LORD BYRON – DARKNESS (1816)
1 I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
2 The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
3 Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
4 Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
5 Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
6 Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
7 And men forgot their passions in the dread
8 Of this their desolation; and all hearts
9 Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
10 And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
11 The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
12 The habitations of all things which dwell,
13 Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,
14 And men were gather'd round their blazing homes
15 To look once more into each other's face;
16 Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
17 Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
19 Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
20 They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
21 Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.
22 The brows of men by the despairing light
23 Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
24 The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
25 And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
26 Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil'd;
27 And others hurried to and fro, and fed
28 Their funeral piles with fuel, and look'd up
29 With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
30 The pall of a past world; and then again
31 With curses cast them down upon the dust,
32 And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd
33 And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
34 And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
35 Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
36 And twin'd themselves among the multitude,
37 Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.
38 And War, which for a moment was no more,
39 Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
40 With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
41 Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
42 All earth was but one thought--and that was death
43 Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
44 Of famine fed upon all entrails--men
45 Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
46 The meagre by the meagre were devour'd,
47 Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
48 And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
49 The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
50 Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
51 Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
52 But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
53 And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
54 Which answer'd not with a caress--he died.
55 The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
56 Of an enormous city did survive,
57 And they were enemies: they met beside
58 The dying embers of an altar-place
59 Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
60 For an unholy usage; they rak'd up,
61 And shivering scrap'd with their cold skeleton hands
62 The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
63 Blew for a little life, and made a flame
64 Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
65 Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
66 Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died--
67 Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
68 Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
69 Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
70 The populous and the powerful was a lump,
71 Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
73 The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
74 And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
75 Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
76 And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
77 They slept on the abyss without a surge--
78 The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
79 The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
80 The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
81 And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
82 Of aid from them--She was the Universe.
In this paper I am going to analyse the Lord Byron’s poem called “Darkness” (published in 1816) through different aspects as the subject, the meaning, the tone, the structure and form, the key images used, etc…
Then I will explain the historical context in which the poem was written and the place that this poem occupy in the overall work of Byron as well as the influence of the poem nowadays.
“Darkness” is a poem with different interpretations, it can be read as a mixture of an allegorical view of the end of times and a critic view about the degradation of humankind.
The poem starts as a picture of a dream, more like a nightmare, but with traces of truth:
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.” (1)
Here, Byron is mixing reality with the unreal visions of an illusion, like an introduction of what we are going to read, a dream with a real meaning about the corruption and degradation of humanity and its possible end.
The main ideas in this poem are the end of the world, the final destruction of everything highlighting the disappearance of light as it is said at the beginning of the poem:
“The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,”(2:3)
The idea of the men becoming beasts is thinly remarked by this idea of total destruction, everything is fading and disappearing as the humankind is being degraded and corrupted until becoming irrational beasts.
As we can see, this is a poem with an ambiguous meaning, the so called literal meaning – that about the overcoming of darkness and the end of times- and the subjacent one – the meaning about the self-destruction and corruption of men:
“The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies (…)
(…); then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died—“ (55:66)
Dealing with the tone I have to say that the poem if full of negative words, words of dead, words of darkness giving to the poem a tone of depression and desperation.
depressing tone can be caused because of the depression that Byron was
suffering through that time, he was abandoned by his wife after giving birth to
his legitimate daughter Augusta Ada, he was also
accused of incest with his sister and sodomy and the doubts about his sanity
provoked him a big depression. Then Byron abandoned
At first the poem has a calmly tone, produced by iambic pentameters:
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;” (1:5)
But when the poem is showing us more accurately the action that is taking place, the process from light to darkness, from live to death, the tone becomes faster from calm to rush “like a clock gone wild” (Mazurowski M., David - pg.7) (1) with blank verses using mid-line pauses which gives the sense of wildness, time without control, everything happening quickly without control, absolutely chaos:
“Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,” (50:51)
This is the pattern used throughout all the middle part of the poem, but at the end of the poem the structure of iambic pentameters and calm tome is used again, like “the calm after the storm; time runs down slowly to its final end.” (Mazurowski M., David - pg.7) (1) The time stopping slowly until the destruction is completed and the darkness is covering everything:
“The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.” (80:82)
Punctuation also plays a big role in this poem. The use of enjambment and punctuation reinforce the movement of time through the poem that is written in six full phrases –those ended with full stop. We can see a lot of verses without punctuation at the end making the reading faster from one verse to another. It is also important to say that the verses where the punctuation is used are those where the pass of time is slower, the beginning and the end.
Alliteration, on the other hand, is used to enhance the mood that Byron wishes to communicate, as the use of s in: “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” as a phonemic example of silence and growing death as we are approaching the end of the poem as well as the end of times.
Byron is not using complex metaphors or ideas which delay the development of the poem, we can see the men depicted as animals, irrational beasts driving themselves to the abysm of darkness:
“The meagre by the meagre were devour'd,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead” (46:50)
Even the nature is seen in the poem as something no natural, the vision of the sea and the wind completely calm, without any movement, practically dead, as well as the image of men howling desperately, birds shrieking terrified with “useless wings”, “the wildest brutes” coming “tame and tremulous” and the vipers “crawl'd / And twin'd themselves among the multitude, / Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.”
Another feature used in the poem by Lord Byron is that of the imagery, showing to the reader a description of the end of times almost like a movie occurring rapidly. This images are powerful and terrifying, “from light, movement and life to darkness, stillness and death” (Mazurowski M., David - pg. 5) (1) as the time is ending. This step from one opposite to another –as from life to death- we can also see it in the rhythm used in the poem itself: from swiftness to slow and in the inversion of man from rational creature to a beast.
