Once widely known, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” is a poetic account by Lord Byron (1788–1824) of the Assyrian invasion of Judea in the time of King Hezekiah. Joseph Bottum writes:
The anapestic meter of “The Destruction of Sennacherib”—da da DUM, da da DUM—is loud, even for Byron, who loved three-syllable feet. The biblical story is taken at face value. And, very untypically for Byron, the narrator never winks in irony. Instead, we have six tetrameter quatrains, in rhymed couplets: a fast-moving and memorable retelling of the 701 BCE siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians under King Sennacherib (as described in 2Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37), rendered in galloping anapests like cavalry charging at the city.
The cause of the difference from his other work may be that Byron wrote the poem as part of his 1815 collection Hebrew Melodies. Isaac Nathan (ca. 1791–1864) was a musical con man—it’s hard to know what else to call him—and he came to Byron with a set of melodies he claimed were recreated from music once played in the Temple at Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The melodies weren’t authentic, of course, but Byron found Nathan a charming rogue, even while he recognized the type. Byron gave the composer a few older poems to set to the supposedly ancient music and wrote new verses based on biblical topics, among them “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”
Something in the exercise seems to have released Byron from his usual ironic voice, and the fun of composition overflows the story in Byron’s free-flowing alliteration, exuberant metaphors, and bouncy rhythm: “And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,/ Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!”