Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nightfall: Lord Byron, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Silverberg

Lord Byron:                                             "Darkness"  1816, a poem
Ralph Waldo Emerson:                            "Nature"      1836, an essay  
Isaac Asimov:                                          "Nightfall"   1941, a short story
Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg:       Nightfall, a novel, 1990


Near the end of May I visited R.T.'s blog, Beyond Eastwood, which featured a poem by Lord Byron.  I'm not a great fan (or even a little fan) of Lord Byron, but I was curious to see what had interested R.T. to post this poem.  I got about 4 or 5 lines into it when I had to stop and go back to check that what I thought I was reading was really what I was reading.

In the poem the sun disappears, and chaos follows!   I couldn't help but think of Isaac Asimov's most famous short story, "Nightfall."  This, then, reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay, "Nature,"  and then the expanded version of the short story, Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. 

 Following are three works--the poem by Lord Byron, an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature," and a quotation from Isaac Asimov's most famous short story, "Nightfall"-- all of which speculate about the effects of the sudden loss of the sun.

           "Darkness" by Lord Byron

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, 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 chilled 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 consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those which dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanoes, and their mountain-torch;
A fearful hope was all the world contained;
Forests were set on fire -but hour by hour
They fell and faded -and the crackling trunks
Extinguished 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 smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked 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 gnashed their teeth and howled; the wild birds shrieked,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawled
And twined 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 devoured,
Even dogs assailed their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famished men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the drooping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress -he died.
The crowd was famished 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 heaped a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage: they raked up,
And shivering scraped 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 shrieked, 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 stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal; as they dropped
They slept on the abyss without a surge -
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perished! Darkness had no need
Of aid from them - She was the Universe!

To borrow from Spock: "Fascinating"

This is the Wikipedia entry about the poem:

" Darkness is a poem written by Lord Byron in July 1816. That year was known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tambora had erupted in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, casting enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem."

.  .  .

"1816, the year in which the poem was written, was called 'the year without summer', as strange weather and an inexplicable darkness caused record-cold temperatures across Europe, especially in Geneva. Byron claimed to have received his inspiration for the poem, saying he 'wrote it... at Geneva, when there was a celebrated dark day, on which the fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight.'  The darkness was (unknown to those of the time) caused by the volcanic ash spewing from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The search for a cause of the strange changes in the light of day only grew as scientists discovered sunspots on the sun so large that they could be seen with the naked eye.  A scientist in Italy even predicted that the sun would go out on 18 July, shortly before Byron's writing of "Darkness". His "prophecy" caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe."


From the Wikipedia entry on "Nightfall"
"According to Asimov's autobiography, Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

'If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!'"
--Ralph Waldon Emerson --
from Nature

Campbell's opinion to the contrary was: "I think men would go mad."

Isaac Asimov then wrote the story, which followed Campbell's opinion most closely:

"Theremon staggered to his feet, his throat constricting him in breathlessness, all the muscles of his body writing in a tensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing.  He was going mad, and knew it, and somwehre deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the helpless flood of back terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad--to know that in a little minute you would be here physically and yet all the real essence would be dead and drowned in the black madness.  For this was the Dark--the Dark and the Cold and the Doom.  The bright walls of the universe were shattered and their awful black fragments were falling down to crush and squeeze and obliterate him."

-- Isaac Asimov --
from "Nightfall"

As you can easily see,  Asimov's story presents Campbell's and Lord Byron's views. In Asimov's story, after the suns have been eclipsed, the astronomers go mad and off in the distance a red glow appears in the sky over the nearby city.


 A later collaboration between Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg in 1990 expands the short story into a novel, with Silverberg's contribution being the first and last parts while Asimov's short story with some minor changes, becomes the middle section.  The last part  extends the story beyond the point where the short story ends and portrays the destruction of civilization after the stars emerge.  It is this extension that Bryon's poem could easily substitute for Asimov's or rather Silverberg's  depiction of the aftermath.


  1. Fred, your posting fascinates me, especially the intertextual connections, always fertile ground, but I have time now only for that brief statement. More will follow when I have some time later today or tomorrow or Tuesday.

    1. R.T.,

      No rush. It will be here for a while.

      Thanks for the kind words. Connections always fascinate me.

  2. Fred, your reference to my posting (now deleted because of my Swiss-cheese mental status) forced me to read and think again about the Byron poem. I think my earlier reaction to the poem was more positive (i.e., I found the poem reassuring), but now I react to the poem differently (i.e., I find the poem disturbing and frightening). This change in reaction has a lot to do with my unstable mind. With each passing week, I have -- I think -- a less confident grasp on realities. My memory wobbles and weakens, my cognition slips and falters, and my good sense often abandons me. But let me not be so negative about those changes. I can look at it this way instead: I will soon need only one book to read, and each rereading will be a new and different experience. The last sentence (idea) is the germ of my earlier posting about a six-pack of books; after all, why would I need more than a few books in the near future. So, you see, there are perhaps some blessings to Alzheimer's and the darkness of senescence. And so it goes. Now, though, I return to Lord Byron in an attempt to reconcile the darkness and the light of my two readings.

  3. R. T.,

    Emerson's quotation is reassuring, but I don't see that either Lord Byron's poem or Isaac Asimov's short story are positive or reassuring. Both are disturbing and frightening in their implication that what is strange can be destructive, not in itself, but through our fear of it.

    By the way, I am working on a post related to your six-pack, but I must follow the suggestion from that old chewing gum commercial: double your pleasure, double your fun.

  4. I had forgotten all about Asimov's story. I haven't read him in years, my interest in Science Fiction having waned, somewhat. It is fascinating to ponder how much knowledge and progress has been lost due to catastrophic circumstances and we've had to start over again.

    1. Sharon,

      I still read SF, but I haven't read anything by Asimov in a long time. Now, it's usually only when an SF discussion group schedules something by him.

      I always wonder what was in the great Library in Alexandria before it was destroyed.

    2. As a matter of fact, that is what I was thinking about as well as other ancient civilizations.

    3. Sharon,

      It's a small example, but who knows how much was lost from the classical era of Greece and Rome when the Alexandria Library was lost, not to say anything about works from other Mediterranean cultures, as well as India and even possibly China.