The Destruction of Sennacherib is a short narrative poem retelling a Biblical story from the Old Testament (2 Kings, chapter 19) in which God destroys King Sennacherib’s Assyrian army as they attack the holy city of Jerusalem. It is probably as well-known for the way in which the poem is constructed as it is for its subject matter.
The speaker sets out events in chronological order. He seems impressed by the might and splendour of the Assyrian army when describing their appearance in the first six lines. However, halfway through the second stanza comes a turning point as he realises the Assyrians’ strength is short-lived. He then goes on to tell how the Angel of Death has passed through their camp wiping them out. Although the Assyrians may have been mighty, the speaker realises that the power of God is even mightier.
Death and war are key themes of 'The Destruction of Sennacherib'
A number of unifying ideas or themes run through the poem. Different readers may attach more or less significance to each of these themes, depending upon how they view the poem.
Death: war always brings death and destruction. The planned Assyrian attack is halted by the death of the soldiers and their horses.
‘And the widowsof Ashur are loud in their wail.’
The effects of death are ongoing. In the Assyrian capital Ashur, the wives of the soldiers mourn the loss of their husbands.
God’s power: God is shown to have the power to protect his chosen people at a specific time of need. His ongoing power is demonstrated through the references to nature.
‘And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,/ Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!’
The Assyrian’s aggressive might is nothing compared to God’s power. God merely has to ‘glance’ at the enemy to destroy them. ‘Melted like snow’ is used to highlight how easily this destruction is achieved.
Interpreting and analysing a poem is not necessarily a matter of finding the right answer.
Poems are complex creations and are open to many different interpretations. Your interpretation is as valid as anyone else's - as long as you can back it up with suitable evidence from the text.
Remember to avoid simply identifying what techniques or approaches poets use. Aim to show an understanding of how form, language and structure create meanings and effects.
Below are some differing interpretations of the poem. How would you interpret the poem?
Interpretation of the whole poem
Reason for interpretation
The reader may sympathise with the people of Jerusalem.
The attackers are compared to a wolf hunting its innocent prey and the ‘fold’ refers to an enclosure in which sheep would be kept.
The reader is meant to sympathise with the Assyrians.
So many Assyrians are killed that we are meant to be horrified by what has happened to them. We also learn about their grieving widows.
Interpretation of the lines: ‘And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;/ And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,’
Reason for interpretation
The Assyrian soldiers are described as powerful and strong.
This is emphasised by the bold colours of their uniforms and the sheer number of their weapons.
The Assyrian soldiers are not as strong and powerful as they appear.
The words ‘gleaming’ and ‘sheen’ hint that the Assyrian army is all about flashy showmanship and that they are not quite as powerful as they think they are.
Form, structure and language
The Destruction of Sennacherib is written in quatrains using a very distinctive rhythm. The effect is of a lively, vibrant poem but this is at odds with the tragic subject. This is where the power of the poem lies for many readers – the contradiction of the form and content can be seen as echoing the contrast between the might of a great army and the tragedy of war.
The poem has six stanzas. Each stanza consists of a pair of rhyming couplets in the regular repeated pattern aabb. This helps to drive the narrative forward in quite a simple format.
The rhythm of the poem is also straightforward and regular which makes it very easy to read, though not necessarily to understand. This particular rhythm is often used in comic and light verse, so the fact Byron chose it for a poem about war and death is striking. Some readers see the regular patterning of the rhythm as echoing the hoof beats of the horses which the soldiers would have been riding. The regular rhythm of the poem is further emphasised by the fact that each line is end stopped and that about half of the lines start with the word 'and'. The use of ‘and’ in this way serves to drive the story forward in the same way the mounted soldiers are charging.
The poem benefits from being read/heard aloud.
The Assyrian army are compared to elements of nature
Some of the vocabulary is deliberately archaic(eg 'strown', 'wax’d') and some of the word order also seems old-fashioned (eg 'their hearts but once heaved' rather than ‘their hearts heaved once’). This echoes the syntax found in the original Biblical story and thereby suggests a particular time and a place.
Much use is made of similes particularly in the early part of the poem (eg 'the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea'). In the descriptions of the Assyrian army (both alive and dead) they are compared to elements of nature such as forest leaves or the surf of the waves. This is highly-effective and suggests that while mankind can easily be destroyed, nature will endure.
Byron also makes good use of alliteration, for example:
'their hearts but once heaved' – the repetition of the ‘h’ sound slows our reading down for the moment as death occurs
You can discover a lot about a poem by comparing it to one by another author that deals with a similar subject. You could compare features such as theme, form, structure, rhythm, language and figures of speech.
The key thing to do when comparing poems is to note the points where they are similar and the points where they differ. You could make a list noting similarities and differences between the two poems.
Comparison of 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' by Lord Byron and 'What Were They Like?' by Denise Levertov
The two poems look at the effect war has on a particular nation and specifically at the aspect of loss.
The after-effects of war are seen as ongoing and affecting others, beyond those who were engaged in fighting.
Both poems were written at a time when war was dominating the news – Byron’s towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Levertov’s during the Vietnam War.
Both poets use similes which compare events to aspects of the natural world.
Byron uses a highly regular poetic form of four line stanzas. Levertov uses two blocks of free verse.
Byron’s speaker is an observer and recorder of events. Levertov uses two speakers (the questioner and the responder) to be more openly critical of what has occurred.
Byron’s tone is more neutral than Levertov’s. Levertov seems angrier about what has happened - probably because the events she is describing are recent, whereas Byron’s are from ancient history.
Try comparing The Destruction of Sennacherib to these other poems:
The Charge of The Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Exposure by Wilfred Owen
Explore the study guide for 'Exposure'.
The context in which a poem was written can sometimes tell you more about its themes, message and meaning.
Some questions you might ask include:
are aspects of the poet’s life reflected in the poem?
is the time or place in which it was written reflected in the poem?
You will need to research the poet’s background to discover answers to these questions. But if you do write about a poem and its context, be careful to include only details that reveal something about the poem.
Byron was one of the leading poets of a group known as the Romantics. Romanticism was a general artistic movement (literature, music, the visual arts, etc.) which dominated European culture from the last part of the 18th century until the mid-19th century. Romanticism had many key features, including:
an interest in the cultures and history of the Middle East and Far East
the importance of liberty and freedom
a fascination with mystical and supernatural events
All of these are features of Byron’s poem.
The poem was originally published as part of a collection called Hebrew Melodies in April 1815. This was a time when the subject of war was of great concern throughout Europe. The wars against Napoleon had been going on for sixteen years and were quickly reaching a climax. The Battle of Waterloo, which ended the war, took place just two months after the poem’s publication. Just like Sennacherib and the Assyrians in the poem, Napoleon and the French had carved out a huge empire and nothing seemed capable of stopping them. It is estimated that the war resulted in approximately 3.5-5 million casualties. It must have seemed to Byron’s original readers that only a miracle could stop the destruction.
More about commenting on context.
Writing a response
When writing an essay about your interpretation of, or response to, a poem, you should consider the points below.
Write a plan first, noting what you'll include in each paragraph.
Begin with a brief overview of the poem.
Go on to mention themes, form, structure, rhythm and language.
Mention a range of views or perspectives.
Compare the poem to another one.
Mention any relevant details about the context of the poem.
Conclude with a firm judgement about the poem.
Support all you say with details or quotes from the poem.
A good approach to begin with is to highlight any key words which stand out for you. Make sure you use these key words in your essay.