Analysis of Lord Byron's Destruction of Sennacherib

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The Destruction of Sennacherib

Before analyzing the poem itself and doing a comparative study with other poems of this particular genre it is important to discuss in brief, the background of England and the Romantics views regarding them which influenced their writings in many ways.

It is noteworthy that the Late Romantic poets including Byron were barely beyond adolescence when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo therefore they had read and heard about the idealism that motivated the French Revolution but suffered little from the terror and upheaval that followed it. Neither had they experienced the disillusionment and resurgence of patriotism of the early Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Although England emerged as a victor in the Napoleonic Wars, it had suffered as much as the nation it vanquished. The age old British tradition of civil liberties was in grave danger. The expanded war time economy was threatened by severe financial and agricultural crises. Guardians of the status quo became increasingly determined to suppress any evidence of dissent or resistance which might lead to revolutionary activity.

However, while for Byron liberty and freedom were “an ideal, a driving power, a summons to make the best of certain possibilities in himself”, for the earlier Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge it wasn’t something that personal, who after their first enthusiasm for the French Revolution “surrendered to caution and skepticism”. The late Romantic poets especially Byron and Shelley ceased to remain suppressed over such matters. They insisted on justice for all men and, for themselves, almost unlimited freedom of thought and expression. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is Byron’s living example of the subject. Although Byron differed from his fellow Romantics his allusion to ancient history as represented in this poem builds an association with his contemporaries over the Romantic obsession with the ancient past. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is written in quatrains or four-line stanzas that are very tightly constructed. They not only rhyme aabb, but the rhyming couplets also form grammatical units, so that each quatrain is made of two equal phrases. This doubleness is important to the poem’s content because Byron demonstrates several motifs of duality — life/death, summer/fall, sheen/rust — to his readers, even in his poetic structure. Furthermore Byron uses alliteration creating a musical quality, “And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,” suggesting a peaceful and serene atmosphere in contrast to the destruction that is to follow. The tone of the poem changes in stanza 2 and the parallel similes in that stanza provide the transition from one tone to the next. Similes uses by Byron help picture the overall scene while using similes based on natural processes — summer turning to fall, snow melting, armor rusting — to suggest the transitory nature of all life. Moreover repetition of the word “And” creates a predominant rhythm in the poem while at same time giving the poem a dramatic intensity. A brilliant short narrative poem, “The destruction of Sennacherib” envisions a battle scene from the Old Testament that records in one sentence the defeat of the Assyrians by God’s Angel of Death. The poem begins with a powerful image of King Sennacherib anchoring down on the battlefield almost like god himself as if nothing could counter or averse the destruction that this invading army threatens. There is almost this feeling of arrogance, and ruthlessness in the initial image of his coming down “like a wolf on the fold,” almost as a tyrant in the image of a predator as much as there is the heroic aspect conveyed through the description of his cohorts “gleaming in purple and gold.” Byron thus brings out two points of view each paradoxical in to each other and it is difficult to say whether Byron has depicted him as a hero keeping in mind the Romantics preoccupation with the fallen heroes or...
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