George Gordon Byron

A. The title of the poem is "The Destruction of Sennacherib". Sennacherib was the king of Assyria. What do you think will happen in the poem? Predict what words you may find in the poem, make a list of them.

B. Listen to the poem and read it. Explain in your own words what happened with Sennacherib's army.

The Destruction of Sennacherib

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 nostrils 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!

fold: a small fenced area in a field for keeping sheep
cohort: a large group of soldiers (in the ancient Roman army)
sheen: a shine on the surface of something
Galilee: The Sea of Galilee is a lake in north-east Israel
host: (old use) an army
hath: has
morrow: the next day, in the morning
strown: (strewn) scattered irregularly, lying over a surface
surf: the waves of the sea as they fall on the rocks or a beach producing white foam
mail: clothing made of small metal rings or pieces joined together, worn by soldiers in the past to protect their bodies
Ashur: The name was applied to the first capital of the Assyrian Empire, to Assyria itself, and to Assyria's chief god (a god of war).
Baal: a Semitic word meaning Lord, Master, or God. Worship of Baal was widespread in the ancient Near East. The title was given to the local gods of nearly every city. Later "Baal" got the meaning of "a false god", the enemy of the Hebrew God Yahweh. Later still, Christians considered Baal to be a name for a devil.
Gentile: someone who is not Jewish
unsmote: (from the verb smite): not hit
Lord: another name for God (used especially in prayers)

C. After reading the poem, can you answer the questions:

  1. Who was Sennacherib?
  2. When and where did the action of the poem take place?
  3. Who was the army going to attack?
  4. Why was the army destroyed?
  5. Why didn't the poet explain to the readers clearly what he was writing about?

D. Read the information about the historical events. Compare it with the poem and answer the questions above. Is the poem based on the Bible or on the Assyrian records?

As a result of wars held in the Near East in 744-705 BC. Hebrews had to pay annual tribute to Assyria. At that time the faiths of the Assyrians and the Hebrews were different. Assyrians worshiped many gods while the Hebrews believed in only one god.

When King Sennacherib of Assyria (705-681 BC) came to the throne the Hebrew King Hezekiah withheld tribute and organized a rebellion. Sennacherib sent a large army against him.

According to the Assyrian records, the army captured many large and small cities and besieged the capital city, Jerusalem. Sennacherib demanded a large tribute, which Hezekiah agreed to pay. Assyrian records do not mention any capture of Jerusalem or any large losses in the Assyrian army.

According to the Bible, Hezekiah paid a large tribute, but Sennacherib continued the war. He boasted that he would take over the city and the Hebrew God couldn't save Hezekiah. Hezekiah then prayed to God, who promised to defend Jerusalem. That night the angel of the Lord killed a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. Sennacherib's army was destroyed and he had to return home.

In Byron's time it was not necessary to explain to the readers who Sennacherib was, because Christian religion prevailed in Britain. The majority of people went to church and read the Bible, so the story was familiar to them.

E. Answer the questions:

  1. Find a simile in the first line of the poem. What does the line say about Sennacherib and about his enemy?
  2. In literary works, a king is sometimes compared to a lion. How is the image of a wolf different? What personal qualities of the king does it hint on?
  3. What additional meaning does the word "cohorts" have in comparison with the word "army"?
  4. What colours are mentioned in line 2? Look in the dictionary for different meanings of the word "purple". What does it mean here? What do the colours imply about the Assyrian army?
  5. Find a simile in line 3. What does this line say about the army?
  6. What is the Assyrian army compared to in the second stanza? What do summer and autumn symbolize?
  7. How does the Angel of Death destroy the army? How is his behaviour similar to autumn in the second stanza?
  8. Find examples of alliteration in the third stanza.
  9. In which stanzas do we view the scene from the distance? Where in the poem does the poet show a close-up view of the scene?
  10. Find a simile and a metaphor in the fourth stanza.
  11. Why do you think the poet depicts the horse and the rider in detail?
  12. How does the poet emphasize the fact that no one is alive in lines 3-4 of the fifth stanza?
  13. What are the consequences of the destruction of Sennacherib's army?
  14. Find a simile in the sixth stanza.
  15. Find examples of assonance and alliteration in the sixth stanza.
  16. What do the finishing lines of the poem tell us about the Lord (God)?
  17. What is the main idea of the poem?

F. Read the information about meter in poetry.

Poets use a small number of regular stress patterns, which they will repeat a certain number of times to make a line. Generally, these patterns come in units of two or three syllables. The most common of these are:

The iamb ( - ` ) (diDUM)
The trochee ( ` - ) (DUMdi)
The dactyl ( ` - - ) (DUMdidi)
The amphibrach (- ` - ) (diDUMdi)
The anapest ( - - ` ) (didiDUM)

Each one of these units is known as a foot, and this use of regular stress patterns is known as meter.
When we scan a line of poetry, we determine the kind of meter it contains and count the number of feet in a line. If there is only one foot in a line, it is called "monometer". Other words which indicate the length of lines are "dimeter" (two feet), "trimeter" (three feet), "tetrameter" (four feet), and "pentameter" (five feet). For example:

`Ty-ger! \ `Ty-ger! \ `Bur-ning \ `bright (trochaic tetrameter)

My `mis-\ tress’ `eyes \ are `no- \ thing `like \ the `sun (iambic pentameter)

Determine the meter in "The Destruction of Sennacherib". How many feet are there in a line?

G. Read the translation of the poem into Russian by A.K.Tolstoy and compare it with Byron's poem.


Ассирияне шли, как на стадо волки,
В багреце их и в злате сияли полки,
И без счета их копья сверкали окрест,
Как в волнах галилейских мерцание звезд.

Словно листья дубравные в летние дни,
Еще вечером так красовались они;
Словно листья дубравные в вихре зимы,
Их к рассвету лежали рассеяны тьмы.

Ангел смерти лишь на ветер крылья простер
И дохнул им в лицо - и померкнул их взор,
И на мутные очи пал сон без конца,
И лишь раз поднялись и остыли сердца.

Вот расширивший ноздри повергнутый конь,
И не пышет из них гордой силы огонь,
И как хладная влага на бреге морском,
Так предсмертная пена белеет на нем.

Вот и всадник лежит, распростертый во прах,
На броне его ржа и роса на власах;
Безответны шатры, у знамен ни раба,
И не свищет копье, и не трубит труба.

И Ассирии вдов слышен плач на весь мир,
И во храме Ваала низвержен кумир,
И народ, не сраженный мечом до конца,
Весь растаял, как снег, перед блеском Творца!

Перевод А.К.Толстого
1859 г.