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23 Nov 2014

Hidden In Plain Sight - The Destruction Of Sennacherib by George Gordon Byron, 1788 - 1824

 “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 forever were still.

“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 Byron

Byron’s poem is based on a brief biblical story about the defeat of the Assyrians by God’s Angel of Death.

At the start of the poem ‘Sennacherib’, ‘The Assyrian’ and his followers are preparing to launch an attack upon the Israelites. What kind of imagery does Byron use to describe the attackers and the attacked?

The destruction of the Assyrians is swift and devastating, and is captured in the second verse, with its two balanced couplets, where the green leaves of summer become withered in autumnal desolation. Notice how much of the imagery throughout the poem refers to nature and natural processes. Consider what details of the massacred Assyrian army Byron chooses to dwell upon.

The poem has a distinctive rhythm, which gives a sense of galloping horses. The technical term for this is ‘anapaestic tetrameter’, which means that Byron has used four feet per line with two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed syllable in each foot. Interestingly, it is a rhythm that is often used for light or comic verse.

About George Gordon Byron

George Gordon Byron was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Although he became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale in 1798 and attended several sessions in the House of Lords in 1809, he was much more interested in travelling, poetry and love affairs. He travelled extensively through Greece and Turkey, and captured some of his experiences abroad in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The first two parts, or cantos, were hugely popular and made Byron famous in his own lifetime. He is regarded as one of the five or six leading figures in the English Romantic movement.

Byron continued to travel throughout his life, spending a number of years in Italy, where he wrote much of his poetic masterpiece Don Juan. 
In 1823, he left Italy for Greece, where he planned to fight for Greek independence from the Turks, but he died of a fever in 1824, aged thirty‑six.

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