is a poem
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...
written by Lord Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS , commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was a British poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement...
in July 1816. That year was known as the Year Without a Summer
The Year Without a Summer was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by about 0.4–0.7 °C , resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere...
- this is because Mount Tambora
Mount Tambora is an active stratovolcano, also known as a composite volcano, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. Sumbawa is flanked both to the north and south by oceanic crust, and Tambora was formed by the active subduction zone beneath it. This raised Mount Tambora as high as , making it...
had erupted in the Dutch East Indies
The Dutch East Indies was a Dutch colony that became modern Indonesia following World War II. It was formed from the nationalised colonies of the Dutch East India Company, which came under the administration of the Netherlands government in 1800....
the previous year, casting enough ash in to the atmosphere to block out the sun and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem. Literary critics were initially content to classify it as a "last man" poem, telling the apocalyptic story of the last man on earth. More recent critics have focused on the poem's historical context, as well as the anti-biblical nature of the poem, despite its many references to the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...
. The poem was written only months after the end of Byron's marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke.
Byron's poem was written during the Romantic period. During this period, several events occurred which resembled (to some) the biblical signs of the apocalypse
An Apocalypse is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception, i.e. the veil to be lifted. The Apocalypse of John is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament...
. Many authors at the time saw themselves as prophets with a duty to warn others about their impending doom. However, at the same time period, many were questioning their faith in a loving God, due to recent fossil discoveries revealing records of the deaths of entire species buried in the earth.
1816, the year in which the poem was written, was called "the year without summer", as strange weather and an inexplicable darkness caused record-cold temperatures across Europe, especially in Geneva. Byron claimed to have received his inspiration for the poem, saying he "wrote it... at Geneva, when there was a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight". The darkness was (unknown to those of the time) caused by the volcanic ash spewing from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia (Vail 184). The search for a cause of the strange changes in the light of day only grew as scientists discovered sunspots on the sun so large that they could be seen with the naked eye. Newspapers such as the London Chronicle reported on the panic:
A scientist in Italy even predicted that the sun would go out on July 18, shortly before Byron's writing of "Darkness". His "prophecy" caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe. For example:
This prediction, and the strange behaviour of nature at this time, stood in direct contrast with many of the feelings of the age. William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was a major English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with the 1798 joint publication Lyrical Ballads....
often expresses in his writing a belief in the connection of God and nature which for much of the Romantic Era's poetry is typical. His "Tintern Abbey
"Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798" is a poem by William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey is an abbey abandoned in 1536 and located in the southern Welsh county of Monmouthshire...
", for example, says "Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her". His poetry also carries the idea that nature is a kind thing, living in peaceful co-existence with man. He says in the same poem, referring to nature, that "all which we behold / is full of blessings." In other poems, such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" is a poem by William Wordsworth.It was inspired by an April 15, 1802 event in which Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, came across a "long belt" of daffodils...
", he uses language for flowers and clouds that is commonly used for heavenly hosts of angels. Even the more frightening Gothic poems of Coleridge, another famous poet of the time, argue for a kind treatment of nature that is only cruel if treated cruelly, as in "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", unlike Byron's sun, which goes out with no human mistreatment mentioned at all.
Criticism and analysis
In the past, critics were happy to classify Darkness
as a “Last Man” poem, following a general theme of end of the world scenes from the view of the last man on earth. However, recent scholarship has pointed out the poem's lack of any single “Last Man” character.
Byron also uses the hellish biblical language of the apocalypse to carry the real possibility of these events to his readers. The whole poem can be seen as a reference to Matthew 24:29: “the sun shall be darkened.” In line 32 it describes men “gnash[ing] their teeth” at the sky, a clear biblical parallel of hell. Vipers twine “themselves among the multitude, / Hissing." Two men left alive of “an enormous city” gather “holy things” around an altar, “for an unholy usage”—to burn them for light. Seeing themselves in the light of the fire, they die at the horror of seeing each other “unknowing who he was upon whose brow Famine had written Fiend." In this future, all men are made to look like fiends, emaciated, dying with “their bones as tombless as their flesh." They also act like fiends, as Byron says: “no love was left,” matching the biblical prophecy that at the end of the world, “the love of many shall wax cold." In doing this, Byron is merely magnifying the events already occurring at the time. The riots, the suicides, the fear associated with the strange turn in the weather and the predicted destruction of the sun, had besieged not only people's hope for a long life, but their beliefs about God's creation and about themselves as well. By bringing out this diabolical imagery, Byron is communicating that fear: that God is not in nature or in us; that he is not at all; that “Darkness [or nature] had no need / of aid from them—She was the universe.”
Byron's pessimistic views continue, as he mixes Biblical language with the apparent realities of science at the time. As Paley points out, it is not so much significant that Byron uses Biblical passages as that he deviates from them to make a point. For example, the thousand-year peace mentioned in the book of Revelation as coming after all the horror of the apocalypse does not exist in Byron's “Darkness.” Instead, “War, which for a moment was no more, / Did glut himself again.” In other words, swords are only beaten temporarily into plowshares, only to become swords of war once again. Also, the fact that the vipers are “stingless” parallels the Biblical image of the peace to follow destruction: “And the sucking child shall play in the whole of the asp.” In the poem, though, the snake is rendered harmless, but the humans take advantage of this and the vipers are “slain for food.” Paley continues, saying “associations of millennial imagery are consistently invoked in order to be bitterly frustrated."