Lord Byron – a Visionary of Darkness

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:
18 A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
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 sat 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–
72 A lump of death-a chaos of hard clay.
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.

Words by Darren Tynan

George Gordon Byron, popularly known as Lord Byron, was an immensely influential key figure among the poets who brought the movement of Romanticism into fruition; a period spanning from the mid-1780s to the mid-1820s. With its genesis in Europe, Romanticism gained strength as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. It was during this period, in 1816, that Lord Byron wrote this poem, one of the most renowned pieces of work in his highly regarded repertoire of poetry.
In order to contextualise the poem for the purpose of this essay, it should be acknowledged that Darkness was written during an historically ground-breaking and extraordinarily significant time period; a time in which the course of the Industrial Revolution was evolving. This period brought a number of drastic societal changes and newly founded capitalist ideals, changes that were forming and spreading across Europe at a rapid rate.

For the Romantics, these changes were potentially devastating, and the increasingly mechanised world was seen to be not only posing a disastrous threat to the importance of the natural world and the spiritual interconnectedness between humanity and nature, but was also tainting, dehumanising and corrupting humanity in unprecedented and horrific forms. Lord Byron’s Darkness, from this perspective, can be interpreted as a poignant and bleak premonition for the future of humanity.
It can be read as an allegorical depiction of an inevitable apocalypse, or as an end of times characterised by the degradation of the values, priorities and morals of a humanity disfigured from the implications and influences of Industrialisation.

In a structural sense, Darkness is largely characterised by the use of an iambic pattern, and Byron has employed this pattern for a vast majority of the lines throughout the poem. The use of iambic pattern contributes to creating a rhythmical progression throughout the piece. As the work spans an extensive 82 lines, this syllabic meter allows the poem to flow as a unified whole, and provides rhythmic reinforcement to cater for its often stagnant and persistently macabre subject matter.
It is interesting to examine the first three lines in Darkness, as they set the tone for the entire text: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space.” (Byron, 2005, lines 1-3). It is the first line: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream” (Byron, 2005, line 1), which is particularly interesting to examine. Here, Byron is juxtaposing the illusory aspects of dreaming with a recognition based on fact. In this sense, a certain and tangible reality has been infused with an apocalyptic prophecy. This is an exceptionally clever technique, as the line acts as a thought provoking and effective precursor for the predominantly macabre and dramatic subject matter of the poem. It subtly suggests that although the apocalyptic vision portrayed by Byron is characterised by highly imaginative and dream-like qualities, it also poses as a frighteningly accurate and valid depiction for the future of humanity.

The language following this first statement, instantly establishes a sense of catastrophic disaster and apocalypse. Part of the second line: “The bright sun was extinguished” (Byron, 2005, line 2), acts as a deviously simply poetic device; a device that establishes potent imagery, and suggests obviously – yet perhaps eponymously, that the absence of light results in darkness; a word here which can be interpreted for its literal value, or for its eponymous figurative and metaphorical merit. As Abrams asserts: “Imagery is used to signify all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, by allusion, or in the vehicles of its similes and metaphors” (Abrams & Harpham, 2012, p. 169). The simplicity of the title: ‘Darkness’, is important to admire here; one word, one noun; in this case, a noun serving as a brief, yet effective metaphor, a metaphor signifying the end of times, as portrayed by Byron. We can see this as one of the various aspects of figurative language in Darkness, and how Byron utilises imagery to create a fruitful ground for poetic analysis, consequently creating a diverse network of meaning potential within the text.

It is interesting to note that the past tense verb: ‘was’, is used in the second line, as means to portray the sun being extinguished in the dream. As for the word’s most obvious and one dimensional purpose, it is acknowledgeable that ‘was’ is a fitting verb to describe such an occurrence. Yet, if this is examined further, it is also important to note; because of the duality of meaning and the ambivalence of the first line, when Byron states: “which was not all a dream”, (Byron, 2005, line 1), this ambiguity leads the reader to question whether this ‘bright sun’, has in fact, already been extinguished to some degree, in a metaphorical sense. The extinguished sun described in the line, coinciding with Byron’s suggested perception of this as a tangible reality and a past occurrence, together, could be interpreted as a metaphor for the ‘darkness’ of Industrialisation triumphing over the symbolic ‘sun’ of humanity. The dichotomies of light and dark, of good and bad are evident; the Romantic ideals characterised by the luminescence of an attachment to nature; a luminescence of liberation and freedom of individuality; all of this bright light devoured. “The meagre by the meagre were devoured” (Byron, 2005, line 46) seems an appropriate and befitting description to summarise this idea, as Byron portrays a deficiency of Romantic ideals; ideals devoured by ghastly corruption and warfare, engulfed by the foreboding ideals of capitalist slavery and all metaphoric forms of ‘darkness’ sweeping across Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

It should be noted that the imagery established in the first three lines is exceptionally bleak and gloomy, and this is perpetuated throughout the poem. The verb ‘extinguished’, in the second line, acts as an effective operative in the text, and is particularly striking in contrast to the grandeur and everlastingness associated with the stars. Again, the word ‘extinguished’ is repeated in the lines: “Forests were set on fire, but hour by hour they fell and faded, and the crackling trunks extinguished with a crash, and all was black”. (Byron, 2005, Lines 19-21). Repetition plays a key part in the poem, and Byron utilises an abundance of ‘dead’ words, words associated with negative connotations, such as ‘death’, ‘terror’, ‘gloom’, ‘darkling’ and in this context; the aforementioned word ‘extinguished’. The poet uses this word in the second line, and again here, creating juxtaposition between a symbolic expression and a literal expression. Byron describes blackened forests, and cracking tree trunks, which can be interpreted in a literal sense, but he also alludes to symbolism; the destructive forces of man (sic) against nature, the disharmonious relationship with nature and humanity, and the trail of self-aggravated destruction between people and their habitat.

