the 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 on of the greatest long poems in the English language
You can read more about Lord Byron here.