Death, disaster, and the ‘End of Days’: ‘Darkness’, by Lord Byron

by Allen Ashley 

Later years and a deeper and wider reading of their work have shown me that the Romantics had a great affinity with the fantastic; but when I first read ‘Darkness’ during A’ Level English studies, I was amazed and delighted. Amazed that the dashing Lothario more associated with the bedroom and the battlefield, author of Don Juan and ‘She Walks in Beauty’, had turned his hand to a proto-SF piece. Delighted because, having had to temporarily abandon my usual fare of Brian Aldiss and A. E. van Vogt (New English Library, with Bruce Pennington covers) in favour of the dubious delights of The Winter’s Tale and Middlemarch, I could now legitimately pore over something I recognised and empathised with: a catastrophe story. ‘Darkness’ is essentially a poem depicting the end of life on Earth. The cause? The sun goes out:

The bright sun was extinguish’d 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;

Writing long before the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Byron’s source of inspiration is, in part, the King James Bible. In essence, Byron has inverted the divine imperative: “Let there be light”, restoring the universe or our segment of it to the earlier state of, “Darkness … upon the face of the deep.” Think The Book of Revelations told in a more measured tone and you have the atmosphere of this poem.

Again prefiguring later works, Byron maps out the stages of the disaster and its aftermath with the logic of a Hollywood SFX blockbuster. But there’s no Will Smith or Tom Cruise rescuing the remnants of humankind here: Earth is left thus –

… The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The repeating suffixes – “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless” –echo like a list of dead brothers at a war memorial service.
At first, people take to creating their own light and heat, burning

The palaces of crowned kings – the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons

Soon whole “Forests were set on fire” but this can only be a temporary solution – like looting the abandoned supermarket in a disaster novel; the stock is going to rot or run out one day if never replenished. Some people realise that they are essentially building “Their funeral piles with fuel”. As the urge to survive becomes ever more desperate, fights to the death break out over food, “War” returns and the birds fall from the sky. Even the dogs turn against us except for one faithful hound who keeps watch over the corpse of his dead master, guarding him from the cannibals until:

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress – he died.

Effective; if a tad melodramatic to modern eyes. This is one example of Byron realising that readers might not be able to grasp the macrocosmic totality of the tragedy; so he focuses in on one individual’s extended story to stand as representative of the fate of all. Symbolic moralism to the fore, Byron next focuses on the last two men who each see the other as a “Fiend” and promptly die. From here it’s just a dozen lines to the unfashionably bleak ending. Indeed, for what is effectively an End of Days epic, the poet has told his tale in a mere and surprising 82 lines.

Byron composed the piece during July-August 1816, the infamous year without a summer, with the permanently overcast sky having been caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia – what we would now call a “nuclear winter”; an event unexplained at the time and leading to outbreaks of mass hysteria. This is Byron with his finger on the pulse, portraying the effects of an unfolding environmental catastrophe and playing it out to Armageddon proportions.

As a poet, traditionally the conscience of a nation, Byron can adopt a moral stance that, perhaps, he doesn’t always adhere to in real life. From the authorial point of view, it’s a classic instance of taking something from the real world and extrapolating it into fictitious fantasy. I did something similar when I saw somebody severely reddened by sunburn and eventually wrote my catastrophe story Sunburst Finish. Indeed, I think Byron’s influence over me has been strong – neither of my disaster stories The Overwhelm or The Twilight would have existed without “Darkness”. One might also say the poem is a precursor to some of the much-loved twentieth century British disaster novels of John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, John Christopher, Edmund Cooper et al. But Byron’s poem is a far from cosy catastrophe.

Also, one could respectably suggest “Darkness” as an influence on Isaac Asimov’s classic, breakthrough science fiction tale Nightfall (1941) – set on a world where the human inhabitants are about to encounter nightfall for the first time ever and are filled with fear. Moving beyond genre, or perhaps stretching science fiction’s boundaries to encompass modern theatre-craft, one can discern Byron’s dark light reflected in the following quotes from the final scene of Samuel Beckett’s End-Game (1963):

From the character Clov: “I say to myself that the earth is extinguished, though I never saw it lit”
From the character Hamm: “You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness”.

Sometimes the poem “Darkness” is too heavily influenced by Biblical verse forms: “Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos”. There are occasional archaisms and awkward phraseology: in Line 10, for example: “They did live by watchfires” – the insertion of “did” really jars to modern ears. Yet at other times the writing is vivid in its unrhymed yet resonant precision: “Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea” (Line 75).
“Darkness” is a thrilling poem that has lasted two hundred years and in many ways is more pertinent now than at the time of its original execution. It is a piece that was ahead of its time for, although some of the vocabulary and idiomatic language has necessarily dated, the scenarios that Byron envisages seem more believable than ever in these times of climate change and ecological concern. And he knows and shows us that catastrophe may well bring out the baser elements of human nature. Wise words of warning, indeed.

Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor, with five groups running across  north London. His most recent book is as editor of Creeping Crawlers (Shadow  Publishing, 2015) and his next book will be an expanded re-release of his novel The  Planet Suite (Eibonvale Press, June 2016). He is a committee member of the British Fantasy Society. He has previously appeared on the Romanticism Blog with Kubla Khan – A Lament for a Lost Eden.