1 March 2023 Susannah

Lord Byron & The Destruction of Sennacherib

The Defeat of Sennacherib by Peter Paul Rubens,

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.

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Featured image- The Defeat of Sennacherib, 1616-18, by Peter Paul Rubens, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158570

Comments (8)

  1. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful poem depicting, as it does, the horror and pity of war. A poem for our time, as you say. And thank you for another wonderful newsletter with much to comment on. Like you, I’m gutted by the news that the last Ruth Galloway novel has been published. You introduced me to these novels (I heard you speak of them at an SWW meeting) and I’ve loved reading them. Hopefully Elly Griffiths will receive enough complaints to relent and write another! And speaking of complaints I find the rise and rise of ‘sensitivity readers’ frightening. How many excellent mss will never be published because some s.r. needs to earn his/her pay by finding fault with something? And finally, I share your thoughts on the ghastly Mary Wollstonecraft statue. What were the city elders thinking?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for all your lovely comments, Felicity. I remember giving that talk at the Soc of Women Writers and am so glad you took up my sugggestions and read Elly Griffiths. Isn’t it sad the fabulous series has come to an end.
      Like you, I find the idea of ‘sensitivity readers’ very scary – where will it lead next? It’s a form of Orwell’s Big Brother.
      So glad you loved the poem – one of my favourites.

  2. Miland Joshi

    I’ve always liked the first verse and tried to memorise it, but have to do it again each time I come across it.

  3. Dana Vale

    Always a favourite, love the cricket little rhyme, my father and grandfather played for Leicestershire.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m not a huge cricket fan, but I did like the parody of Byron’s lines.

  4. Marie McMillan

    Love your choice of poem of the month, some stanzas of which I used to recite. Could hear the thunderous hooves in the timpani of the lines and, as I imagine, Australian bowlers’ boots as they thundered up the pitch at Lords – where my uncle used to watch the cricket.

    (My grand uncle captained or played for The Gentlemen of Ireland Cricket team.)

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I hadn’t known about the cricket version until I researched on-line.
      It is a wonderful poem, isn’t it!

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