Winter’s Assyrian Invasion

Assyrian bas relief


When the polar vortex descended on the United States last week, the opening lines from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” came to mind. While I’d memorized the stanza in high school to learn anapestic meter (short-short-long), it captures the emotional force of extreme weather events. (Another Byron poem that does so is “Darkness”)

Tell me whether you felt like the Israelites when sub-zero temperatures moved into your neighborhood:

  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.

The Assyrians don’t get the last word, however. This week’s sudden temperature reversals, sometimes by sixty degrees or more, may well feel like the divine intervention that saves Israel:

And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Byron uses seasonal imagery to capture the dramatic reversal:

  Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

Unseasonably warm temperatures–to use Byron’s image, the “Angel of Death”–are now kicking winter’s butt. To be sure, it would be better for our purposes if Byron hadn’t described his angel as having a chilling effect, which also contradicts his image of melting snow. Anyway, we can momentarily say that deep cold has been smashed like the Assyrian warriors and their pagan altars:

  For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!
  And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

We can pray that a glance from the Lord will save us from such extreme weather events. Then again, given that our own actions have brought them on, we may want to invoke the (non-scriptural) wisdom that “the Lord helps those that help themselves.”

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