Text of the Poem

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!


  1. Here, “gentile” refers to the Assyrians under Sennacherib; generally, it can be used to refer to anyone who is not Jewish. In context, the word’s use again underscores the poem’s religious themes and engagement with a story from the Old Testament.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. “Baal” was a pagan god worshipped in the land of Canaan, a geographical area in the ancient Near East which is often mentioned in the Bible. The idols being broken in the temple of a pagan god emphasizes the power and authority of the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. In context, “mail” refers to chain mail, a type of body armor worn by soldiers in ancient and medieval times to protect them in battle. It consists of small metal rings joined together to mimic cloth. The rust on the soldier’s mail contrasts sharply with the fine clothing and weapons of the Assyrians as they are described at the beginning of the poem and emphasizes the totality of their destruction.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. A biblical allusion, “the Angel of Death” refers to a specific angel sent by God to bring about deaths in the world. The allusion suggests that the destruction of Sennacherib and his army was divine intervention in the fulfillment of God’s will.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. “Strown” is an archaic form of “strewn,” meaning “haphazardly scattered over an area.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. With sentence structure that parallels that of the two preceding lines, this simile compares Sennacherib’s army as it looked the following morning to a forest stripped of its leaves in autumn. The comparison describes the destruction of Sennacherib’s mighty forces, the bodies of his soldiers littering the scene.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. These two lines, with inverted sentence structure, are a simile that describes Sennacherib’s army as it looked at sunset. The simile compares the army under its military banners to the green leaves of a forest in the summer. The comparison suggests the massive size and vitality of Sennacherib’s army.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. “Galilee” refers to the Sea of Galilee in Israel, through which the Jordan River flows. Jesus is said to have walked on the waters of Galilee during the time of his ministry. The reference’s strong association with Jesus introduces the topic of Christianity into the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. This is another example of alliteration as the “s” sound is repeated at the beginning of “spears,” “stars,” and “sea.” The alliteration emphasizes the meter or rhythm in the line (anapestic tetrameter), and linking the spears to the stars contextualizes them as inevitable and beyond human control.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. An example of alliteration, “gleaming” alliterates with “gold” as each word begins with the sound of the letter “g.” Bringing the two words together through alliteration stresses the richness of the soldiers’ clothing and suggests the wealth and power of the emperor himself.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Ashur was an ancient Assyrian city in what is now northern Iraq. It was named for the god Ashur, whom the Assyrians most revered. The reference to a pagan god contrasts with the previous biblical allusion to the Judeo-Christian Angel of Death, who prevails in destroying the Assyrians.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. Sennacherib’s soldiers presumably rode fine horses into battle. The stanza creates a vivid visual image of one of these horses dying, foaming at the mouth, after the Angel of Death has destroyed Sennacherib’s army. Foam in a horse’s mouth is a sign of physical exertion. Here it is described with an unlikely simile, comparing it to surf beating against rocks on the shore.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. This is a simile that compares the Assyrian to a wolf attacking sheep enclosed in a sheepfold or pen. The simile suggests the vicious, predatory nature and the might of Sennacherib and his army, as well as the relative helplessness of those they are attacking.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. This phrase refers to Sennacherib, the emperor of Assyria from 705 to 681 BCE. Assyria was an empire in ancient Mesopotamia that covered large swaths of land in today’s Middle East and Levant.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff