The Destruction of Sennacherib
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"The Destruction of Sennacherib" is a poem by Lord Byron first published in 1815 in his Hebrew Melodies. It is based on an event from the campaign by Assyrian king Sennacherib to capture Jerusalem, as described in the Bible (2 Kings 18–19). The rhythm of the poem has a feel of the beat of a galloping horse's hooves (an anapestic tetrameter) as the Assyrian rides into battle.
The poem relates the Biblical version of Sennacherib's attempted siege of Jerusalem, and takes place in one night. At sunset the huge Assyrian army was bearing down upon the unnamed Jerusalem "like the wolf on the fold". Overnight, the Angel of Death "breathed on the face of the foe", and by morning most of the Assyrian army had died, mysteriously, in their sleep. The poem describes the dead soldiers and their horses, and then touches, briefly, on the grief of the Assyrian widows before concluding that, "The might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword, Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord."
The poem is faithful to the Biblical account, which claims that 185,000 Assyrians died; however, the Assyrian chronicles, giving Sennacherib's own version of the events, describe the campaign as a success, claiming that Jerusalem surrendered and offered tribute. The Chronicles do not mention any significant loss of Assyrian life. What really occurred is still a fiercely debated topic among historians.
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 popular in Victorian England and, when the first Australian cricket team to tour England defeated a strong MCC team, including W G Grace, at Lord's on 27 May 1878, the satirical magazine Punch celebrated by publishing a parody of the poem including a wry commentary on Grace's contribution:
The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;And Grace after dinner did not get a run.
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
Mark Twain has references to this poem throughout his works, from his early newspaper sketches to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it is mentioned often in biographies of him, making it clear that it was important to him.
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?
In the FX animated series Archer, the character Pam has the third stanza of the poem tattooed on her back.
Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld novels, makes several references to the poem's well-known opening two lines: "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold / And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold"; much of the humour springing from a misunderstanding of 'cohorts' to mean part of a suit of armour. Characters in the novels occasionally buy Armour Polish advertised "For Gleaming Cohorts".
In Paul Marlowe's Knights of the Sea, the werewolf character, Paisley, comes down for breakfast famished, thinking: "The young Paisley came down like the wolf on the fold / And the pastries were gleaming in purple and gold."
In one of the Molesworth books, by Geoffrey Willans, there is a cartoon illustrated by Ronald Searle, in which a master remonstrates with a pupil" 'The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold', Mogley-Howard One."
In episode two of the second season of TV show Magic City antagonist Ben Diamond recites the third verse of the poem "For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast..." as an expression of his own anguish and anger.
- For full text, see Englishhistory.net. Retrieved on 6 December 2008.
- Altham, p.135.
- twainquotes.com. Retrieved on 6 December 2008.
- John Frederick Nims (1981). The Harper Anthology of Poetry. Harper & Row. p. 611. ISBN 978-0-06-044847-9. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- Altham, H S (1962). A History of Cricket, Volume 1 (to 1914). George Allen & Unwin.