This month’s poem is a great favourite of mine and is by Lord Byron. I love its drama, vivid colours, and how its rhythms make you feel the beat of the horses’ hooves as they ride into battle. I find it moving in the way it depicts the wastefulness and horror of war, something so relevant in our world today with the ghastly war in Ukraine.
The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron
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!
The poem was published as part of Byron’s volume Hebrew Melodies in 1815. It is based on the biblical account of the siege led by the Assyrian King Sennacherib on Jerusalem in 701BC. According to this account, Hezekiah, King of Judah, prayed that Jerusalem might be saved. In response to his prayer, an Angel of the Lord smote 185,000 Assyrians in the night, and Sennacherib had to return to Nineveh.
Byron’s poem was hugely popular during the Victorian era. When the very first Australian cricket team to tour England (in 1878) defeated a strong MCC team at Lords, which included cricketer W.G. Grace, Punch magazine published the following parody:
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.
I’m not crazy about any of the youtube readings of the poem to be found online, but probably the best is this one read by Tom O’Bedlam:
Or listen to a musical version:
Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.
Susannah Fullerton: Lord Byron & Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
Susannah Fullerton: Lord Byron & She Walks in Beauty
Susannah Fullerton: Lord Byron & So We’ll Go No More a Roving
Susannah Fullerton: Happy Birthday Lord Byron
Susannah Fullerton: Lord Byron dissolves his marriage
Poetry Foundation: Lord Byron