Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Destruction of Sennacherib by George Gordon Byron

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 the 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 forever 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 trumpets 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!
--George Gordon Byron

After my post yesterday extolling the virtues of metaphor and simile, I thought I'd provide the opposing view. My husband Peter thinks, frankly, that most poetry is a waste of time, and critical analysis of poetry (and probably analysis of most literature while we're on the subject) is a bunch of bunk that scholars make up in order to get paid and have people think they're smart. The following poem is one of the few that Peter has memorized.
Very Like a Whale

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of Assyrians.
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say, at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.
--Ogden Nash

I've noticed that nearly all of the poems that he has memorized are subversive in one way or another -- I'll post more of those next week.

At any rate, I personally like the use of simile and metaphor, and I think that Byron's poem sets the scene for us very well. I like Nash's poem because it's so obviously (to me anyway) tongue in cheek. Of course people don't think that he meant they actually looked or acted like actual wolves or think it would be nice to sleep under a blanket of snow, but there are times when a given metaphor is used so often it becomes cliche, or a poet uses so much figurative language that it becomes hard to figure out what he's talking about in the first place.


  1. I don't like Very Like a Whale because it espouses my views about poetry. I like it because it's funny and cleverly written and has some improbably long lines and rhymes. "Interpolate them" rhyming with "and purple ate them" is one of my favorites. I didn't even read the original Byron poem until years after I memorized the Nash poem. It's a fine poem (it's got rhymes and meter and stuff), but it's not very funny.

    I think what matters most about literature is how it speaks to you personally and what enjoyment you get out of it. If it touches you emotionally and keeps you turning the pages, engrossed, it is, for you, great literature. Or should I say "super great literature"?

    I have little patience for things that are literary for the sake of being literary. Give me plot and character development and a transparent writing style any day.

    My favorite books are those which touch my emotions strongly, especially if they make me cry (without being horribly unjust and unfair). And the easiest emotion to touch with a short piece is humor, so I tend to like humorous poems best. There are some exceptions, like A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, which manages to make me cry in a very short amount of time (and it has a plot and character development).

  2. Sam says that the reason why poets use simile and metaphor is so that men like Ogden Nash can get paid to critique it. (Sam is too humble to send his funny jokes out himself).

  3. "Very Like a Whale" is a very funny poem. I've never heard it before. Thanks!


  4. You might like to read what Douglas Hofstadter has written about metaphor and analogy. (In Le Ton Beau Du Marot, he applies it most directly to poetry. Fluid Analogies explores the connections to AI.) He thinks that metaphor is a key to how we reason as humans, and that it underlies a lot of our everyday language. To this way of thinking, the metaphor isn't what bothers you: it's that it is a poor metaphor, or an unsubtle one. The metaphor isn't to something you are familiar with, so you notice it more. There's also mixed metaphor going on in the poem: he keeps switching things around. Is the host green, or blue, or gold and purple? He changes the image every line.
    Not that I mind particularly. I like the poem, overall.

  5. What I wonder about is how those Assyrians in the picture expected to do any better against the Hebrews than against the angel of the Lord when they were none of them wearing any armor or even clothing. I'll bet you half of those strategically placed cloths weren't even in the original.