And others hurried to and fro, and fed their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up with mad disquietude on the dull sky, The pall of a past world; and then again with curses cast them down upon the dust, And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d, and, terrified, did flutter on the ground, and flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes (Byron, 2005, lines 27 – 34)

We can see here how Byron has described men (sic) as fuelling their own ‘funeral piles’, a notion that humanity is self-destructing and bringing about their own horrific death.
The sky is described as ‘dull’, and this immediately establishes a bleak atmosphere, and abolishes any realistic sense of hope as man looks upward to the sky with ‘mad disquietude’ (Byron, 2005, line 28). This aforementioned bleak atmosphere is also reminiscent of the line: “A fearful hope was all the World contained” (Byron, 2005, line 18), and this kind of imagery establishes, develops and creates a tone of fear, dread and bleakness to foster an overall atmosphere for the poem.
Personification has been used as a specific technique to carry the poetic vision of Darkness. The use of personification is coinciding with this type of imagery, and contributes to this bleak portrait Byron has painted. An example of this is when Byron describes men with beastly and savage characteristics in part of the line: “And gnashed their teeth and howl’d” (Byron, 2005, line 32). This is read in juxtaposition with the following: “The wild birds shriek’d, and, terrified, did flutter on the ground, and flap their useless wings” (Byron, 2005, lines 32-34). Here, Byron is allocating emotional characteristics to the birds, in this case the ability to ’shriek’ and perceive terror. The use of personification in Darkness is striking and effective, in such a way that it establishes an emotive interaction between the reader and nature, and portrays this bleakness of humanity’s future, coinciding with the terror ‘felt’ by the birds.

The tone of futility and despair is carried through in the aforementioned lines of personification, as the birds “flap their useless wings”. (Byron, 2005, line 34). This line becomes a symbolic operative within the text, to describe the condition of humanity as portrayed by Byron, and connects a sense of empathy between the reader and nature, and subsequently; between the reader and the bleak nature of the human condition, as portrayed by the poet. The line: “The birds and beasts and famished men at bay” (Byron, 2005, line 49), suggests an amalgamation of nature and humanity perishing together, with the word ‘famished’ creating macabre and skeletal imagery, and alluding to a bleak and apocalyptic future for all life forms.

Doom-laden imagery is carried consistently over the course of the poem, with elements of futility, despair, terror and decay portrayed throughout, as means of enhancing the subject matter. Byron does this with, at times, terrifying and almost mocking precision, and uses a vocabulary to suit the bleak vision he shows. Byron portrays men meeting beside “the dying embers of an altar-place” (Byron, 2005, line 58). This is evident in lines 61-64, as he juxtaposes skeletal imagery with mockery: “And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands. The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath blew for a little life, and made a flame which was a mockery” (Byron, 2005, lines 61-64). The verb ‘shivering’, juxtaposed with the two words ‘skeleton hands’, immediately establishes decrepit imagery, which is made all the more poignant when their ‘feeble’ and useless breath fails them, as they; “ made a flame which was a mockery” (Byron, 2005, lines 63-64). This is bleakness in its most precise and well executed form, as Byron juxtaposes skeletal imagery with derision. Byron shows some elements of being misanthropic in this line, attacking mankind (sic) for creating disharmony and chaos within himself, and he shows this by juxtaposing the frailty of humanity with the grandeur of the universe. It is as if Byron is holding a contemptuous mirror of scorn toward the face of humanity and saying: ‘Look how futile and weak humanity truly is; it is a mockery!’

The continual use of negative and ‘dead’ words such as: ‘desolation’, ‘shrieked’, ‘blackening’, ‘feeble’, ’void’, ‘hideousness’ and ‘withered’, are all acting as operatives throughout the text; operatives that signify the macabre and bleak subject matter, and which aim to shock and disturb the reader.
This is particularly evident toward the end of the poem, shown in the lines: “The populous and the powerful was a lump, seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay” (Byron, 2005, lines 70-71). Here, Byron is infusing the use of alliteration, (‘populous’ and ‘powerful’), with the use of consonance, the suffix of ‘less’ ringing out consistently with “seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” (Byron, 2005, line 71). These words characterise the deficiency of life Byron prominently portrays throughout the text, and alliteration adds poetic technique which enhances the delivery of the macabre and bleak subject matter. Byron has not only removed nature (as signified by the attachment of the suffix ‘less’ on the words season, herb and tree) from the equation of life, but has also removed man, the description becoming increasingly poignant until Byron penultimately describes the universe as lifeless.

Lord Byron’s Darkness can be interpreted as an allegorical depiction of an apocalypse, or as an end of times characterised by the degradation of a humanity which has become disfigured from the implications and influences of the Industrial Revolution. The use of alliteration, imagery, repetition, poetic structure, metaphor and symbolism all contribute to the way Byron has portrayed his terrifying apocalyptic vision. Darkness should illustrate and encourage an unsettling recognition that the ‘decay’ which Byron so prominently portrays, is a decay far greater than a literal biological degradation, but is extended also figuratively, as a metaphor for the degradation of humanity’s values. It can be interpreted as a condemnation of humanity, a condemnation against the chaotic and savage beasts of man, driven to the abyss of darkness by their own actions. It serves as a metaphor for a degraded society; hell-bent on war and separation, a metaphor for the indifferent masses, lost amidst the pressures of capitalism, and for a society strayed and eternally doomed by the destructive forces of industrialisation.

References

Abrams, M. H., & Harpham, G. G. (2012). A glossary of literary terms. (10th ed.) Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage learning.

Wordsworth, J., & Wordsworth, J. (Eds.). (2005). The penguin book of romantic poetry. London, England: Penguin Group

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