The speaker begins his poem as a “dream” but “not all a dream” (line 1), immediately casting doubt upon the narrative to follow. The poet then imagines the end of the world through a series of natural, social, and possibly supernatural events.
The gloomy, cold earth wanes for weeks or months, long enough for men to “forget their passions” (line 7) and turn their hearts only to survival or despair. To stave off the darkness, they burn everything they can, including their homes. Both palaces and huts are burned to give light and warmth. Around the fires, men are at first glad to see other faces—but then they see in those faces such despair that they begin to weep, smile cynically, or fall into madness. The animals of the earth are affected as well, with birds falling from the sky to die helpless on the ground, wild beasts becoming timid, and poisonous snakes losing their venomous bites—the animals become food for the human beings, the people no longer hunters, but scavengers.
Once the animal food supply runs out, people turn on one another. The darkness brought a temporary ceasefire across the world, but no peace; as soon as survival became the only goal, “No love was left” (line 41). Humans become capable of cannibalism. Even the formerly faithful dogs turn on their masters, save for one noble canine who defends his master’s corpse from scavengers (both human and animal) until the dog itself dies from hunger.
Soon all the world is dead from the famine, with the exception of two men—and they are in some way enemies. They pitifully approach an altar wherein holy artifacts were used in unholy rites (such as burning spiritual things not meant to be burned), there to stoke the embers of a nearly extinct fire for a few moments’ more light. Once the fire is bright enough, the two men look at one another, seeing each other’s horrid, starving visage; what each man sees frightens him to death, thus ending the human race.
With mankind extinct, the earth becomes a lifeless rock. The moon, long since destroyed, no longer moves the waves or wind, so all is motionless upon the planet. Darkness conquers all: “She was the Universe” (line 82).
Byron wrote “Darkness” in July-August 1816. The poem is at least partly influenced by the mass hysteria of the time brought about by an Italian astronomer’s prediction that the sun would burn itself out on July 18th, thus destroying the world. The prophecy gained adherents due to the increase in sunspot activity at the time and the so-called “year without a summer” of 1816—an ongoing overcast sky which was a result (unknown at the time) of the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, in 1815. During this gloomy time, the sun was pale and the sky clouded and hazy. Temperatures dropped and thunderstorms dominated the weather. During the solar eclipse of June 9th-10th, the sun actually seemed to vanish from the sky.
All these natural phenomena combined to put the more sensitive observers into a state of panic. Byron composed his poem after the sun’s alleged death date, emphasizing that the end of days had not arrived but that the specter of complete destruction may still lie ahead one day. Whatever Byron’s view, he certainly managed to capitalize on the previous hysteria by evoking that dark summer in “Darkness.”
The poem begins with the speaker’s insistence that what follows is a dream “which was not all a dream” (line 1). This paradoxical start allows the reader to see Byron’s experience during the “lost” summer as something real (and something which his contemporaries would have experienced as well) while also taking his more apocalyptic statements as predictive, like a dream, rather than historical. The sun is “extinguish’d” (line 2), the days are “rayless, and pathless,” and the earth is “icy” (line 4), just as they were during the summer of 1816. Morning comes regularly, but it “brought no day” (line 6)—time passes, but not like before. Byron then shifts the poem into prophetic language as he writes that “men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation” (lines 7-8), while prayers all turn selfishly toward requests for daylight (line 9).
This darkness becomes a great equalizer, as both “the palaces of crowned kings” and “the habitations of all things” (lines 11-2) are burnt as beacons and watch fires, with entire cities being consumed to warm and brighten the lives of people suffering this doom. The fear of endless gloom is so great that Byron considers those who live near volcanoes “Happy” (line 16) since they have, for a while, a natural source of light and heat; meanwhile, the less fortunate people of the world set entire forests ablaze in their anxious efforts to fend off the cold darkness. The end of the world can only lead in one direction as culture, civilization, and nature are burned.
The lack of light brings a need for companionship as people commiserate: “men were gather’d round their blazing himes / To look once more into each other’s face” (lines 14-15), but what they see in one another’s countenance is “an unearthly aspect” (lines 23-24). Firelight is no substitute for the pure, bright light of the sun, such that men’s faces take on frightening hues in the flickering flames. They are losing their humanity, becoming ghoulish or fiendish.
