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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 an anti hero to convey the mightiness of God. Keeping in mind the heroic aspect one may refer to Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in which Coleridge in a similar manner describes the majestic awe of the “stately pleasure dome” created by Kubla Khan and feels that he cannot create such majestic art himself and for him he represents a hero.

    However, in Byron’s poem the heroic aspect is distant just as we don’t find Byron turning inward, or looking into himself in this poem. But Byron is alive in the rhythm of the poem in the energetic beats which were part of his personality. Byron shared with Coleridge the fascination with the remote in time and place the mystery inhabiting such distant places. However the difference lies in the realism that Byron conveys, a clear picture of annihilation after war, of limitation of man gainst the will of God; against the imaginative exalted experience of human nature that surfaces something beyond ordinary human experience, something that has to do with the mind and its abstractions rather than objective face off reality as depicted by Byron. In general, Byron’s lines are energetic and heroic rather than sensitive or prophetic and he uses imagination only to recreate historical events like he does in this poem.

    However, Byron’s realistic account tends to evoke emotion through an accumulation of images such as that of the horse with his nostrils wide open but breathless with a mouth twisted and the foam coming from his mouth askew, “white on the turf”. The color white represents purity and divinity and the sufferings of the horse are heightened because of it. In the third stanza we notice that King Sennacherib dies and the rest of the poem merely pictures the effects of war and what death after conquering man leaves behind.

    Byron’s technique in lines 11-20 resembles the “panning” technique of the motion picture cameraman. Through this technique Byron depicts the catastrophe of war and how Nature as represented by the horse suffers for man’s cruelty. While some critics equate the horse’s death with Sennacherib’s stating that he intended for the horse to be a symbol of the king’s crushed power. While Byron’s poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” differs from Kubla Khan thematically, in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” a similar thematic structure in conveyed. Ozymandias,” depicts the shattered, ruined statue in the desert wasteland, with its arrogant, passionate face and monomaniacal inscription (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! “). The once-great king’s proud boast has been ironically disproved; Ozymandias’s works have crumbled and disappeared, his civilization is gone, all has been turned to dust by the impersonal, indiscriminate, destructive power of history. Similar to that of King Sennacherib a once mighty King now defeated to the pits.

    Like Byron, Shelley was also concerned with the real world being a fierce denouncer of political power and a passionate advocate for liberty. Like Byron he condemns the arrogance of power and advocates the possibility of freedom and liberty won through revolution. Shelley and Byron both had similar beliefs regarding art stating it to be sole medium that remains immortal through the flux of time and adequately discuss the themes of death, transient nature of time reflected in his mentioning on the change in seasons from summer to autumn and the triviality of mortals in time .

    However, Byron almost rejoices for the triumph of truth over pagan Assyrians and acknowledges mightiness of God, “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,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias” more relatively pronounces the insignificance of human beings to the passage of time, offering despair almost personal that he himself or his art would eventually be lost in nothingness, “Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. However, both poems evoke emotion in their own level while enkindling a revolutionary spirit , use simple language with avid images and use imagination to create a historical setting by which their ideals come forth while the earlier romantics employed it for sensuous pleasure.. Similarly, we see in Blake’s poem “The Tyger” almost a revolutionary aspect of questioning perhaps the political system, a rebellion of the social practices in the image of the predator; the tiger like Byron’s image of the wolf.

    However, with Blake it goes further into a rebellion of God and the religion while Byron remains firm on his religious ideals. Stylistically “The Tyger” is similar to The Destruction of Sennacherib with its powerful language and, the energetic beat and simple aabb rhyme scheme. While Blake has a symbolic meaning attached to it, Byron’s poem as claimed by critics is intended for the sensations i. e. how it feels and sounds. This aligns Byron with Keats and his reliance on the five senses.

    To conclude, despite similarities between the Romantics especially between Shelley and Byron their differences are greater. Each was a unique individual and interpreted what they saw in their own manner, Byron in his aristocratic libertarianism, Shelley in his democratic idealism and Wordsworth keeping London 1802 in mind as a stark criticizer of the flaws in the English fabric. The apocalyptic vision is shared by all romantics however Byron revolutionism paved the way for many 19 Century poets, such as “The charge of the light Brigade” by Tennyson.

    Death in Byron’s poem is more than the simple cessation of life. Sennacherib’s demise is called a “destruction,” a word chosen by Byron to underscore the complete dissolution of the king’s power against God. Even though “The Destruction of Sennacherib” depicts the tragedy of war, Byron himself, along with many other Romantic artists, felt that fighting and dying on the battlefield was a noble endeavor. Above all, the poem projects Byron’s passion for liberty and freedom that was so invested in his personality, foreshadowing his heroic death in Greece.

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