Today’s Learning Objective: Understand the intricate relationship between Meaning and Form in “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Bell rings. I take attendance
(Never fail to take attendance.)
And then I begin
In much the same way as last time:
Notice, students, Byron’s use of anapestic foot,
Rare in the English language;
Note how it quickens the pace of the poem,
Mimicking the movement of the Assyrians’ horses
Galloping toward the destruction
Of their perceived foe.
Note the sibilance–hypnotic, soporific in its effect,
As if the sheen and shine of spears and stars
Morphs into some muted lullaby
While the Galilean Sea ebbs and flows
In its eternal pattern.
Ah, but life does not always go as planned, does it?
For we see in the assonance in Stanza 2,
How the gleeful connotation of the long e in the first two lines
Is supplanted by the sorrowful connotation of the long o in lines 3 & 4.
[There follows the inevitable “pregnant pause” in the lesson, as I wait for the students to figure out what just happened, so unmistakably revealed through the imagery and the sound patterns. It is usually a soft voice from somewhere in the middle of the room that whispers, “They all died.”]
Yes, exactly. They all died. Under the outstretched wings, no less, of the Angel of Death.
So then, students, note where Byron departs
From his established metric pattern:
Note the events in those lines that have, say,
Eleven rather than twelve syllables,
How those critical events are so masterfully signaled
By the poet’s crafting of those lines.
And so it would always go.
I was the teacher,
Playing the part,
Sticking to the script, maintaining professional separation
Between my teacher-role and my life,
Listen! This line! This one about how “their hearts
But once heaved and forever—stood—still”—
Hoping no one would notice those last two words
Sticking on my breathless lungs,
Never saying, Listen! This is true! For months,
Before he died,
This line raced through my head,
Through my heart—
Over and over and over,
Galloping like those ill-fated horses,
And I was afraid!
I did not understand
Until the day he died,
The day the horses stopped galloping,
The day I knew that the poetry, however imperfectly heard,
Had been, after all, a preparation.
Heart-listening, of course, is not prescribed in the curriculum.
Learn prosody, dear students—
For the test.