Reactions to the state of the world vary: some men weep, others smile, while still others stay active and committed to survival, piling wood upon the fires against all odds, since the fires will soon become “their funeral piles” (line 28). These latter men are the ones who are still fighting, searching the sky with insanity-twisted faces, finally casting themselves upon the ground to curse, gnash their teeth, and howl. This reaction calls to mind the words of Jesus in the Gospels, where those who are cast away from God are cast “into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12). The biblical allusion to an afterlife of punishment for the “wicked” increases the apocalyptic tone of the poem, making this darkness a curse of Biblical proportions.
But what about the cynics, who rested “their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled” (line 26)? The philosophers, unlike the men of action and the prophets and those who mourn their fate, simply accept their situation of suffering and smile. One wonders what kind of life they led before the calamity; did they smile at everything, watching but not taking part in the world? Has their life really changed just because external circumstances are changed? After all, everyone does die.
In line 32, Byron turns from mankind to the animals of the earth. The birds shriek in fear and fall to the ground, their wings now useless; wild animals become fearful and tame; vipers come from their nests and hiss, but have no venom in their bites—they end up being killed for food. The natural world has undergone a severe change, becoming less “red in tooth and claw” as prelude to its own destruction. Here Byron draws a contradictory parallel to the “kingdom of God” presented in several prophetic books of the Bible: in Scripture, the animals being at peace with each other and with mankind is a sign of paradise; here it is a primal desolation which leads only to the animals’ death as a food source for doomed men.
Line 38 introduces the figure of War, “which for a moment was no more” (line 38)—ironically the widespread despair has led to a cessation of fighting. However, War is able to “glut himself” (line 39) on the ensuing bloodshed when mankind turns from political warfare to fighting and killing out of a desire to survive. Every person looks out for his own safety, for “No love was left” (line 41). Here it seems that human nature also is waning. Hints of cannibalism culminate in the image of the dead, whose “bones were tombless as their flesh” (line 45) while “the meagre by the meagre were devour’d” (line 46).
For Byron, a lifelong dog lover, the next passage marks the true despair this darkness has wrought upon the world: “Even dogs assail’d their masters” (line 47)—except for one faithful dog who refuses to look for food, because to do so would mean abandoning his post: guarding his master’s corpse. Finally this true companion howls in hunger, licks his master’s cold hand, and dies (line 54). Just like the men of action who could not keep themselves or civilization alive, the dog fails in its task, yet nobly does its duty till the end.
As Byron envisions the very end of the human world, famine has killed all but two men, “and they were enemies” (line 57). It is not clear whether they were enemies beforehand or if they are only enemies now because they must compete for the very last useful resources. These last two survivors of a dead world meet by accident at a place where other horrors have been perpetrated: “a mass of holy things / For an unholy usage” (lines 59-60). The blasphemers, who sacrificed morality for a little temporary safety, are now dead. In the small flames the two enemies cooperate, not thinking of themselves as enemies: they are just two humans trying to survive. Yet, when they manage to stoke the flames back into existence, they see one another’s faces in horror. What they behold leads to pure terror: they “saw, and shriek’d, and died” (line 66). The men die not really knowing one another, but only able to see the “fiend” written upon each other’s brow by famine (lines 68-69). They see the utter horror of the end and can no longer take it.
With the death of the last two human beings, what is left is the end of both the natural and the artifical. The earth thus becomes “a lump of death—a chaos of hard clay” (line 72). All waterways stand still, and ships without crew rot upon the sea. All that mankind has achieved has been destroyed or sits putrefying. Finally, even the motions of the world stop, since even the moon “expired” (line 79), ending the waves of the sea. The very winds stop, and clouds vanish. The end of the world is complete with these lines: “Darkness had no need / Of aid from them [the waves, wind, or clouds]—She was the Universe” (lines 81-82). The darkness rules and is the universe.
The iambic pentameter of the poem also survives through the poem, persisting all the way into the last line. These have not been heroic couplets, however, where one expects rhymes. No, here the poem has all been blank verse, expressing the blackness of its world, unrhymed, the loose ends everywhere as darkness swallows all.
This bleak poem reflects an extremely pessimistic view, not only of life, but of the universe. There is no moral to the story—darkness and famine take all people, regardless of their religious or moral persuasions. There seems to be no afterlife. Although Byron alludes to the Bible, this is no Day of Judgment where the good and the bad are distinguished; instead, the temporarily ordered world—ordered by frail and selfish mankind—disintegrates into the dust and chaos from which it arose. There is no hope of a bright future or a perfect society in this poem—only the fatalism that insists on death coming to everyone in the end.