The Destruction of Sennacherib
"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 to the Biblical account of Sennacherib's attempted siege of Jerusalem. According to the story as related in 2 Kings, the Assyrian army came "against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them." When the Assyrians were besieging Jerusalem, Hezekiah prayed to YHWH in the Temple, and Isaiah sent the reply from YHWH to Hezekiah to the effect "I will defend this city, to save it, for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake" (2 Kings 19:34), and during the following night the Angel of YHWH (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה) "smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand" (i.e. 185,000), so by morning most of the Assyrian army was found to have died, mysteriously, in their sleep (2 Kings 19:35), and Sennacherib went back to Nineveh. The Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem is historical (dated 701 BC), but the Assyrian annals report that the result was the payment of tribute by Jerusalem, with Hezekiah remaining in office as a vassal ruler.
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 (TV series), the character Pam has the third stanza of the poem tattooed on her back alongside a score of her previous kills.
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.
The first sentence of Tom Clancy's novel The Sum of All Fears begins with "Like a wolf on the fold" proceeded by a description of events that happened in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
- For full text, see Englishhistory.net. Retrieved on 6 December 2008.
- Paul Fussell (1979), Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.
- Grabbe, Lester (2003). Like a Bird in a Cage: The Invasion of Sennacherib in 701 BCE. A&C Black, p. 314. Grayson, A.K. (1991). "Assyria: Sennacherib and Essarhaddon". In Boardman, John; Edwards, I. E. S. The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume III Part II. Cambridge University Press, p. 110.
- 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.
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