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The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 4/Darkness

< The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)‎ | Poetry‎ | Volume 4
For works with similar titles, see Darkness.
For other versions of this work, see Darkness (Byron).

DARKNESS.[1][2]

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,10
The palaces of crownéd kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the World contained;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks20
Extinguished with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenchéd hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past World; and then again30
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnashed their teeth and howled: the wild birds shrieked,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food:
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again:—a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart40
Gorging himself in gloom: no Love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was Death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assailed their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famished men at bay,
Till hunger clung them,[3] or the dropping dead50
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress—he died.
The crowd was famished by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heaped a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,60
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld[4]
Each other's aspects—saw, and shrieked, and died—
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The World was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,70
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,80
And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

Diodati, July, 1816.
[First published, Prisoner cf Chillon, etc., 1816.]


  1. In the original MS. A Dream.
  2. [Sir Walter Scott (Quarterly Review, October, 1816, vol. xvi p. 204) did not take kindly to Darkness. He regarded the "framing of such phantasms" as "a dangerous employment for the exalted and teeming imagination of such a poet as Lord Byron. The waste of boundless space into which they lead the poet, the neglect of precision which such themes may render habitual, make them in respect to poetry what mysticism is to religion." Poetry of this kind, which recalled "the wild, unbridled, and fiery imagination of Coleridge," was a novel and untoward experiment on the part of an author whose "peculiar art" it was "to show the reader where his purpose tends." The resemblance to Coleridge is general rather than particular. It is improbable that Scott had ever read Limbo (first published in Sibylline Leaves, 1817), an attempt to depict the "mere horror of blank nought-at-all;" but it is possible that he had in his mind the following lines (384-390) from Religious Musings, in which "the final destruction is impersonated" (see Coleridge's note) in the "red-eyed Fiend:"—

    "For who of woman born may paint the hour,
    When seized in his mid course, the Sun shall wane,
    Making the noon ghastly! Who of woman born
    May image in the workings of his thought,
    How the black-visaged, red-eyed Fiend outstretched
    Beneath the unsteady feet of Nature groans
    In feverous slumbers?"

    Poetical Works, 1893, p. 60.

    Another and a less easily detected source of inspiration has been traced (see an article on Campbell's Last Man, in the London Magazine and Review, 1825, New Series, i. 588, 'seq.) to a forgotten but once popular novel entitled The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity (two vols. 1806). Kölbing (Prisoner of Chillon, etc., pp. 136-140) adduces numerous quotations in support of this contention. The following may serve as samples: "As soon as the earth had lost with the moon her guardian star, her decay became more rapid.... Some, in their madness, destroyed the instruments of husbandry, others in deep despair summoned death to their relief. Men began to look on each other with eyes of enmity" (i. 105). "The sun exhibited signs of decay, its surface turned pale, and its beams were frigid. The northern nations dreaded perishing by intense cold ... and fled to the torrid zone to court the sun's beneficial rays" (i. 120). "The reign of Time was over, ages of Eternity were going to begin; but at the same moment Hell shrieked with rage, and the sun and stars were extinguished. The gloomy night of chaos enveloped the world, plaintive sounds issued from mountains, rocks, and caverns,—Nature wept, and a doleful voice was heard exclaiming in the air, 'The human race is no more!'" (ii. 197).

    It is difficult to believe that Byron had not read, and more or less consciously turned to account, the imagery of this novel; but it is needless to add that any charge of plagiarism falls to the ground. Thanks to a sensitive and appreciative ear and a retentive memory, Byron's verse is interfused with manifold strains, but, so far as Darkness is concerned, his debt to Coleridge or the author of Omegarus and Syderia is neither more nor less legitimate than the debt to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel, which a writer in the Imperial Magazine (1828, x. 699), with solemn upbraidings, lays to his charge.

    The duty of acknowledging such debts is, indeed, "a duty of imperfect obligation." The well-known lines in Tennyson's Locksley Hall

    "Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew
    From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue!"

    is surely an echo of an earlier prophecy from the pen of the author of Omegarus and Syderia: "In the center the heavens were seen darkened by legions of armed vessels, making war on each other! ... The soldiers fell in frightful numbers.... Their blood stained the soft verdure of the trees, and their scattered bleeding limbs covered the fields and the roofs of the labourers' cottages" (i. 68). But such "conveyings" are honourable to the purloiner. See, too, the story of the battle between the Vulture-cavalry and the Sky-gnats, in Lucian's Vera Historæ, i. 16.]

  3. ["If thou speak'st false,
    Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive.
    Till famine cling thee."

    Macbeth, act v. sc. 5, lines 38-40.

    Fruit is said to be "clung" when the skin shrivels, and a corpse when the face becomes wasted and gaunt.]

  4. [So, too, Vathek and Nouronihar, in the Hall of Eblis, waited "in direful suspense the moment which should render them to each other ... objects of terror."—Vathek, by W. Beckford, 1887. p. 185.]