One of the most discussed issues that both intrigues and terrifies people throughout the world is Apocalypse. It was predicted many times and each year several new dates are appointed. What will cause it – a huge meteorite, an alien intrusion, floods or earthquakes? Who will survive? What will remain? There are numerous books, pictures and movies dedicated to this theme. Some are optimistic, some are not. Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” depicts a possible end of the world. The poem horrifies with its scary images and fateful mood. Besides, it is untypical for the Romanticism – it undermines many ideas, characteristic for this period. It does not sound as an imaginary scene, but as a prophecy.
The poem was written in 1816. This was the year of mass hysteria as Italian astronomers predicted that the sun would disappear. Moreover, in1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and that lead to an extremely cold summer in Europe. Clouds overcast the sky, the sun was pale, and thunderstorms occurred frequently. In addition, the sun seemed to vanish during the solar eclipse in 9-10 June (Gordon). Many people believed that it was the beginning of the Apocalypse. Furthermore, the poet was in depression because his wife left him, and Byron left England forever (Perez). “Darkness” is a reflection of Byron’s state, and his message that the end of the world may come one day.
The structure of the poem underlines the chaos of the last days of the Earth. It starts with a calm tone of iambic pentameter, but then the middle of the poem with blank verses, mid-line pauses and several lines without punctuation gives a sense of disturbance, loss of control and rapidity. In the end tranquil tone is used again, symbolizing the end of the agony of the world. Alliteration in the line “Seasonless, herbless, treesless, manless, lifeless” (71) gives an impression of growing silence and death (Perez). The poem ends with complete darkness, consuming everything.
There are many ideas and images that question the Romantic idealism. First of all, it undermines the issue of human individuality and goodness. People in the poem are depicted as animals, their madness growing in a desperate will to survive. They become more and more selfish and savage, “…and all hearts / Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light” (8-9). First they destroy forests to get light, “Forests were set on fire” (19), after that all animals were used for food, “...vipers crawl'd / …they were slain for food” (35, 37), and then terrible war and cannibalism occupied the world, “And War, which for a moment was no more, / Did glut himself again... / The meagre by the meagre were devour'd” (38-39, 46). Byron shows that animals are nobler than people. A true hero of this Apocalypse is a dog that guars its dead master, “And he was faithful to a corse, and kept / The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay” (48-49). Unfortunately, this heroic behaviour does not get the reward – the dog dies, and there are no doubts that it was eaten together with the master he was protecting. There is no hope for good, the author declares “...no love was left” (41).
Secondly, nature praised in Romanticism is depicted in dark tones and seems completely unnatural. Forests that used to be a shelter and a source of food are burned, and the volcanoes that were threatening eruptions are considered to be a blessing, “Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos...” (16-17). It is hard to imagine world completely calm and motionless. However, Byron managed to draw a terrifying picture of the dead sea, “The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still, / And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths” (73-74). Together with the Sun the Moon vanished, and that caused a complete calm, “The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave” (78). The atmosphere is still as well, “The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air, / And the clouds perish'd” (80-81). The wildlife suffers greatly, no creature was spared, “...the wild birds shriek'd / And, terrified, did flutter on the ground, / And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes / Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd / And twin'd themselves among the multitude, / Hissing, but stingless” (32-37). This nature is far from the ideal image, praised by romantics.
Byron represents the end of the world that is different from that described in Bible. There is no Judgement Day, no villains and saints, no hint for a blessed afterlife in Paradise. Mankind is left alone with horror and chaos. Besides, the last days of the Earth remind hell, “And others... / With curses cast them down upon the dust, / And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd” (27, 31-32). Death is not redemption but going into nowhere.
There is no exotic veil and fantastic elements. The poem is very vivid and realistic. The first line implies that this is rather a vision than a fantasy, “I had a dream, which was not all a dream” (1). No image or scene is fairy – each line describes a possible future in details. Furthermore, there is no inclination to exotic faraway lands – darkness consumes all countries and nations equally. The poem does not deal with a distant heroic past – it is about dreadful future.
In “Darkness” Byron disputes essential Romantic ideals – humans’ goodness, hope, beauty of nature. He frankly shows that in the face of death people lose all virtues. Nature can be frightful, and Darkness and Despair are more powerful than Light and Hope.