Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of Lord Byron's "Darkness"

            Lord Byron’s “Darkness” blends fear and reality as an unnamed speaker recalls a horrific dream, premonition, or vision he has supposedly experienced. The exact inspiration of the story the speaker tells is ambiguous, as he claims, “I had a dream, which was not all a dream” (1). Whether or not this dream is real, the speaker proceeds to describe a frightening vision in which he has observed the world’s demise by a force known only as “darkness”— beginning with the obliteration of light, followed by the death of trees, then the murder of small creatures like snakes and birds, and finishing with the ruin of mankind and the destruction of the very universe itself.  In this way, the apocalypse portrayed in “Darkness” becomes a sort of reversal of the Biblical creation story as the speaker moves through the ruin of various aspects of life, beginning with light and concluding with an ultimate undoing of the entire world.
            The first thing to face destruction in “Darkness” is light — much like light is the first thing created after the earth in Genesis. Eighty-two lines of unbroken blank verse gives the poem a relentless, rolling feeling that stresses the horror and ceaselessness of the speaker’s fear as he describes this impending darkness. The opening imagery is powerful and pessimistic as the speaker recalls what he has either seen or imagined: “The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless . . .” (2-4). This dark diction reinforces both the title and the literal dark atmosphere Byron wishes to portray, and the consonance of the repeated s creates a soft and eerie, whispering sound. How the speaker manages to continue his observations once light is removed is a mystery, but the overall surreal feeling of the poem does not lend itself to reality. The speaker explains how the “icy earth” moves blindly through the “moonless air,” as morning comes and goes without bringing day (4-6). He watches as “All men forgot their passions in the dread / of this their desolations; and all hearts/ Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light” (7-9). The desire for light is an important theme throughout the poem, as Byron seems to suggest that light not only keeps humanity alive, but also keeps mankind compassionate.
            This need for light is what first drives men to destroy. Now that the people are in darkness, the speaker explains how they “live by watchfires,” burning everything possible, including palaces, cities, and homes, in order to create fire (10-13). The only happy men are those who can look into “each other’s face” because they are near enough a volcano or “mountain-Torch” to see through the darkness (16-17). Desperate, the people turn from burning inanimate objects to burning living things: “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 (19-21). These violent actions not only reinforce the futility of the men’s’ effort to reproduce light, but also demonstrates their barbarism as they destroy other life in order to comfort themselves. Even this light is not enough, however, and many of the men give up and “[lie] down” (24). Others hide, some rest, some go mad and smile, and still others desperately continue to feed their “funeral piles with fuel” (25-28). The fact that Byron chooses to have the men destroy vegetation before animal life both follows and simultaneously undoes the creation in Genesis.
            The poem shifts here as the men’s desperation to find light becomes anger and madness that will cause them to murder animals:
                                                       [they] 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 . . . (29-32).
These enraged men turn from burning the homes and trees to destroying something even bigger — “wild birds,” “wildest brutes,” and “vipers,” which are “slain for food” (32-37). The speaker personifies “War” as a beast that “gluts himself” on the blood of living creatures (38-39). This personification creates a frightening, monstrous image that humanizes war and also likens it with the men the speaker describes. The speaker watches as all men sit alone, “gorging [themselves] in gloom” along with War (40-41).  As the speaker’s voice becomes more hopeless, he seems to moan as he says, “No love was left; / All earth was but one thought, — and that was death” (41-42). While this statement seems hyperbolic in that there is no possible way the speaker can know what all of earth is thinking, his exaggeration emphasizes the overall desolate tone of the poem. Now that both plant and animal life have been destroyed, the next expected step in this apocalypse is the death of mankind.
            Unsurprisingly, the speaker begins to describe the deaths of the men themselves as “famine fed upon all entrails” (44). This line is ironic in that famine, the very thing causing the men’s starvation, has the ability to “feed” off their withering bodies. Even dogs betray their masters, “devouring” their corpses (47). The speaker witnesses only one dog who stays loyal to his master’s corpse, keeping “The birds, and beasts, and famish’d men at bay” (48). The dog’s loyalty is ultimately futile, however, as he is unable to find food himself and, “licking the hand / Which answered not with a caress — he died” (53-54). If analyzed from a religious perspective, this story embedded within the poem suggests that even devotion to one’s master, or God, is ultimately useless in the face of death. The only two men who manage to survive this terrible war are two enemies who meet by “The dying embers of an altar-place, / Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things / For an unholy usage . . .” (57-60). This “unholy usage” is, like earlier, burning all that can be burned in an effort to make fire, and the two enemies “scraped with their cold skeleton hands / The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath/ Blew for a little life, and made a flame” (61-63). Through this small flame, they are able to see each other’s faces and shriek and die from “their mutual hideousness” (66-67). This is a sharp contrast to earlier in the poem when seeing another human face brought men solace.
            In the poem’s final movement, the speaker turns from the destruction of light, beasts, and men to the end of the very world itself:
                                                    Famine had written fiend. The world was void,
                                                    The populous and the powerful was a lump,
                                                    Seasonless, treeless, herbless, manless, lifeless —
                                                    A lump of death —a chaos of hard clay (69-72).
           The consonance of the repeated s sound not only parallels the beginning of the poem, but also supports the quiet, almost spitting voice of the speaker as he recalls this gruesome scene. He observes as all the water on the planet stands still, revealing the sailors who lie dead and “rotting” on the sea floor (73-75). Ships fall apart and sleep “on the abyss without a surge” as the water ceases around them (76-78). The speaker personifies all as something living, including the waves and tides that sleep in their graves (78). By giving these nonliving things mortality, the destruction becomes more poignant and frightening. Already the moon is dead, and the winds fall “stagnant” in the air (80). In the final lines, the speaker says, “And the clouds perish’d; darkness had no need / Of aid from them — she was the universe.” The use of the word “she” parallels the “he” used earlier to describe war, uniting the two in a sort of disastrous relationship. Despite the poem’s length, this ending feels abrupt since the speaker never returns to the present time in which he is remembering this vision. Instead Byron chooses to end the poem with the speaker’s recollection of darkness consuming the world — a far more dramatic conclusion that does not allow for a moment’s break from this disturbing apocalypse. Again, this all-consuming darkness evokes Biblical images of the world before light and supports the idea that all that God has created has been destroyed. 

Lord Byron's "Darkness"
Description of the poem's formal elements
Biography of Lord Byron