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 deep Galilee.
—George (Noel) Gordon Byron
"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, Isaiah 36–37). The poem is based on the biblical account of the historical Assyrian besieging of Jerusalem in 701 BC. 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.
For clarification, YHWH here relates to God.
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 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;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.
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 popular culture
In the FX animated series Archer (2009 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.
In season two, episode eight of TV show Slasher (TV series), the character Wren recites the first and third stanzas while being arrested.
In Claire North's The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the last verse of the poem is used as a hypnotic trigger phrase for an outbreak of violence.
- 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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