Darkness (1816) by George Gordon Byron

  • During the dark, wet and unpleasant summer of 1816 in Europe, George Gordon Byron, also known as Lord Byron, penned the poem Darkness. That summer Lord Byron spent time near Lake Geneva, Switzerland with Mary Shelley and John William Polidori who wrote Frankenstein and The Vampyre, respectively. 
  • Darkness is post-apocalyptic, depicting many dire and terrible circumstances.
    • Earth is described as “icy.”
    • People lose their motivation and become miserable, or as Byron writes “men forgot their passions in the dread / of this their desolation.”
    • People set fire to forests for light and warmth. 
    • The population dwindles as famine sets in and people go to war. 
    • Entire civilizations collapse.

How is this related to climate?

  • Nicknamed “The Year Without a Summer,” the year of 1816 was extremely cold, wet and miserable. Europe experienced heavy rain and parts of the US were covered in snow during summer months. This cold, wet climate was caused by several factors: 
    • In 1815, Mount Tambora (pictured below), a volcano in Indonesia, erupted in the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. Sulfur dioxide and volcanic ash were thrown into the air, blocking out the sun and causing a volcanic winter. Average global temperatures dropped by 3°C.

Aerial photograph of Mount Tambora in Indonesia (from Pangburn, 2014).

    • The Little Ice Age, a period of widespread cooling and a drop in average global temperatures, was just coming to a close.
  • Lord Byron writes of a world that has been destroyed by a change in climate. Although modern climate change will hopefully not result in the horror that Lord Byron describes, Darkness does shed light on what may happen if nothing is done to mitigate it. After all, there has already been an increase in wildfires, famine and unrest due to climate changes.

Darkness by George Gordon Byron

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

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;

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 chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:

And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,

The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,

The habitations of all things which dwell,

Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,

And men were gather’d 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 contain’d;

Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour

They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks

Extinguish’d 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 clenched hands, and smil’d;

And others hurried to and fro, and fed

Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up

With mad disquietude on the dull sky,

The pall of a past world; and then again

With curses cast them down upon the dust,

And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: 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—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 apart

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 devour’d,

Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,

And he was faithful to a corse, and kept

The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,

Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead

Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,

And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand

Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.

The crowd was famish’d 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 heap’d a mass of holy things

For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,

And shivering scrap’d 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

Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, 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,

Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—

A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,

And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;

Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;

The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

References and additional resources