We can see in the poem some key images, some about the destruction of the world by fire or flames:
“Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,
And men were gather'd round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.” (13:21)
Other image is the already said image of men as animals at the end part of the poem, as savage creatures. This fact is emphasized where Byron talks about the dog “faithful to a corpse” Keeping the birds, beasts and even famished men far from the body of his master. In other words, this dog is depicted as a creature more civilised than men and men are shown as “savage, fighting unheroically for survival” (Mazurowski M., David - pg. 4)(1).
There are features that can be seen as some kind of biblical language announcing the apocalypse (2) like that of the snakes and, at some verses, men are seen as devils:
“The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down” (22:24)
With this vision of men as devils, Byron “is communicating that fear: that God is not in nature or in us; that he is not at all; that ‘Darkness (or nature) had no need / of aid from them--She was the Universe’”(2).
In conclusion with the analysis, it is a poem with a depressing and catastrophic mood, full of imagery about the end of times, cities set on fire, humans as beasts, the transition from slow movement at the beginning, fast and chaotic in the middle to once again slow at the end, from life to death, from light to darkness.
This atmosphere of tragedy is influence by Byron’s own depression, his cynical view of the humanity because “he allows man no dignity at all in his final hours”. (Mazurowski M., David - pg.52) (1)
George Gordon Byron inherited the title of Lord when his uncle-grandfather died. The material inheritance was less more than debts, but the young George inherited from his father his love to the beauty, his gallantry and his tendency to the licentious life.
He had a strong personality and even his right foot deformation was seen as a mark of eccentricity and distinction.
His strong personality was also affected by his relation with his parents and his relation with women. He was in love with many women through his life and it was said at that time that George Byron was bisexual and committed incest with his stepsister Augusta, his mental sanity was questioned and even he was accused of sodomy.
In 1805, when George was only seventeen years old he began to write verses and that was also the year when he published his first poetry book called “Fugitive Pieces” with the help of his friend Elisabeth Pigot, but the reverend of the community forbade the sell of this volume and burnt it worried about its more amorous verses, in particular the poem ‘To Mary’”(3)
Two years later, in the Edinburgh Review, he
published his book “Hours of Idleness” and in 1809 wrote the satire called
“English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”. He was traveling around
However, in 1812 with the publication of the two
cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Lord Byron achieved the fame and wrote
other poems like “The Giaour”, “The Corsair”, “The
Bride of Abydos” and “Lara” establishing the so
called “Byronic hero”. Three years later he published “Hebrew Melodies” and get married with Anna Isabella Milbanke
who abandoned him in 1816 because of his adultery. This led Byron to a deep
depression adding the rumors about his insanity, his incest, etc… he had to left
1816 was the so called year without summer because of the eruption of the Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815 expulsing enough ashes to the atmosphere to block out the sun causing abnormal weather across mucho of northeast America and northern Europe (2) . That was a year with a extremely cold spring and summer, even in some places snowed in June, July or August. By this fact people started to suffer famine and they began to immigrate. Farmers had to abandon their farms, they also had to kill their animals to calm the hungriness. It is estimated that around 92.000 people were killed by the eruption and its consequences.(4)
A great psychosis was extended through the affected places, people started to see this events as signs announcing the biblical end of the world, that caused riots, mass suicides and hysteria. Romanticism claimed the connection between nature end God and some romantics of that time as Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “for a kind treatment of nature that is only cruel if treated cruelty”(2)
In “darkness” we can see some elements of this event such as the cities and forests set in fire, the people and animals dying by the famine and the disappearance of the sun.
During a long
period of this year Lord Byron was living in
The events occurred through that year with the eruption of the volcano, the famine, immigrations and deaths and his own depression caused because of the abandon of his wife and his daughter, his bad fame and his difficult personality influenced the poem with this cynical point of view of the humanity, a point of view that we can observe in the other poems that Byron wrote during this period.
One year later he
started some travels trough
“DARKNESS” NOWADAYS INFLUENCE
Nowadays we can look at “Darkness” as a kind of prophecy about what can happen if the humanity continues this way, with all of the wars, the contamination and the global warming or our behaviour in general.
I think this is like some kind of eternal poem that can be applied like a critical view of the society in whichever time. The past, the present or the future are times in which the humanity are taking the world to an end, the world is constantly ending by the humans actions.
In Byron’s time people thought that the apocalypse was very near, they saw evidences of the end everywhere, they were absolutely convinced about the irremediable coming of the end of times, and, almost two hundred years after, we are thinking the same.
(1) Mazurowski M., David. “Lord Byron’s Darkness: Analysis and
interpretation”. 1977: 1-52. National Technical Information
(2) "Darkness." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov 2007, 12:03 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 26 Nov 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Darkness&oldid=173461190>.
(3) "George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 26 Nov 2007, 21:06 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Nov 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=George_Gordon_Byron%2C_6th_Baron_Byron&oldid=173974488>.
- "Darkness." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov 2007, 12:03 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 26 Nov 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Darkness&oldid=173461190>.
- English History, “The life and work of Lord Byron”: <http://englishhistory.net/>. Path: The Life and Work of Lord Byron. 25 Nov. 2007
- Mazurowski M., David.
“Lord Byron’s Darkness: Analysis and interpretation”. 1977: 1-52. National Technical Information Service.
- Representative Poetry Online. RPO Editors, Department of English, and University of Toronto Press 1994-2007. University of Toronto Libraries. 25 Nov 2007. <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/display/index.cfm>